The Divine Lorraine
It’s an imposing 10-story frosted layer cake of a building on North Broad Street, designed by Willis G. Hale and built around 1892, when North Philly was home to the stylish high and mighty. Anyone who’s driven past the once flamboyant Divine Lorraine Hotel knows that it long ago fell on hard times, with a crumbling interior, its sooty brick walls a high-visibility canvas for local graffiti artists.
None of which stopped Siobhan Lyons, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center, from wanting to see it. That’s just what she did earlier this year, and she wants you to have the same opportunity.
“I took the tour with Next City (a Philadelphia urban improvement nonprofit),” Lyons says. “That was the first time I realized groups were able to get in there. I’ve wanted to go inside the Divine Lorraine since I arrived in Philadelphia seven years ago. Who doesn’t want to see the Divine Lorraine? It’s one of my favorite buildings in the city. I first came across Willis Hale’s work when I worked at the World Affairs Council. One of his buildings is at Juniper and Chestnut—it’s a fantastic building, very ornate. When I saw the Divine Lorraine, I realized it was another building by the same architect. He did very fancy architecture that fell out of favor almost as soon as the Divine Lorraine was completed. He died a pauper. I really like his story.”
The Divine Lorraine’s story is pretty interesting, too. Initially conceived as a luxury apartment building, it became a hotel in 1900—the Lorraine Hotel. African American spiritual leader Father Major Jealous Divine—who claimed to be the almighty himself—purchased the building in 1948 for for $485,000. It became the first fully racially integrated hotel in the nation. Among his many dictates and pronouncements, Father Divine preached the virtues of celibacy—even among married couples. Perhaps not surprisingly, that “no sex” commandment had a limited appeal. Membership in congregation dwindled. The hotel closed in 1999, and Father Divine’s International Peace Mission sold it the year after.
The hotel lapsed into decrepitude, but now there’s new hope for a revival. And not just for storied hotel, but for the North Philly neighborhood. Visionary developer Eric Blumenfeld purchased the property at sheriff’s sale in 2012. He plans to rehab the building to include rental units, with restaurants on the first floor.
For now, work hasn’t begun—which means this relic of a grander time is open for tours appealing to the curious.
That’s exactly who Lyons hopes to attract, as the Immigration Center conducts an exclusive tour—20 people only—Monday, October 14, 2013 from 3 to 5:30 p.m. “I just thought, this is a great opportunity, and it could raise some money for the Irish Immigration Center. It all worked. When I first did the tour myself, a lot of my friends said they would like to do it if they ever had the chance.”
So, once inside, what’s on the itinerary? Well, you’ll have to watch your step-and you’ll be be expertly guided, so no worries—but the payoff, Lyons says, is the magnificent view. “You get to walk all the way up to the top of the building and look out over the city. That’s just beautiful. And down in in the basement they show you a store that used to be a speakeasy during prohibition. I don’t know anyone in Philadelphia who has walked by it and didn’t want to look inside it. So now you get to see.”
Want to satisfy your curiosity? Sign up here. Another tour is planned for the spring—but for now, better hurry. Tickets are going fast.