Caryn Kunkle has a visionary plan for the city's most famously dilapidated building. One little problem: It doesn't belong to her.
Once upon a time, the best way to sneak into the Divine Lorraine Hotel was from the 13th Street side. There was a chain-link fence that was easy to shim underneath, say some Temple students, followed by a low wall that could somewhat easily be scaled, and that was pretty much it: There they’d be, standing in the decrepit hulk of the once-beautiful landmark, now ravaged by decades of neglect, fires and weather damage.
Infiltrating the barbed-wire-fenced, century-old high-rise on North Broad has long been an illicit rite of passage for a certain type of student. It’s gotten harder since real estate developer Eric Blumenfeld re-bought the property in 2012, but it’s still doable. One student got in a few weeks ago, posted some fresh photos to Instagram hash-tagged #divinelorraine, and refuses to detail how she did it; she doesn’t want “every square in Philadelphia” following her.
Those sorts of photos—there are 1,390 Instagram posts tagged #divinelorraine; 488 tagged #divinelorrainehotel—are what’s often called “ruin porn”: images of abandoned or decomposed places that are sort of beautiful in their own way. That’s largely what the Divine Lorraine has become: a luxury apartment turned progressive-minded hotel turned architectural zombie standing ten stories above many of the apartment buildings in the lower end of North Philly where Fairmount Avenue meets Broad Street.
Caryn Kunkle has lived in that neighborhood since 2006, and she’s heard all the stories: the homeless people who’ve gone inside to live; the Temple kid who fell through a floor and broke his legs; the numerous fires that break out there each year. She wants to put an end to all those dangers.
But that’s not all she wants.
Kunkle, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts-trained artist whose work you’ve seen throughout the city, wants to restore the Divine Lorraine to its rightful place in Philadelphia culture and history. It’s a vision she’s been lovingly honing for years now: the building repaired, reinvigorated and reinvented as the “Philadelphia Interactive Museum of Contemporary Art,” a central hub for numerous nonprofits and art groups that would be open to the public and would, in her view, draw more tourism and industry to that part of the city.
It’s a bold plan, one that could fundamentally transform the city’s life as a cultural destination.
There’s one obvious problem, of course. It’s not her building.
After Blumenfeld—who’d previously owned the Divine Lorraine in the early 2000s, then sold it for “a lot more than I paid for it,” he says—reacquired it in October 2012 with the intent to restore it as an apartment complex and restaurant, he was genuinely interested in some of Kunkle’s plans. The two of them discussed what might be possible—including the alternate idea of using the Metropolitan Opera House building at Broad and Poplar—and finally Blumenfeld offered Kunkle the Divine Lorraine’s bottom floor: 5,000 feet of space to open an art space or museum.
She said no.
“My experience as a 30-some-year-old woman is that, oftentimes, when developers show an interest in my end of a project, they’re not really interested in me owning the building,” Kunkle says today. “They’re interested in me being a nice little girl, occupying 5,000 feet of space and keeping quiet—maybe having nice little social events. That’s not really what I’m interested in at all.”
Here’s what she is interested in, and nothing less: a nine-story museum at 699 North Broad Street in which city nonprofits and art groups would each hold some space, supported both by charitable foundations and visitor admission fees, thereby extending the Center City arts corridor and changing the tourism industry forever. And, she figures, if the building’s owner doesn’t see how her vision stands to benefit both the participants and Philadelphia itself—well, she’s prepared to get pushy about it.
In January, Kunkle launched a Change.org petition calling on local and state politicians, including Mayor Nutter, Gov. Corbett, state Sen. Farnese and state Rep. Bob Brady (whose districts represents the area), to “declare eminent domain on The Divine Lorraine in Philadelphia for an Interactive Museum of Contemporary Art.”
That is to say: She’s asking the government, in the name of the public good, to take the building from Blumenfeld, who hasn’t yet broken ground on his planned commercial refurbishing; compensate him; and give control of it to her to make this happen.
The petition has 750 signatures to date. Thus far—no surprise—city government hasn’t seen that as a particularly compelling reason to consider taking a multimillion-dollar property from its owner.
In an interview with Philly.com, Blumenfeld said he was “shocked this is news,” and that his plans to turn the Divine Lorraine into an apartment complex are “going on as planned.” In other words: If it’s up to Blumenfeld, Kunkle’s cultural renaissance probably isn’t going to go down the way she wants it to.
But—well, what if it did?
Kunkle has been working on her plan to remake Philadelphia’s tourist and art scene for two years. It’s been part of an ongoing open-table discussion at her Philadelphia Salon, a get-together she holds at her Broad Street apartment with, as she says, “everyone from millionaires to starving artists” with the goal of holding conversation and art critiques. Her proposal for the Divine Lorraine tends to elicit real, emotional responses from most everyone she pitches on it—including some seriously hard-hitting Philly bigwigs.
It would make a triumphant sort of redemption for a once-beautiful building that’s become a particularly unhappy symbol of Philadelphia: a monument to crumbling infrastructure and blight.
In 1893, the Philadelphia Real Estate and Builder’s Guide published an article summing up plans for the new Lorraine Apartments: “The new apartment house will be one of the most elegant buildings in the city. It will contain all the best features of a first-class hotel and home.” Original plans included billiard and pool rooms, offices, stores, parlors, a “swimming bath,” with floors made of “hollow brick laid between steel beams and overlaid with concrete, making a thoroughly fireproof structure.” The Lorraine’s architectural vision was a response to growing urban criticism that dozens-plus-level buildings were blocking light and air from the cityscape and, supposedly, creating an unhealthy environment for urbanites.
Soon after the Lorraine was built, North Broad—originally lined with mansions—began building up with libraries, clubs, catering, schools and new, short, apartment buildings. Many of those mansions have been converted into apartments, which, if you’ve ever gone in any of them, feature super-high ceilings and large, round rooms.
The Broad Street Line was built in the 1920s, which is around the time wealthy families taking up the corridors moved north and into the suburbs, as did a major neighborhood manufacturer, Baldwin Locomotive Works at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, which made a new home in Eddystone, Delaware County. Over the years—especially the post-World War II years—the area continued deteriorating, with industry moving out and federal housing agencies declaring much of North Philly blighted.
In 1948, Father Divine, an African-American religious leader, civil rights activist and radio personality, came to Philadelphia with fanfare, held a gathering at the Phillies’ old stadium at Broad and Lehigh, and proclaimed himself holy. That same year, Divine purchased the Lorraine with the goal of developing it into a racially-integrated hotel and living space. An Associated Press story on Dec. 2, 1948 noted he planned to run the hotel according to his own beliefs in racial equality, social justice and personal responsibility. It was the first space of its kind in Philadelphia. “Father Divine, his white wife [Mother Divine] and approximately 24 of his disciples moved into the hotel last night,” the AP wire said, “and Father Divine promptly announced ‘the hotel will be open to everyone.’”
Divine died in 1965, and his Peace Movement, though still active, began to struggle. Its philosophy of separating the sexes, no drinking, and no profanity didn’t jibe with people the way it once did. When the ’70s rolled around, other groups began moving in to claim territory—and members. (Jim Jones of “Jonestown” infamy led one of those groups. A proclaimed supporter of the Movement, Jones claimed to have become “Father Divine in a new body” during a trip to Philadelphia.) The building eventually closed outright in 1999, though one member of the Peace Mission, David Peace, stayed until 2006, maintaining it to the best of his ability.
Today, Caryn Kunkle still meets with Mother Divine at the older woman’s home, where she hosts open Sunday dinners. In fact, there are few Philadelphia heavy hitters whom Kunkle hasn’t crossed paths with during her years as a Philly-based artist and designer. After growing up in Mount Airy, she got her education at PAFA, working as both a construction worker and volunteer firefighter during that time.
Kunkle lives about a block away from the former hotel, and is worried about it going up in flames one day. “By building a museum of contemporary art that is specifically interactive, you can address all the problems of the Divine Lorraine,” she says, “and put an end to the danger and the misappropriation of the property that’s been going on for the last 20 years.”
But as you’d expect when you see someone vehemently determined to turn a decrepit, abandoned 10-story building into an interactive museum, there’s more to it than that.
Kunkle and her adopted brother were both brought into a Mount Airy family where, she says, even as an infant, theirs was a “household of math, science, logic, philosophy, history and religion.” Reading everything from the Bible to Roald Dahl at a young age, she remembers Matilda and the story of David and Goliath influencing her early years—especially as her brother suffered through schizophrenia and autism. One day, she recalls, he ate a “pee sandwich”—just what it sounds like—in front of some classmates, which left them both ostracized from the playground.
“Nancy Drew showed me the power of resilience, timing, boldness, cleverness, and how to outfox scamps,” she would later write in an essay. “I came to admire David, as my own Goliaths stepped forward … I learned during that post pee-sandwich time to halt a mocking crowd, divert authority figures who are good intentioned but wrong (or sometimes just wrong), love my enemy and turn the other cheek, or conquer a bully in turn.”
When high school came around, Kunkle was regularly mocked once more—this time, because her interest iin art had made her an oddity in prep school. So she became close with an art teacher before something else came along to take up her time. Joining a volunteer fire department “seemed like the next logical thing to do,” she says, and, early on, received a “girls shouldn’t run into burning buildings” talk from a higher-up there: “He pressed me to accept more time for physical tests. I asked him if he planned on slowing down the fire in my future too.”
She graduated as valedictorian of her Kutztown University class after spending her undergraduate years studying abroad and working carpentry during semester breaks, then got hired by the Mural Arts Program upon returning to Philadelphia. She went on to study at PAFA, and was both married and split by the time she graduated. She applied for a Fulbright scholarship; after sending out the application, she found herself on a beach in Mexico, where a fellow conversationist asked her: What’s your Plan B? She had no answer.
“I’m sitting there in this cosmic silent moment staring at a tiny scrap of my strong-points flapping in the breeze, and I KNEW,” she later recalled in writing. “I could invest my brain into building a Museum of Contemporary Art that puts the Salon into practice. An INTERACTIVE Museum. Why go brainbusting for a diploma? I could get to building my words instead of publishing them. And the best upside of all? The only overly-particular-perfectionist-ninny I would have to make happy with this dissertation is ME.”
(That last assertion, of course, is gloriously inaccurate.)
Back in Philly, she says, there were wealthy progressives who were willing to give their money to young people to make good art. She saw it happen when she helped artist Jordan Griska create the celebrated Gunman Greenhouse art installation, a Cold War-era plane remade as both a gigantic piece of steelwork, and a working greenhouse, at Broad and Cherry streets. The Divine Lorraine, then, would one-up that project, which has come to be the second-most visited sculpture in Philadelphia (behind Rocky). She calls the former hotel “a hulking giant of a building that no one has been able to take down or raise back up. A second Goliath.”
The term “goliath” could also be used to describe the Philadelphia arts industry. It brings $3.3 billion into Philadelphia each year, according to a 2012 report published by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. It supports 44,000 local jobs amongst 152 cultural nonprofits in the region, and Kunkle wants to host as many of them as she can.
The Divine Lorraine reimagined as an art stadium, she argues, could house every city arts nonprofit, would be both self-funded and get funds through mega-donors, acting as both a homebase for the arts and a museum—in a location where it’d make sense for the city to subsidize building via an eminent takeover.
The museum itself would have three tiers. A permanent collection “to be acquired through purchase, donation, and bequeathment,” according to the idea’s business plan, would be shown as “The Mamas and the Papas.”
Second, an on-loan program. “Our Collectors and Curators program will offer state-of-the-art storage to nearby organizations such as schools, artist studios, galleries, and nonprofits who currently collect art,” reads the plan. The building would also serve local art colleges and organizations as a place to store their archives for safekeeping—and display.
The third tier is the Philadelphia Salon—a larger take on Kunkle’s organization. This part would offer a source of income to the museum through art sales and would allow organizations to buy in a permanent space in the building to hold lectures, fundraisers, fabrication events and student exhibitions.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide