A Divine fascination

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Developer Eric Blumenfeld, owner of the Divine Lorraine Hotel, appears ready to succeed where others have failed by giving the dormant 123-year-old giant structure new life.

THE BREEZE moves easily through the empty sockets where the building's windows used to be, carrying ghostly whispers of names from Philadelphia's past.

Willis Hale. The Rev. Major Jealous Divine. Jim Jones.

They might not mean much to some, but all three are an inextricable part of the story of the Divine Lorraine Hotel. It's a tale that's been revisited almost obsessively by countless people in the city during the last 16 years, people who couldn't stand to see the beautiful, battered shell that bears the hotel's name continually lose pieces of itself to time, vandals and the elements.

Developer Eric Blumenfeld, now in his second stint as the building's owner, appears ready to succeed where others have failed, to pull a complete Victor Frankenstein and give the dormant 123-year-old giant new life.

But the Divine Lorraine has already experienced a rebirth of sorts, becoming a peerless, beloved pop-culture icon in the city, especially in the eyes of younger city residents.

It's probably impossible to quantify how many people have eyeballed the Victorian flourishes that loom over Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue and felt something stir inside of themselves. Maybe the same could be said for other once-grand buildings that met dismal fates. But photos of the hotel are all over Instagram, where several thousand posts carry a Divine Lorraine hashtag.

So there's something about the Divine Lorraine that sets it apart from all others. But what?

"I've found that everyone in the city is attached to the building one way or another," said local designer Najeeb Sheikh, who lives a few blocks away from the hotel. "People are intrigued by it without knowing too much of the history. There's a level of mystery that surrounds the building."

Last month, Sheikh teamed with Center City men's boutique Lapstone & Hammer to launch a limited line of Divine Lorraine merchandise - T-shirts, sneakers, jackets, even towels and robes. The items sold out within hours.

Photographer Bradley Maule traces his fascination with the hotel back to 1995, when he visited Philadelphia for the first time and was awestruck by the 10-story structure while riding along Broad Street.

Maule said the hotel's profile has risen in recent years, as people have flocked to neighborhoods on the edge of greater Center City's boundaries - think Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Brewerytown and Fairmount - only to discover North Philly's old 10-story treasure.

"I think a lot of young people who relocate to Philly live on the fringes of Center City, and they see this amazing building that's empty and covered in graffiti, and they think, 'Wow, what the hell is that?' " said Maule, 39.

"And then they find out there was almost this cultish thing there, and it becomes even weirder than they thought."

The cast of characters who were tied to the Divine Lorraine Hotel at one time or another seems too fantastic to be true, even by Philadelphia standards.

Built by architect Willis Hale between 1892 and 1894, the property was known in its first life simply as the Lorraine Hotel. Hale's eccentric eye for detail was enough of a reason for the building to become a landmark.

But then along came Father Divine. Divine - a/k/a the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, a/k/a George Baker - was a 5-2 minister. His followers believed he was God in the flesh.

The charismatic Divine attracted a large following to his faith, the International Peace Mission Movement, in New York during the 1920s and '30s. He opened his arms to the poor and working class, encouraging them to pool their savings. That allowed the mission to purchase properties where followers could live, and establish businesses where they could work, Leonard Norman Primiano, a professor in Cabrini College's Department of Religious Studies, recounted in an essay about Divine for NewsWorks in 2013.

Divine fought against lynch mobs and for racial harmony. There were some things he allegedly did that no one could explain. "I hated to do it," Divine reportedly said in 1932, when a Nassau County judge died of a heart attack a few days after he sentenced the preacher to a year in jail on a charge of disturbing the peace.

Divine moved his growing flock to Philadelphia in 1942, and purchased the Divine Lorraine Hotel in 1948, offering affordable meals and spiritual enlightenment to those who could abide by his faith's rules, which included celibacy.

His popularity and success eventually attracted the attention of notorious Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones, who in 1959 met privately with Divine and offered to take over the International Peace Mission whenever Divine died, according to a recent Believer Magazine article that explored Jones' fascination with Divine.

When Divine died in 1965, his wife, Mother Divine, assumed his leadership role. Jones, undeterred, surfaced again in 1971, telling some of the Peace Mission's followers that he was Divine reincarnated.

His pitch didn't work. Jones went on to make history seven years later, when more than 900 of his followers committed mass suicide in Guyana.

Sheikh had a slightly less spooky experience while overseeing the launch of the Divine Lorraine merchandise line at Lapstone & Hammer's Chestnut Street shop last month.

An older woman approached Sheikh and explained that she had lived in the hotel decades ago, when she was young and down on her luck. Sheikh handed her a retro-styled keychain that was a part of his Divine Lorraine collection.

"Her face went blank," he said. "The keychain had the number 215 on it. She said, 'This was my room number when I stayed there.' Everybody had goosebumps."

Maule documented the saddest chapter in the Divine Lorraine's history.

He was invited on an overcast day in 2006 to tour and photograph the building by its then-owners, a group that included the Dutch firm Sunergy Housing, for his website, phillyskyline.com.

As he took in the richness of the lobby - the marble floors, the grand lighting fixtures, the intricately designed moldings on the walls - workers were moving at a breakneck pace to tear out those same signature features.

"I did have this moment of, 'Oh wow. This is the Divine Lorraine,' wash over me," he said. "But the biggest takeaway for me that day was thinking, 'Wait, you're taking all of this stuff out of the building?' "

In the years that followed, the building found new popularity as a hollowed-out haven for urban explorers and graffiti artists, despite the danger posed by yawning holes that opened without warning on each floor.

In 2010, a then-19-year-old Temple University student named Brian Jerome plunged five floors down an elevator shaft, landing on a pile of glass and rubble, the Inquirer reported. His injuries were gruesome - bones sticking out at all the wrong angles, blood seeping out from seemingly everywhere. But he survived.

"I just think there's a fascination with it being abandoned," said photographer Conrad Benner, who is probably best known from his Twitter and Instagram handle, @StreetsDept.

"I assume kids who grow up in the 'burbs go into the woods and get lost in their own way," he said. "There aren't spaces like that obviously in the city, so I think the natural thing is for kids to explore their surroundings. Abandoned buildings like this are usually easy to get into."

Benner, 30, a Fishtown native, said he ventured into the Divine Lorraine three years ago. He climbed in through an open window.

"It was terrifying. The whole ground floor was pitch black," he said. "You had to take your time going up the steps, because a lot of it is fragile, and you'd hear stories about people getting injured. But the higher you climb, the more awe-inspiring it becomes."

Blumenfeld didn't show a hint of hesitation while venturing out onto the roof of the hotel - wearing a pair of Sheikh's Divine Lorraine-branded sneakers, of course - while conducting a tour of the building last week.

"I thought I was the only knucklehead who had this feeling for the building," he said.

Earlier this summer, Blumenfeld was awarded a combined $7 million in state and local grants for his redevelopment plan for the hotel. Apartments are slated to fill the upper floors, while the ground floor would be home to restaurants and a sunken garden area outside, according to PlanPhilly. The proposal won approval from the Architectural Committee of the Historical Commission.

Blumenfeld, 52, points out some of the hotel's remaining secrets with child-like glee. That orange-hued surface that's exposed in the ceiling above? Terra-cotta tile, he said, noting that the floors would have been completely eaten away by mold and dry rot if they'd been made of wood instead.

"You know, the smart guys in real estate are scientists," he said.

"They dissect everything. It's either worth what it's going to cost or it's not.

"I'm not that smart. I deal more with instinct, and my instincts tell me this building is going to be magnificent."


On Twitter: @dgambacorta