Monday, October 8, 2012

The Ortlieb's Brewery and the Divine Lorraine Hotel: A Tale of Two Buildings

Ortlieb's Brewery, 28 June 2009
(photo by author)
Divine Lorraine Hotel, Memorial Day 2009
(photo by author) 

For those who love Philadelphia  and by that I mean those who love what has always made Philadelphia Philadelphia rather than the faux-trendy hipster hotspot many today clearly want it to be  last week was really both the best and worst of times. 

The Divine Lorraine in 1971,
as I remember it in my youth  (Library of Congress Photo
On the one hand, on Wednesday the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that developer Eric Blumenfeld had regained title to the 118 year-old Divine Lorraine for a little more than $8 million. Blumenfeld hopes to convert the  landmark building, at at Broad St. and Fairmount Ave., into 126 rental units with street-level retail and a potential restaurant deal with noted chef Marc Vetri. This is very good news, not only for lovers of architecture and historic preservation, but for all who have hoped for decades for the economic revitalization of Lower North Philadelphia. Built in 1892-94 by flamboyant architect Willis G. Hale as the Lorraine Apartments, the building originally housed the nouveau riches that, for a time, were flocking to North Broad Street. That time had long gone by the time it was purchased by cult figure and civil rights pioneer George Baker (The Reverend Major Jealous Divine) in 1948, who proceeded to turn it into Philadelphia's first entirely integrated hotel.  Since 2000, when Father Divine's Peace Mission sold the building, it has both gone through a succession of owners and been transformed into the graffiti-scarred hulk it is today. Most egregiously, previous owner Michael Treacy and his co-investors from Michigan and the Netherlands stripped the entire hotel of its spectacular furnishings before ultimately defaulting on their loan. When a small fire erupted at the hotel back in March, I feared the worst. Now, however, hope exists for this landmark structure where previously there had been none.

Here are a few pictures I have taken of the Divine Lorraine in recent years.  The first two were taken on Memorial Day 2009, while the next eight were taken just last month, on the 22nd of September.  Even in its advanced stage of decay and decrepitude, the glories of the old hotel are clearly evident.

The same hope does not exist, however, for the old Ortlieb's Brewery on the south side of Poplar between American and 3rd in Northern Liberties. What remains of the Ortlieb's complex is the last remaining brewery building in Northern Liberties, the erstwhile gritty, blue-collar neighborhood of breweries and tanneries that has, in the last decade, been transformed into the trendiest neighborhood in the city through a gentrifying process of renovation and, more often, of demolition and construction of "cutting edge" new housing.


On Thursday, Hidden City Philadelphia reported that developer Bart Blatstein, owner of the Ortlieb's property, had received a permit to demolish the property as early as the 24th of this month. Blatstein is well-known in Philadelphia, having earned his fortune by transforming a somnolent, underutilized stretch of Columbus Boulevard in South Philly with an acontextual cinema complex and big box retail more worthy of suburban Columbus, Ohio than urban Philadelphia. Over the past decade or so, Blatstein has become the major player in transforming Northern Liberties into the hipster paradise it has become.  To give Blatstein his due, he has done a wonderful job restoring a number of derelict properties, most notably Daniel Boone Public School (a former reformatory) and an old warehouse at 1011 Hancock St., into prime residential properties.  But he is best known for his scorched-earth demolition of Philadelphia's largest brewery, Schmidt's at 2nd and Girard, and construction of the super-trendy Piazza at Schmidt's as the first stage in its replacement.

Blatstein in effect replaced this ...:

The rear of the enlarged Schmidt's complex
in advanced state of dereliction, 1990s
The Schmidt's brewery in 1917

with these:

The Piazza at Schmidt's, 28 June 2009
[only hours before the murder of Rian Thal in the building on the left]
(photo by author)
Pathmark Supermarket, 2nd and Girard

These developments have been heaped with praise, not only by young hipsters, but by the architectural commentariat (e.g., the Inquirer's Inga Saffron). My own response is far less enthusiastic, if not entirely negative.  To be sure, good modern architecture is welcome, and can serve a good purpose in rejuvenating older neighborhoods.  Northern Liberties, in fact, is home to most examples of such architecture in the city.  But the inherent coldness of such architecture  the worst of which rivals the sterility of Soviet-style modernism  means that it is best experienced in small doses (indeed, even the famous, I. M. Pei-designed Society Hill Towers fail to cause offense primarily because of their sheer novelty in Philadelphia, in contrast to such buildings' offensive ubiquity in Manhattan).  Moreover, the very cheapness of their construction almost guarantees a poor aging process, especially in comparison to the stone and brick buildings that have always given Philadelphia its distinct character.  My suspicion is that the Piazza at Schmidt's, for all its trendiness quotient, will lose its cache sooner rather than later, when its novelty no longer can hide its sheer ugliness.

Blatstein has owned the Ortlieb's complex since 2000, even demolishing one of the buildings in the complex back in 2002, raising the ire of neighbors in the process.  In the intervening years, despite exploring the possibility of rehabilitating the buildings back in 2007, the buildings have deteriorated (a large tree even is growing on the roof of one of the buildings) to the point of being a classic example of demolition-by-neglect.

Blatstein has no concrete plans for the parcel, but his primary loyalty is to profit rather than to aesthetics or the historic fabric of the neighborhood (he is a developer, after all). His comment, "I would have kept the buildings if I would have felt it was a marketable commodity," really does not ring true. His further comment that preferences in the Northern Liberties community now lie toward "new construction" certainly bears the ring of truth, at least in part.  Rehabilitation of such a ravaged complex would cost lots of money, though it certainly could be done.  And there would be a large market for such a rehab. But it is cheaper, after all, to just clear the land a build from scratch.  With the current hotness of the NoLibs market, any new construction would garner more than adequate interest.

Nevertheless, I would maintain that, if he has any sense of civic responsibility, Blatstein should seek to save at least the 1914 brewhouse at the corner of American and Poplar.  Simply for historical reasons, the corner of 3rd and Poplar has seen production of German lager since at least 1860, and Northern Liberties ultimately became the epicenter of lager production in Philadelphia ("Brewerytown East") throughout my youth.  Revitalization of the neighborhood, to be optimal, needs to respect the industrial heritage provided by such large, lost enterprises as Schmidt's, Ortlieb's, and the tragically lost Burk Tannery only a couple of blocks north on 3rd Street.  The scale of these factories, in contrast with the tidy rows of their workers' rowhouses, defined this neighborhood, giving it its distinct character and, yes, its charm.  Indeed, the charm of old cities like Philadelphia lies in it old buildings, which in other cities are either rare or nonexistent.  Simply put, buildings like Ortlieb's and the hundreds of other old, often derelict, factories can't be found in other cities, at least to the extent they can in Philadelphia, the erstwhile "Workshop of the World."  My question: why would any self-respecting Philadelphian trade this birthright for the mess of pottage provided by slick, glossy new construction, which may have more glitz today, but certainly has less charm and is certain to have less staying power?

I leave you with  a number of photographs I have taken of the derelict Ortlieb's brewery over the past few years.  If I never see these buildings standing again, at least I have these to remember them by.

These first two pictures date from 5 July 2007:

These next six were taken on 28 June 2009:

The last nineteen were take on 15 October 2011:


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