The Divine Lorraine has hovered over Philadelphia’s iconic Broad Street for years. It’s gone from high-end apartment, to mid-Century hotel, to a center for religious, civil rights, and social welfare work. But most Philadelphians likely know it as a broken-down shell with busted windows and loads of graffiti. In fact it’s sat vacant since 1999—shuffling from owner to owner while attracting urban explorers and modern ruin photographers.
Despite its problems, the 11-story Divine Lorraine was still gorgeous. Well, sort of. The arched windows. The nuanced detail of the dentil moldings. The medallions dotting the exterior. The balconies. The iconic “Divine Lorraine Hotel” sign. Some people may have seen it as a lost cause, but others saw it as a building with plenty of potential and loads of upside.
Fast forward to today and it’s a bustling apartment complex with 101 units, a gorgeously renovated lobby, and big plans for commercial spaces like an Italian restaurant, cafe, and speakeasy. How did it happen? First a bit of history.
A Landmark is Born
Architect Willis G. Hale designed and constructed the Lorraine Apartments in 1892 and 1893. In that era, North Philadelphia attracted the city’s nouveau-riche, and the Lorraine featured new-age amenities like electricity, a central staff of cooks and cleaners, and a large dining hall. By 1900, it transformed into the Lorraine Hotel when the Metropolitan Hotel Company purchased the apartments.
In 1948, it became a center of the International Peace Mission movement after being acquired by Father Divine (also known as Reverend M. J. Divine.) Divine was a charismatic figure who allegedly claimed to be God. There were strict morality clauses in the hotel during Divine’s tenure. Guests and residents were not permitted to smoke, drink or use foul language. Women were not permitted to wear pants or reside on the same floors as men. The 10th floor dining hall was transformed into a place of worship, while the kitchen on the first floor offered meals for just 25 cents.
Father Divine dines with his followers
The building finally closed in 1999, and it turned from bustling religious center to decaying architecture. Developer Eric Blumenfeld and his company EB Realty Management bought the building in 2004 but the economics of doing the expansive renovation just didn’t add up. By 2012, things were changing. Philly was riding the crest of a real estate renaissance. People were flocking into the city. Even North Broad Street—which is still far from its heyday of the 1940s and 50s seemed on the verge of a rebirth.
So they took a shot, spent $3.5 million to acquire it and created one of the most talked-about renovations in Philadelphia history.
“There’s always been a real love affair with this building,” said Ed Casella regional property manager of EB Realty. “It’s like an above-ground Titanic.”
A Massive Undertaking
Renovating the Divine Lorraine was nothing short of a massive undertaking. Crews replaced 642 windows, used 4,167 gallons of paint, converted 246 hotel rooms into 101 apartments, and spent 638 hours removing graffiti.
The lobby still has the grand columns, original floors, dentil molding and, of course, a massive glass chandelier. While it was impossible to save every original item, about 90 percent of the lobby is original.
The ballroom on the 10th floor—which had been home to grandiose banquets and elaborate church services is no longer. Instead, it’s been split down the middle—separated north and south—and converted into bi-level apartments.
One of the coolest parts of the building is the basement level, where you can see the nuts-and-bolts of the place—from the stone foundations, arched walkways, exposed metal beams, and marble stairs with ornate wrought iron risers. It reminds you of a speakeasy—which makes sense because the EB Realty team has plans to build one there in the near future.
“It harkens back to prohibition times, where there was in fact a speakeasy in this building,” said Casella.
Despite the heavy workload and money spent, reopening the Divine Lorraine made a lot of sense to the EB Realty team.
“This building was so beautiful, we couldn’t let it fall into disrepair and be torn down,” said Casella. But the economics worked too, as rents go for $1,350 for a one bedroom to nearly $3,000 for a two bedroom, two bath—which is hardly cheap for Philadelphia. Currently, the building is 92 percent occupied.
In an era of McMansions, new construction and drywall seemingly everywhere, the Divine Lorraine feels like a breath of fresh air. And it’s a hit with people who knew the old Divine Lorraine.
“We’ve got really good reviews from people who used to come here and stay at the hotel in the old days,” said Casella. “I can’t tell you the number of people I personally toured that said ‘I used to eat in the room over there for a quarter.’”
It’s also helping to revitalize a neighborhood and a community.
“It’s energized this community,” said Casell. “We’re seeing that through the creation of restaurants and other businesses that have opened after we started our work in this building. It’s truly extraordinary.”