As long as the vacant tower of the Divine Lorraine cast its gloomy countenance over North Broad Street, the northern half of Philadelphia's great boulevard was frozen in amber. Nothing new was built. Nothing much was demolished. Buildings only continued to molder and decay during the 16 years it stood empty.
Now that construction has actually begun at the Divine One, for a project that will turn the early skyscraper into high-end apartments, a thaw is coming. In developer-speak, North Broad is "in play," and that means the street we've known for so long in its imperfect state is about to morph into something very different.
You can already spot changes - in the old brownstone slicked with cheap stucco and turned into student apartments, in the shiny new bar, in the arrival of Uhuru Furniture, the eclectic vintage store at the corner of Parrish. "For Sale" signs are strung along the avenue like flags.
In anticipation of the transformation, Good Eye will cast its gaze for the next handful of columns on some of the more vulnerable, less heralded characters along the avenue. Despite its tattered state, North Broad offers a rich mix of the monumental and the prosaic. The variety of scales and styles makes it one of Philadelphia's most interesting streets. It would be tragic if North Broad was homogenized by success.
Let's start, not at the beginning, but in the shadow of the Divine Lorraine. Just south of the 10-story high-rise is a scrappy, two-story commercial building faced in white terra-cotta tiles and dressed up in a suite of classical details - pilasters, a pattered frieze, dentil moldings, and decorated cornice. The name of the original occupant, easily visible on the squared-off pediment, seems appropriate: Roman Building.
If you look closely, you'll see the two words are separated by a wheel that is being pulled aloft by wings. The building was constructed by the Roman Automobile Co., which sold used cars back when North Broad was nicknamed "Automobile Row" for its concentration of such showrooms - Packard, Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile. In its enthusiasm for the automobile age, Roman grandly rendered the construction date as A.D. 1916.
I wasn't able to determine Roman's fate, but you can see that the building's four bays were later divided into individual retail spaces, all empty now. Though no one is likely to position a car in the large windows, it's easy to imagine them filled on the Roman Building's centenary with our favorite products of A.D. 2016.
The Fairmount Avenue stop of the Broad Street Subway leaves you right at the Roman Building, No. 685-87. But for a concentrated dose of the street's architectural variety, start from the Race or Spring Garden Station.