Jordan Isreal lives in North Philadelphia and, like many of his neighbors, wrestles with the balance between development — the type that makes the area more attractive — and gentrification — the type that prices people out of the homes they’ve lived in for generations.
Still, the 21-year-old and two of his friends were some of the first people to line up Wednesday to see the inside of the Divine Lorraine, a hulking, abandoned building that commands the North Broad Street corridor. You’ve probably heard by now: The massive structure that’s been dilapidating for years is finally being developed into apartments, retail and high-end restaurants. It’s expected to be the start of change in this portion of North Philly.
“I think development is good, and it’s really going to make this place an attraction,” Isreal said. “But,” his friend Omari Ri added, “it’s important that ‘Divine Lorraine’ isn’t just a name, and that this place is open to everyone, and its history lives on.”
By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday evening, hundreds of people had formed a line heading up to the front of the Lorraine, the line snaking around the corner and people being told it’d take them three hours to get to the front. Many of them were among the 7,000 who had RSVP’d on Facebook for the Divine Lorraine Pop-up Shop, a store selling Divine Lorraine merch that would be set up inside the building itself.
The Divine Lorraine Hotel Collection, the second of its kind after the first one sold like crazy, comes from designer Najeeb Sheikh, who collaborated with companies like Converse, Herschel bags and more to create the Lorraine swag. But people weren’t waiting that long in line because they wanted a keychain or a T-shirt.
The pop-up shop also came with a walk-through of the falling-apart building that still shows the grandeur it once had, though it’s covered in graffiti. Because developers are breaking ground soon on the building, the walk-through on Wednesday may have been the last time the public could go inside before the place begins to transform.
“Well, I went in once back in the day,” Mike Smith, a 27-year-old from Fairmount, said when asked why he’d waited so long to see the inside. “And I was scared shitless.”
This 120-year-old, 10-story building has become a sort of haven for hipsters and a paradise for urban explorers and photographers who would break in to see the incredible architecture since the building was vacant in 1999. The structure was built in the 1890’s as luxury apartment buildings, and was redeveloped about 60 years later when it was purchased by Rev. Major Jealous Divine, AKA cult leader Father Divine, for less than half a million dollars.
Father Divine, a member of the Universal Peace Mission Movement, renamed it from the Lorraine Apartments to the Divine Lorraine Hotel, and it became the first racially integrated hotel in Philadelphia. But it was closed in ’99 by the Peace Mission and hasn’t been open since.
Philadelphia developer Eric Blumenfeld dreamed of redeveloping the building and North Broad Street, and purchased the Lorraine in 2012 for $8 million. With the help of Billy Procida, a real estate lender from New Jersey, Blumenfeld has — after several years of trying — secured the permits and funding necessary to turn the building into a mixed-use space that’ll include more than 100 luxury apartments in addition to high-end retail and restaurants. The development is expected to cost upwards of $40 million.
Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke joined developers for a groundbreaking ceremony in North Philly outside the Divine Lorraine, with the mayor saying “restoring the Divine Lorraine to its former glory was among my top economic-development priorities.”
“North Broad Street will rival South Broad Street for vitality,” he continued, “creating the best urban street anywhere in America.”
It took hours for people waiting to see the inside of the building that would be the catalyst for this vitality. By 6 p.m., some of the people working in the pop-up shop said it was largely sold out of items with the exception of a few T-shirts. The line was moving slowly, as less than 35 people were allowed inside at a time, and many were staying inside for more than a half an hour. “That line is longer than I’ve waited in fucking Disneyland,” one man said.
Inside, the developers had set up placards that told the history of the building, and art was inside from local artists. Willa Deitch, a 28-year-old South Philly resident, was standing in line in the sun Wednesday with two of her friends to catch a glimpse of the inside of the Lorraine. She hoped the inside of the building she’d looked at for years wouldn’t be disappointing — “like finding out Santa isn’t real.”
“They’re doing work here and it’s just a Broad Street landmark,” she said. “And it shows the integration of the old and new on North Broad Street.”
Most of the people standing there like Deitch were aware of what the building once was, and some were acutely aware of what the building might become. But most there seemed pretty OK with it.
“It’s abandoned. If someone wants to dump millions of dollars into it,” said 26-year-old Troy Memis, “that’s great.”