Sometime around 2012, a Philadelphia developer announced plans to combine a row of old commercial buildings at Fifth and Bainbridge into a boutique hotel. Neighborhood residents and local business owners rejoiced. This was just the shot in the arm that the struggling South Street corridor needed, they believed, and it couldn’t happen fast enough.
A wooden construction fence went up on Fifth Street, and soon workers were renovating the house at the end of the row. Then, the momentum slowed. For years, the building stood naked, without a real facade, wrapped in layers of insulation and fireproofing paper.
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More time passed. Every once in awhile, something new was added to the facade. A steel frame. A wooden screen. Meanwhile, new wheat pastes were laid over old wheat pastes. The layers became as thick as the famous chewing gum mosaic that once decorated the tree in front of Ishkabibbles on South Street.
Then, about two years ago, brick panels began going up on the facade. Not quickly, mind you, but at a pace resembling normal construction. Even so, few believed that South Street’s forever project would ever come to an end.
Who was building this phantom hotel, anyway? A solitary worker with a hammer?
Now, much to the surprise of the Queen Village neighborhood — and, perhaps, to the Zakens themselves — the end is finally in sight.
Last month, the plywood fence came down. It was as if someone had rearranged the local geography. “It felt so strange not to see it,” said Eleanor Ingersoll, president of Queen Village Neighbors Association. “It had become such a part of the neighborhood.”
Having observed the project’s glacial progress, often in head-shaking disbelief, I did not have high expectations when the Zakens offered to show me the nearly finished hotel. The 1,121-foot Comcast Technology Center had been conceived, designed, and constructed in less time. And yet the results on Fifth Street are unexpectedly appealing, like an artful wheat paste.
The hotel, which may or may not open in September, and which may or may not be called The Philadelphia Queen, is not a work of architecture in the usual sense. It’s true that an architect, Ray Rola, did the initial design and oversaw the construction, and another architect, Shimi Zakin (the Zakens’ uncle, despite the different spelling) helped refine the plans. But the Queen, if I may call it that, is more like outsider art, the product of a weird singular vision, the functional, habitable equivalent of Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens. In other words, it is utterly South Street.
Part of what gives the 30-room hotel its charm is that it is everything that Philadelphia’s monotonous, spiritless bottom-line development is not. Instead of being shrink-wrapped in aluminum panels and glass, the building was crafted by piece-by-piece, using materials with real heft and texture: wood, brick, concrete, steel, and zinc.
One reason for the delays is that the Zakens did everything the hard way. They could have easily leveled the site and built the Queen from scratch in a quarter of the time. Instead, they decided to combine seven existing structures, retaining some facades and recladding the rest. Because the seven buildings were different heights, they had to realign all the floors to the same level. The Zakens envisioned a moody bar in the basement, but to make it practical, they had to dig out a full story’s worth of dirt to create nine-foot ceilings. The rooftop deck, which offers spectacular views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Society Hill Towers, is covered with a vast sea of Ipe wood.
“A lot of it is hand done. That’s why it took so long,” Adam Zaken said. His brother Ido agreed: “There is a reason people don’t build like this.” That is an understatement.
Growing up, the Zakens spent a lot of time on South Street, where their father owned several clothing stores, including The Net and Dr. Denim, and they wanted the hotel to express the edgy spirit of the neighborhood, which underwent a near-death experience in the ’60s when it was slated for a crosstown highway. Although the Zakens extensively altered most of the exterior, the hotel continues the South Street tradition of making do with what’s there.
Rather than discarding the wood beams that were torn out to make the floors level, the Zakens repurposed them. Since the pieces were huge, the brothers had to buy a special machine to cut them down to a manageable size. The machine itself was so big, Ido said, “we had to set up a sawmill in Camden.”
There, they turned out the narrow slats that now screen parts of the facade. Pieces of the old beams also show up in the desks and shelves in the hotel’s rooms.
In a similar fashion, the Zakens retained the steel structure that supported the original corner building, making it a design element in the high-ceilinged lobby. After one of their top craftsmen, Richard Veith, began idly welding discarded pipe into a treelike form, the Zakens decided to give it a place of honor in the hotel’s interior courtyard.
Without a doubt, the industrial aesthetic that informs the Queen is trendy now. But it never feels cliched here, partly because the design is so idiosyncratic.
The Zakens fell in love with zinc, a natural material that can be bent into interesting shapes. Most developers use it in moderation because it’s expensive. The Zakens went crazy with it, weaving it across the Bainbridge facade in a basket pattern and using it to outline the two large masses on Fifth Street. It took their supplier, John Entrekin, nine months to cut, fold, and install the material.
One of the downsides of being your own designer is that you can end up with some ungainly proportions. The enormous, steel-framed entrance portals feel overly grandiose for the three-story building, and the lobby seems too narrow. On other hand, the hotel rooms are far more spacious than the industry standard.
None of these quirky features would have been possible if the Zakens had financed the hotel the usual way, with bank loans. They used their own money, spending “millions,” according to Adam. That partly explains the stops and starts over the last seven years.
As much as the Zakens like to do everything themselves, they decided in the end that they weren’t capable of running the hotel. It will be operated by Sonder, a hotel management company. They’ve also leased the ground-floor to independent retail tenants, including Emmy Squared, a highly rated New York pizza and hamburger restaurant. They envision a Bok-style bar on the deck.
Because Sonder expects to start booking rooms in September, the Zakens say they now have to adhere to a drop-dead deadline and wrap up construction. “It’s really a good thing they took over,” Adam said. “Otherwise, we would probably be putting wood on the ceilings in the hotel rooms.”