As much as we talk about farmers markets and farm-to-table fare in Philadelphia, most of the food we consume today is trucked long distances in refrigerated containers, and then distributed from massive warehouses. The former hotel at 1800 Ridge Ave. was built at a time when the region’s farmers personally brought their wares to market, piled high on horse-drawn carts.
The dark-brick hotel, which has been recently renovated, was erected in 1876 to give those farmers a place to stay after they dropped off their meat and produce next door at the former Ridge Avenue Farmers Market. That Victorian-era masterpiece opened a year before the hotel and quickly became a source of fresh food for residents of lower North Philadelphia.
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The construction of a covered food market on Ridge Avenue, just south of Girard, was a natural step in the urbanization of Philadelphia. As the city became industrialized and its rowhouse neighborhoods expanded into once rural areas, people began relying on a network of farmers from outside the city to supply their food. Although there were covered markets such as Headhouse Square, the Ridge Avenue market offered a clean, modern space for selling and storing food. A forerunner of today’s supermarkets, it predated the Reading Terminal Market by nearly two decades.
Because it could take a day or more to drive a horse team into the city from farming areas, the hotel was a key to the market’s operations. The 40 guest rooms provided farmers a place to relax and clean up before heading home. Because the hotel also had stables for their horses, the farmers were free to enjoy city life and stock up on factory-made goods from Philadelphia retailers during their stay.
Like the market building, the hotel was designed by Davis E. Supplee, a carpenter-turned-architect, who went on to build many of Philadelphia’s early police stations. His client was the Ridge Avenue Farmers Market Co., a private business that spared no expense on the architecture, and set the tone for the stately Victorian-era bank and houses around the corner on Girard Avenue that were built several years later.
The long, open-plan shed had a high, sharply angled, gabled roof that was supported by a wooden truss system. Light poured in through the roof dormers and large windows at either end of the market. The exterior was faced in slabs of rusticated brownstone, trimmed with black stone and decorated with fanciful dragon heads. Inside were 125 market stalls.
While not nearly as impressive, the red-brick hotel is still a handsome building. The third floor features peaked, Gothic windows, outlined in stone. It appears that the fourth floor was built later, because the original cornice remains in place. The steel awnings over the storefronts were added in the recent renovation, carried out by the Chinatown-based company Benny Construction.
Even after trains and trucks became the main means of transporting food and full-service grocery stores started popping up around the city, the Ridge Avenue market continued to serve the neighborhood’s food needs. But it was tough going. Race riots swept North Philadelphia in 1964, devastating Ridge Avenue and causing many merchants to leave. The market shut down four years later.
The great shed was reduced to a warehouse for video game consoles, while the hotel became a halfway house for women leaving prison. Although the market was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1984 — the country’s highest designation — it was not enough to save the massive building. Raymond Wood, a local African American developer, tried to reopen the building as an international food market, but he was unable to raise enough money to renovate the deteriorated building. After the roof collapsed during a snowstorm in 1997, the city ordered the market demolished.
Somehow, the hotel hung on. When I first saw it a year ago, it stood alone on its stretch of Ridge Avenue. But as a tsunami of construction has swept down the corridor, the former hotel has become embedded in a new urban ensemble of modern apartment buildings. The hotel was a shell when Benny Construction acquired it in 2016, but the company has now converted it into 13 apartments. The ground floor will house a combination day-care center and dance studio, according to Emily Ou, the Realtor who represents Benny.
The building is not listed on the Historic Register, and Benny’s alterations are not completely faithful to Supplee’s design. It’s unlikely the ground-floor shop windows and steel awnings ever looked the way they do now. But such changes are small potatoes. By preserving the hotel, Benny Construction has enabled us to savor a piece of Philadelphia’s culinary history.