The rescue of the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street has snagged all the attention, but there is another Willis G. Hale confection whose restoration we should be celebrating: The eccentric half-castle at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper. Designed by Hale in 1887 for the Keystone National Bank, it is nowadays known simply as the Hale Building.
In July, Brickstone Realty announced plans to renovate the neglected seven-story building by turning it back into offices, though of the boutique kind. It's about time someone recognized the building's Addams Family charm. Although Hale's little corner structure was inspired by a Loire Valley chateau, it sits on a typically narrow Philadelphia lot, its main facade draped in the shadow of skinny Juniper Street. From the west, its flat, windowless facade looks as though someone lopped off part of the castle.
Hale's ambitions may have been excessive, but he knew how to use classical and Gothic elements to make his tiny castle-bank catch our eye. From the corner, the rocky limestone facade spirals up in a series of porticos and turrets, making it seem much taller than its seven floors. Sadly, the last and grandest of the turrets, which resembled a medieval knight's bulbous hat, has been leveled off. The ground floor's elaborate gabled entrance was replaced with a flat modern shop front, most recently occupied by the Valu-Plus store.
Though Hale's client, William Weightman, is said to have loved the mash-up of styles, not so the critics. Montgomery Schuyler, who is considered America's first architecture critic, practically ran out of adjectives when he denounced the design in Hale's 1907 obituary. A sampling: backward, provincial, crude, revolting, ignorant, irrational, incongruent, ridiculous, and, for good measure, higgledy-piggledy. Today we'd call it picturesque.
For me, one of the most interesting details has nothing to do with architecture. It's the electric sign at the Sansom Street end of the building advertising Drucker's Bellevue Health Baths & Saunas.
It's odd to think of people slipping away for a sauna in a Center City office building. Opened in 1925, Drucker's had evolved into a gay bathhouse by the 1960s, and was listed in a 1962 underground guide to gay meeting places, according to Bob Skiba, the archivist at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
When Brickstone renovates, that sign will surely go. And when it does, a footnote to a strange building will be lost in the mists of time.
The Hale Building is just half a block east of Broad Street on Chestnut. Once you've admired the Chestnut Street facade, you can stroll along Juniper to study the equally complex side wall, animated by bay windows and balconies. Drucker's sign is next to an arched window near Sansom Street.