The Divine Lorraine sign is lit. The apartments on the upper floors are nearly 100 percent done and those on the lower floors are just a step behind. Even the lobby has come around, and it’s going to look similar to the way it did when the Divine Lorraine was first open in the late 19th century.
So yes, it’s really happening. The hotel that has drawn a cult following of hipsters and urban explorers is opening as an apartment complex, with move-ins scheduled to begin in January (and more than half of the apartments have been leased at this point). Retail tenants are planned for the ground level of the property but none have been announced yet.
The actual redevelopment process for the Divine Lorraine has been reasonably quick (it began in September 2015) and straightforward (complications have been few, though the elevators have been acting up lately). But if you’re developer Eric Blumenfeld, the process has felt like an eternity. He originally bought the property about 10 years ago before selling it off and then purchasing it again in 2012.
Billy Penn caught up with Blumenfeld to discuss the progress of the Divine Lorraine, why the hotel has a hold on him and many others in the city, hoops with restaurateur Marc Vetri at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue and why the neighborhoods surrounding North Broad Street provide the best bang for the buck in Philly.
What happened the first time you bought the Divine Lorraine?
At that time, I was very focused on North Broad Street. I didn’t understand why nobody got what was going on there. So I bought a bunch of different properties and I went to my lenders and said I want to develop the Divine Lorraine and I want to develop 640 N. Broad. They came back to me and said pick one. And 640 was four times the size of Divine Lorraine and it was a lot simpler. So I picked 640 and put Divine Lorraine up for sale and sold it for five times what I paid for it.
If I was normal I would’ve been happy and moved to Florida. Because I’m demented I came to work every day and I was tortured to see the folks I sold it to just kind of gut it. When I originally bought it when you walked in the first floor had a restaurant on the first side. The table settings were still in place. The napkins were there. It was like they were going to open for business. It had just had been closed for 10 years.
Shortly after I sold it, all the windows were ripped out and they were basically gutting it. It hurt my soul. So I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to buy it back. Originally when I bought it there were 26 hotel rooms per floor and I thought I would just combine two hotel rooms into one apartment unit and it would be a simple project. And after they gutted it there were just a lot more challenges.
It became a different project. Luckily we were able to preserve some of the architectural components that were there. Right now we’re very focused on the first floor lobby area. The bones of the lobby area will be very close to what existed 100 years ago.
The way that we’ve dissected it, there was an annex building everybody in the world wanted to rip down. I just thought it was like the whole property has a museum-like effect to me, and I didn’t want to rip it down. We’re putting a new roof on it now. I was happy we were able to preserve that as well.
We’re going to really honor the building and I think what we’re doing really doesn’t exist in Philadelphia. Most of North Broad for me has been thinking outside of the box and doing things everybody else says are impossible, which only gets me more excited.
What is it about the Divine Lorraine, you think, that has a hold on people?
There’s nothing for me like walking into the Divine Lorraine because I just get this excitement. There’s something that’s very thrilling about it. Pretty much every inch of the property has a spirit and a personality. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world and that I have the opportunity to do a project like that.
We’re all very emotional beings. Our senses really affect us. Every inch of the Divine Lorraine just creates an emotion, to me. I’ve seen it in other people as well. It’s just breathtaking. I think it would be very sad if the Divine Lorraine ended up being torn down. In part it was a heavy burden for me to be true to what the building deserved
We’ve all seen historic buildings that have been badly bastardized, and it’s almost like they were better being torn down. If you’re going to tip your hat to history you better wear the right hat and tip it the right way. Top to bottom, whether it was relighting the sign or recreating the lobby or the entrance way it’s a responsibility, and I’m confident that the end project is very true to the spirit of that building in the way it was originally constructed. Times have changed and it certainly has been adapted for the future. But the bones are based on history.
Is North Broad on enough Philadelphians’ radar these days?
First of all 640 N. Broad proved a couple models. We did 265 apartments there. And people doubted anybody would want to live there. We proved them wrong. The challenge at 640 was to create traffic. There’s a national average where something like six percent of your traffic converts to residents. So if 100 people look six people rent. My batting average at 640 was like 50 percent. Half the people that came to see an apartment would rent. The challenge was to get people to come look at it. What we did was create a better opportunity that was off the beaten track.
You could live at Broad and Walnut in those days for $1,200 a month and live in a shitty apartment with no amenities no concierge, no pool, no gym, no parking and maybe a washer and dryer. What we did was we created great apartments that were twice the size with 13-foot ceilings. We put a pool on the roof and a world class gym and a concierge and parking. We created the best value in town at that time. And so we broke the mold. People did want to live on North Broad.
It’s a different world now. It’s just a different world. I don’t think I was so much the driving force as what was happening around us, in Fairmount, Spring Garden and Francisville. Really the heavy lift was the neighborhood around.
Thirty years ago the best bang for the buck if you were a family looking to buy was probably Queen Village. If you put everything into a milkshake maker and are looking for best value and quality of life it was Queen Village. Today it’s Fairmount, it’s Spring Garden, It’s Francisville. You can buy a home there for half the price of Graduate Hospital. Same house. Because it’s not about building the cost of a new home. It’s the land value. All of what’s happened on North Broad has been fed by the neighborhoods around it.
My next mission there was to prove the commercial model. I used to play basketball at the Sporting Club with Marc Vetri and we became good friends. I hypnotized him one day to come and look at 640 and he was ready to open what became Osteria. When that became public everybody thought he had lost it (Ed. note: Osteria opened in 2007 at 640 N. Broad). “What the hell are you doing, you belong on Rittenhouse Square?” The year he opened, Osteria won the James Beard Award. It was like in Esquire and the New York Times and on the cover of Philly Mag.
That sort of set the tone for the commercial side, and then we converted the Wilke Buick across the street and things continued. When you think about North Broad Street today there’s commercial activity, there’s people living not only along the corridor but in the flanking communities.
What’s next I think is people will start working there more and more. The office community will grow. I see the Studebaker building, which we have under construction now, right between 640 and Divine Lorraine. I am moving my offices there. We have a lot of interest there from cooperative offices and companies which are probably in part a wave of the future. Our parents’ generation, they had dedicated offices spaces and they went to work.
How we grow as a community is to hit everything from all sides — people living there, working there and people coming for theater and restaurants and nightlife. We have all those components within our grasp and they’re all kind of falling into place.