Caryn Kunkle has a visionary plan for the city's most famously dilapidated building. One little problem: It doesn't belong to her.
Lastly, the actual property the Divine Lorraine sits on is located on several acres of land, backing up to Ridge Avenue. She plans to turn that into green space with an extensive sculpture garden. “Lots within the sculpture garden will be granted to community members for maintenance, reinvigorating many of Mother and Father Divine’s community goals and aspirations once again,” she says.
The idea is anything but modest—not to mention actually executing it. “A big idea like that needs to be tied into the other big ideas” already at play in Philadelphia, she says. “So what big ideas do we already have? We have something called the museum mile. And that’s City Hall, down the parkway through Love Park to the PMA. It’s literally one mile and you can … walk from City Hall and hit up the Barnes Museum; you can go to the Franklin Institute, you can go to the Rodin Museum, you can go to the Academy of Natural Sciences.”
It’s what’s inside the museum that counts. But she hopes it’s the natural setup of the city that could make PIMOCA a reality. The idea would change that museum mile, straight along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, into a “museum triangle.” From City Hall, down the Parkway, then down Fairmount, where you’d hit up the Pearlman, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Mural Arts Program, ending at the Divine Lorraine; then head back to City Hall along Broad Street.
“In one chess move, you instantly connect City Hall to Temple,” Kunkle says. “You concrete the Avenue of the Arts. You make the Avenue of the Arts North a contemporary campus for the arts, just like Avenue of the Arts South is a campus for theater and the performing arts.”
The museum triangle, if advertised that way, would create essentially a three-mile path with equidistant routes (City Hall to the PMA being one; PMA to Divine Lorraine being the other; Divine Lorraine to City Hall being the last) and play into the city’s walkability factor. “It would do fantastic things for the tourism market,” she says—a tourism market that relies heavily on art.
Kunkle’s vision has garnered some notable supporters. In an online video shot by videographer John Thornton in 2012, Sam Katz, a Philadelphia entrepreneur and former Republican mayoral candidate, can be seen in Kunkle’s living room with numerous other guests, praising her idea for the Divine Lorraine. “I remember watching Caryn and going, ‘Who is this person?’” Katz says. “She invited me to see her studio where one of her friends was producing the crashed airplane on Lenfest Plaza next to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. And I knew I was in the presence of a person with a lot of gumption and a lot ambition and a big heart.”
Another supporter: former governor Ed Rendell. He tells Philadelphia Weekly he’s only been aware of the idea for a few months, since he met Kunkle after she “cornered me” at a Ready for Hillary Super PAC event in Center City.
“[PIMOCA is] a particularly good idea if you’re interested, as I am, in saving the Divine Lorraine. I know the condition of the Divine Lorraine … it’s a wonderful building, and I think if you turn it into something, it would be a great asset for the city,” says Rendell, who believes Blumenfeld, the owner, should partner with a 501(c)(3) to renovate the building, then give creative control to Kunkle.
Rendell realizes Kunkle’s proposal is audacious: “You might say to yourself, ‘How can this 31-year-old woman raise the money necessary to do this?’ And I think part of it goes to her aggressiveness-slash-charm,” he says. “Part of it goes to the contacts she’s made working in Philadelphia. She has contacts with a lot of wealthy people. She has inroads with a lot of local foundations. You would see a great rally cry if there was a serious plan to save the Divine Lorraine and turn it into a combination museum and office space for art.”
Rendell also believes the building is too structurally damaged for a for-profit developer to take it over, believing a nonprofit raising funds for a culturally-significant purpose could oversee the creation of the museum.
Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, also finds Kunkle’s imagination and drive admirable. “The art world in Philadelphia needs people like Caryn who are committed and energetic and unstoppable,” she says. “She thinks this building could become a beacon for artists and a hub for art nonprofits. These are worthy ideas. Now, could she do it? I am not naïve—I do think this could be a complex and arduous journey, and I am not sure if it could happen.”
Golden has been leading the Mural Arts Program since the 1970s and says she’s reluctant to be a naysayer on any arts program in Philadelphia, especially considering how far she herself has come. She also believes that, whether or not Kunkle’s idea blossoms in full, it could still lead to something bigger down the road. “If Caryn could partner with developers,” she says, “and figure out some kind of live/work option—maybe part condo, part work and exhibition space for artists, part hub for art nonprofits—what could be bad? It seems like a win/win to me. It could be a beacon and a focal point. Certainly we would love it to be a place for cutting-edge public art.”
Indeed. If Caryn could partner with developers. So how about that?
When you go to visit Eric Blumenfeld at his Abbotts Square office, near Second and South streets, there are several layers of intercom and private elevator to navigate before you can get to the top floor, where he works. His office is big; there are photos and posters everywhere, and he keeps a Philadelphia Daily News—the one with his picture on the cover—on a small table next to his three cushioned guest chairs.
What does he think of Kunkle’s petition to take his building from him? His answer is a bit surprising.
“I’m weird,” he says. “I don’t get as territorial as you would think. And, I also—I love Caryn. I know her pretty well, and I love that she has a passion for our neighborhood, and I think that her ideas are really interesting... In order for her idea to come to fruition, she’s going to have to be able to back it up with the capital.”
Blumenfeld comes across as extremely personable and likeable. He speaks with a laid-back drawl in his voice and switches between a wide-eyed stare and a squint as he talks.
“But the idea that, ‘I’m going to come up with a use for your house and you’re in my way,’ is”—he looks for the right words—“you know. I turn 51 on Saturday [April 5], so I’m old. And I grew up in a different world where people read the newspaper, they eat a bagel, you know? … The idea of the blogosphere, anybody can say anything. You don’t have to back it up. You don’t even need to say who you are. But Caryn, at least, she stood by the stuff that she said.”
Make no mistake: Blumenfeld is not giving up the building. Still, he believes there’s a “silver lining” to the entire situation: The Divine Lorraine brings up so much feeling with Philadelphians. Many of us feel an emotional connection to it, whether we’ve been inside it, heard the stories, or just pass its crumbling walls on our way to work.
Blumenfeld has built up much of North Broad Street over the years, and he seems to genuinely believe that the Divine Lorraine can again be an international story and community. “If you’re looking for a canvas of urban life, what’s better than North Broad Street?” he asks. “So I appreciate that the Divine Lorraine has the magnetism to attract all these different conversations. It’s like a building, but it’s organic. It’s got a life. It’s a museum. So, for me, it’s my passion and my honor to be the captain of the ship.”
So, does he take Kunkle’s push to own 699 North Broad personally? “Maybe, if I didn’t know Caryn, I would take it personally,” he says, “but I know Caryn, and I love her and I think—you sit there and you listen to her, she’s sort of mesmerizing.”
Kunkle still believes she can get the city to declare eminent domain on the property. She says she’ll be continuing her quest through online donations and her petition.
Philadelphia zoning attorney Vern Anastasio, author of an online Philadelphia Zoning Guide, says it’s not that simple. See, eminent domain can’t just happen. First, the space and property needs to be declared by City Council as a redevelopment area. Then, it has to be deemed blighted. “It’s a very long and arduous, and expensive—for the city—process that involves the mayor, the redevelopment authority, and City Council legislation,” Anastasio says. “It would require the city to pay the owner estimated just compensation, not to mention dedicate hundreds of hours of city personnel resources just to take the property, and then you have to put it in the hands of a redeveloper who considers that kind of venture a money-making, worthwhile project.”
As far as zoning is concerned, the property would require a variance to build a museum. “I think it’s a nice idea,” he says, “but it’s pretty far-fetched.”
How long does he estimate something like this could take, start-to-finish? “Years,” he says, bluntly. “Because not only do you have to go through the entire eminent domain process, but the city has to find a redeveloper that can make it happen”—which would require putting up bids, developing plans, and then that redeveloper would have to get an attorney to get the zoning for it. Never mind the legal fight that the property’s owner would surely mount. “I think there are a lot of large, run-down factories around the city that would be a much better choice,” Anastasio suggests.
But to hear Kunkle tell it, another space isn’t good enough. The first floor of the building—not good enough. The plan she’s hatched up can only exist in the Divine Lorraine. And only the Divine Lorraine’s reinvention can change Philadelphia’s landscape forever—if not for the harsh reality of a real estate market that says condos along North Broad are a sure sell.
She’s not giving up. She sees this as an opportunity to show the entire world what sort of art center Philadelphia can actually be—not just a space where many a Temple student continue earning their stripes as urban explorers.
“If we can put together our philanthropy and collaborate our resources,” she says, “I think that Philadelphia could show the rest of the country what’s possible.”
As far as is apparent, she still does not have a Plan B.
Video: Caryn Kunkle explains her Divine Lorraine concept to Scrapple TV