A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
2320-2330 Chestnut Street
Sometimes, when an empty surface parking lot gets decorated too heavily, we all forget that there's supposed to be a fucking building in its place. This is one such lot, disguised by art, shameful in origin, and with little or no chance of being filled in the next 1,000 lifetimes. It doesn't seem like a big deal -- a little sunken lot with a beautiful mural on it. Nonetheless, that's no excuse to keep a lot empty for over 50 fucking years.
A big part of the problem is that the building that was last using this lot was also the first building ever built on this lot. It was so fucking old that its origin date is unknown. The only reason that it survived so long was because it was so ancient that it was built set back from the street, causing it to survive the multiple widenings of Chestnut Street over the years that caused the destruction of all its contemporaries. It was a five-and-a-half story mansion, no doubt built for one of the early Philadelphia pioneers who rejected the Delaware River side of the city and chose to settle on the Schuylkill side instead.
Back in the day, what we now call the corner of 24th and Chestnut was the corner of Beach and Chestnut, one block west of Schuylkill Front (23rd Street). By the 1850s, this mansion was still alone among the many industrial sites and yards in the area and was converted to a hotel around 1860 by the Franklin Fire Insurance Company, back when they were dabbling in the real estate game. When the first Chestnut Street Bridge was completed in 1866, the approach ran right in front of the old mansion and the rest of the neighborhood quickly filled in with all kinds of uses. In later decades, it became the Howe House Hotel and became a major place to stay for the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Ad for the Howe House from a Centennial Exposition guidebook.
It changed its name to the Howard House by 1881. When the Frank Furness masterpiece Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station across 24th street was built, the hotel then changed its name again, calling itself the B & O House. It was later purchased by William Ford and was re-named the Fairview Hotel, presumably because of its view of the Schuylkill River.
Sideview of the old mansion as the Fairview Hotel in 1911 as seen from the B & O Station, right before Chestnut Street was widened. Image from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
In 1911, the approach to the Chestnut Street Bridge was widened. While every other building nearby was either destroyed or had its facade lopped off, the old mansion still stood intact, thanks to its setback from the street. After the widening, that setback no longer existed. Over the next few years, everything around the hotel and the B & O Railroad Station was replaced. The hotel then acquired a new neighbor that would fill the entire block, up to and including the rear of the hotel. This was the massive Peerless car factory, the same building that stands next to the surface lot today.
There it is, behind the B & O Station's awesome Furness-designed entrance. Image from the Historic American Buildings Survey (public domain).
In later decades, the building was no longer used as a hotel, but the old bar/restaurant space from the hotel days still lived. During the prohibition, it became a swanky speakeasy called Club Cadix. On the night of February 25th, 1927, bootlegger William "Mickey" Duffy went to the club, planning to escape the city in the morning, due to having a price on his head for beating the shit out of a Chicago mobster a week earlier in NYC. When leaving for the night, he was shot, the first instance of a Thompson submachine gun being used in a Philadelphia hit. Duffy's bodyguard was killed and Club Cadix's doorman was wounded. Duffy survived the incident (despite the SEVEN bullet wounds) but was gunned down by some of his own goons 4 years later in Atlantic City. The incident led to the closing of Club Cadix.
In 1961, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation bought and renovated the old Peerless auto factory next door to the ancient mansion. Part of that renovation would be the inclusion of a small parking lot at the northwest corner of the building that would include loading docks and shit. They demolished the old house/hotel and installed the surface parking lot we see there today. The B & O Railroad Station was wiped out 2 years later. In 1981, Paul V. Profeta and Associates purchased the old Peerless building and turned it into offices focused on design. They re-named the place the Philadelphia Design Building and commissioned famous mural artist Richard Haas to create a mural that would fill in the highly visible blank walls created by the surface lot.
Haas painted a huge trompe l'oeil mural that imitates the facade of the rest of the building along with the circa 1911 Chestnut Street Bridge approach at the bottom. In it, he place a life-sized image of the William Penn City Hall Statue, another of the Franklin Memorial, and a ghost image of the old B & O Railroad Station. Haas also included some rowing figures taken from an old Thomas Eakins painting of the first Girard Avenue Bridge. Check out a before-and-after view of the mural on Haas' website. This mural, called "Chestnut Place" and completed in 1983, was a big deal when it was painted because there was not yet such thing as the Mural Arts Program. In 2012, the fading 29-year-old mural was fully restored by the Mural Arts Program under artist Jon Laidacker.
The restored mural. Image from the Mural Arts Program.
Though its one of the best murals in town, there's no reason it should stop a surface parking lot in a dense part of the city from being filled. There's plenty of room here for any kind of building. The emptiness of this space becomes most obvious when walking by on Chestnut Street, which already has a gap in it from 24th Street running below. The area near the Schuylkill in Center City is very hot right now, thanks to the Schuylkill River Trail. Its time to put something great here. How about a small boutique hotel?
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