The spectacular restoration of the Divine Lorraine has focused Philadelphia's attention once again on the stretch of North Broad Street just above Center City. During the two decades the old hotel stood vacant, it was often held up as the poster child of the street's decline. But the ups and downs and ups of those eclectic blocks may be better reflected in the history of the Studebaker showroom.
Located just south of the Divine Lorraine, the three-story building was never completely abandoned. Instead, it was subjected to a series of extreme makeovers as North Broad's fortunes shifted. Now that the street is making a comeback, the former automobile showroom has just been given another facade treatment. This one, overseen by developer Eric Blumenfeld, the Divine Lorraine's owner, restores the building to something close to its original appearance.
In some ways, the Studebaker Building has always been a work in progress. According to research by Powers & Co., a historic preservation consultant, it was built in phases, starting in 1916, and the facade's hodgepodge of details reflected that incremental construction. After it was purchased in the mid-'20s by a car dealer who sold Studebakers, the facade was renovated to give it a more unified look. Featuring brick piers, immense shop windows, and massive wooden brackets at the cornice, the new version was typical of the Main Street-style, commercial architecture of the day.
North Broad Street was then known as Philadelphia's "Automobile Row" because of its concentration of showrooms, parts stores, and repair shops. Perhaps in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, the Studebaker facade was fitted out with a variety of stylish neon signs, including a vertical marquee with Studebaker's name in lights. By the late '30s, however, both the street and the car manufacturer were already on a downward slide. Most North Broad car dealers had left for highway locations. Studebaker rolled out its last car in 1966.
It's not clear when the showroom closed, but in 1963, the building owner applied for a permit to strip off its wooden millwork and reclad the building. What had been a subdued commercial storefront was transformed into an exuberant modernist butterfly. The architects, Kremer & Kremer, faced the building in a color chart's worth of glass panels. Though probably intended as offices, the building was converted to a homeless shelter in 1977.
And that's how it remained until Blumenfeld bought the old Studebaker showroom in 2015. His plan was to get it listed on the National Register so he could obtain tax credits to finance a renovation, but the application was rejected because the facade had been so radically altered.
Despite the setback, Blumenfeld forged ahead. The design, developed by architect Richard Sauder, is more historically inspired than historically faithful, but the new millwork and cornice brackets do evoke the days when North Broad was lined with car showrooms. Upstairs, the space is occupied by a variety of office tenants, including the Starr Restaurants and several city departments.
And lest anyone forget the building's origins, the neon Studebaker marquee once again hangs from the facade, a worthy companion to the restored Divine Lorraine sign up the street.