Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Divine Lorraine Hotel, Philadelphia, PA

Ballroom in 2006, in the midst of being gutted; the marble floor was in the process of being pulled up.

Personal note: I feel compelled by recent reports of the deteriorating conditions at The Divine Lorraine to write this article, which I may only accompany by some photos taken in the span of a couple of hours in 2006. The Lorraine is NRHP listed for both its architectural import and its significance in civil rights as the first integrated hotel in Philadelphia. It is currently in significant danger of demolition-by-neglect. Because the building is now gutted and deteriorating, I cannot reshoot the photographic content for this article, so I must present what I have, warts and all.

View of building from tiny porch attached to bedroom.

Not-So-Humble Beginnings

The building currently known as the Divine Lorraine Hotel has been a fixture on North Broad Street in Philadelphia for over a century. It was designed, as the “Lorraine Apartments”, by controversial architect Willis G. Hale in his characteristically theatrical high-Victorian style. Construction began in 1892 and took two years to finish. At the time, the building was praised by few – Hale’s style was seen as outdated, being typified by extravagant ornamentation, and many viewed the Lorraine as bombastic.

Nevertheless, it was a very luxurious building, and among the first high-rise apartment buildings in Philadelphia. Offering an in-house staff that eliminated the need for personal servants, a central kitchen in which meals were prepared for tenants, and two luxurious ballrooms for events, the Lorraine briefly attracted the upper crust of city renters. In 1900, it was purchased by a new interest which converted it into a hotel. It continued to attract a wealthy clientele until its sale in 1948 to Father Divine, who anticipated a very different use for the structure.

A typical hallway in the Lorraine.

Typical bedrooms in the Lorraine contained features such as this small fireplace.

One of the few beds remaining when the building was photographed.

Most of the artifacts that had been left in the Lorraine were moved down to first floor and affixed with price tags; apparently, these books weren't worth the hassle.

The most common artifact found in the hotel: a copy of the Bible.

The only television seen in the entire structure; Father Divine was said to have frowned on the viewing of TV.

A bathtub was pulled halfway out of this crumbling bathroom.

A room on the Ninth Floor. This is supposed to have been the room in which Father Divine's wife lived; even the head of the movement was not exempted from the rules prohibiting cohabitation.

A view from one room into the room across the hall. The rooms were painted in a variety of pastel colors.

Introduction of the Divine

George Baker was born, likely in Maryland, to two former slaves. From humble beginnings as a gardener and itinerant Baptist preacher, he came to envision himself first as a divine messenger, and eventually as a deity himself. He granted himself the title of Reverend Major Jealous Divine, and became known to his rapidly growing congregations as Father Divine. In his early years, his preachings focused primarily on the virtues of celibacy and the downplaying of gender roles.

The front of the tenth-floor chapel, originally one of two ballrooms in the Lorraine Apartments.

Father Divine and his congregation moved frequently in the early years, and eventually settled in New York. Several times, he ran afoul of the law, and he moved around the city, and outside the city. Meanwhile, his message shifted towards civil rights. Unlike many black preachers of the day, he was not polarized against whites – Father Divine’s message centered around equality, and he focused on desegregation, anti-lynching legislation, and similar issues. He formalized his movement into a church, the International Peace Mission Movement.

In 1942, Divine’s legal troubles caused him to flee New York; he ended up in Philadelphia. In 1944, Johnny Mercer attended a sermon entitled “You got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Mercer wrote his trademark song the following year. Meanwhile, Divine decided to open up a number of residences for his flock, which he referred to as Heavens. In 1948, he purchased the Lorraine Hotel for $485,000, reopening it as a Heaven under its new, and final, name: The Divine Lorraine.

A Bible lays open to the book of Job on a dresser; this would almost seem a fitting metaphor for the building itself, were it not so likely that someone had intentionally left it like that.

Because of his focus on celibacy, even within marriage, Divine divided the structure by floors; men and women would not share a floor. Modesty was expected of the residents; women had to wear long skirts, and men, long pants. Alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes were forbidden, as was swearing, mixing of the sexes outside of meals and church functions, and any form of blasphemy.

The clientele of the Lorraine changed drastically; congregants were simply given rooms to live in, as they were expected to have already turned over their savings to Divine. Additional rooms were available to rent, but the prices were low, and the Lorraine no longer attracted the upper-class residents that once called it home. The hotel was fully integrated, with no preference for race, and religious belief outside the movement was accepted so long as it did not contradict the teachings of Father Divine. A soup kitchen was operated out of the first floor of the building, providing hot meals to the indigent of the neighborhood.

When Father Divine took over the Lorraine, this statuette was affixed to the front. If any readers know who the statue portrays, please let me know.

Father Divine passed away at his estate in Gladwyne, PA, in 1965. His second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, who was significantly younger than he, took over leadership of the movement. The congregation continued to operate the Divine Lorraine. In the early 70s, cult leader Jim Jones split off from the International Peace Mission Movement, forming the Peoples Temple – the group which would eventually commit mass suicide in Jonestown. Eventually, the movement began to dwindle – Father Divine’s teachings forbade sex, and the movement stopped attracting new members – and most of the Heavens had to be sold. In 2000, the congregation parted with the Divine Lorraine Hotel.

A wide view of the chapel just after first light.

Detail of the proscenium over the tiny stage from which Father Divine gave his sermons.

The rear of the chapel.

Detail of the "God" inlay at the rear of the chapel.

Sale, Gutting, and Neglect

David Peace, an adherent to the International Peace Mission Movement, continued to reside in the building from 2000 until 2006, maintaining it to the best of his abilities. This proved relatively easy to do – because in a rare turn for an economically beleaguered neighborhood, area dealers and squatters had so much respect for the legacy of Father Divine that there were few attempts to trespass in, or vandalize, the structure.

The Divine Lorraine was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2002. In May 2006, Philadelphia developer Michael Treacy, Jr. purchased the building and formed a development team to oversee its use. He promised that the building would be rehabilitated as a mixed-use property, consisting of 135 condominiums and a large-scale restaurant, and that the historical integrity of the landmark would be preserved.

Most of the furniture and other artifacts from the Lorraine were gathered on the first floor and affixed with prices, ready for a rummage sale.

For a few months, little happened, and then work crews began to show up at the building. But they were not there to rehab – little by little, they began to tear the building apart, selling off pieces to architectural salvage companies and interested individuals. Marble floors were removed from the ballroom and chapel; wooden floors were torn up and bundled, bathtubs were gathered in hallways. Even the ornate plasterwork was torn apart. And after the building was thoroughly scavenged, it was completely abandoned, without any significant measure being taken even to shore up the roofs.

A plywood walkway was constructed at the rear entrance to facilitate moving demolition equipment in and out - as well as objects being sold, such as the kitchen equipment lined up to the left.

As it turns out, the developer had no intention of rehabilitating and preserving the Lorraine unless the city and neighborhood bowed to a number of concessions, including fiscal benefits, additional land acquisition, and favorable zoning. When the developer did not receive the requested concessions, he gutted the building, sold what he could for salvage, and left the structure to rot. David Peace no longer watches over it, and having gutted, it is no longer treated with the reverence it once was. It has become a home to squatters and members of the drug community, and has been heavily vandalized; its exterior is now covered in graffiti. Water damage too has quickly become an issue. Less than half a decade’s worth of neglect has reduced the Divine Lorraine to an endangered shell.

The grand stairwell from the first to the second floors was sheathed in plywood; recent photographs indicated that the stairs themselves were torn apart for the marble, and only an iron skeleton remains.

When I visited the Lorraine in 2006, salvage was well underway. In this hallway, the hardwood floor has been torn up and bundled for sale.

In this room, the tub was pulled from the bathroom, and the marble tiles were then ripped out and placed against the wall. The doors have also been removed.

A room in which the hardwood floor has already been scavenged; it appears that the door is next.

The door here has been removed, as well as the brass hinge. Even the screws from the switch-plate were taken.

Throughout the lower floors of the building, various like objects were grouped together by kind, presumably to facilitate sale. Here, doors are stacked against each other in rows.

Dozens of radiators filled another room.

The bathtubs were removed from this floor's bathrooms and lined up in the hallway.

Even the mattresses, unused in over half a decade, were priced to sell.

As a Closing Note

It is unacceptable that this building, a national as well as a local landmark, is falling prey to demolition-by-neglect. While the figure of Father Divine and the nature of his movement may be controversial, it is uncontroversial that he was an important precursor to the civil rights struggle, and that the Divine Lorraine had a significant role in this history, both by association and by virtue of its status as the first integrated hotel in Philadelphia. Further, it is a remarkable building, and one of the few Hale commissions still standing. The avarice of a developer who gutted the building, “taking her for all she was worth”, and then walked away, should not be allowed to cause the eventual destruction of this treasure.

I would urge all of my readers in Philadelphia to get involved on some level with the preservation of this structure. And I would urge all of my readers outside of Philadelphia to spread the word. If there is enough public outcry over this, if the right people are appropriately shamed, perhaps the Divine Lorraine stands a chance of being a jewel of Philadelphia once again.

This tiny cross placed upon a lightswitch had managed to endure.