One woman's big dream to reinvent the Divine Lorraine—and Philly's art scene

Caryn Kunkle has a visionary plan for the city's most famously dilapidated building. One little problem: It doesn't belong to her.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Apr. 9, 2014

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Kunkle calls the Divine Lorraine “a hulking giant of a building that no one has been able to take down or raise back up.”

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

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.”

(Video: Caryn Kunkle explains her Divine Lorraine concept to Scrapple TV.)

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

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Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 12:44PM

“So: "state Rep. Bob Brady (whose districts represents the area)"

I'd change that to "U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (in whose district the building sits)", because (1) Bob Brady's a U.S. Congressman, and so (2) a "districts" doesn't "represents" anything.

Sorry to be nitpicky.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 12:50PM

“"...In order for her idea to come to fruition, she’s going to have to be able to back it up with the capitol.”


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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 01:06PM

“The premise of this story is pretty silly. She doesn't own the building, the developer isn't selling the building, so who cares what her "vision" is? Not to mention she's about the 6,951 person who "has a great idea" for the Divine Lorraine.

I have a great idea, I want to take over City Hall and turn it into a Paintball Zone. When will Philly Weekly write about me?

Also this piece is not well written at all, and at least twice as long as it should be even if it was worth writing, but the same can be said about Philly Weekly in general these days.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 01:19PM

“Serious questions: Did the writer put any effort or thought into this article? Did anyone edit this article? There are a number of factual errors in it but more importantly the basic logic and idea of it is flawed. Doesn't Philly Weekly care about what goes in its paper?”

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5. Onan-i-mouse said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 04:28PM

“Yo Anon! "More . . . [i]importantly[/i]? OH COME ON your own damn self! ;)”

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6. BZMama said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 07:24PM

“The difference is this woman has some lawmakers and countless other influential people interested.... Because her plan is well thought out and appears to account for every possible scenario to be encountered along the way. Instead of being the grammar police you may want to actually comprehend the writing... Just a thought to ponder... Or should that be take a moment to ponder that... Or.... Who cares how you choose to criticize the change you fear. Yes, that's what I meant to say.”

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7. BZMama said... on Apr 9, 2014 at 07:28PM

“Oh, and please let us know when you are ready. I just would love a game of City Hall 'Ball & am an excellent marksman ;)”

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8. stupid comments said... on Apr 10, 2014 at 08:35AM

““The premise of this story is pretty silly. She doesn't own the building, the developer isn't selling the building, so who cares what her "vision" is?"

So, by your standards, we should never talk about and give voice to anyone who has an idea but is going up against a tough opponent? Boy, if you were in charge MLK never would have made headlines, eh?”

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9. MCM said... on Apr 10, 2014 at 09:52AM

“If Kunkle's plan is getting enough attention, it may be worth covering to explain to people what the fuss is about (though by covering it, you increase the attention such that further coverage could, arguably, be warranted - a troubling feedback loop). But as a cover story?

I don't see that the above article has done a good job discussing the status or likelihood of the alternatives. I see a heavy focus on one person's vision, no indication of credentials or achievements to indicate her ability to pull off her plan, no examples of real, dedicated financial support, and no analysis of the logistics other than a brief summary of legal hurdles. There is barely any discussion of the owner's plans, track record, current status, or the impact that a fight against his plans would have on the space. And no other plans are mentioned, one can envision many different ideas for what should happen to that space. A cover-worthy story this is not, though with refocusing it could be.”

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10. Noah said... on Apr 10, 2014 at 01:29PM

“My undergrad thesis at Penn State's Architecture program ended may 2012. I decided to use the DLH as my epicenter for the renaissance of north broad. My mother's family comes from north broad in a time when it wasn't the torn and tattered part of the city's fabric that it is today.
As an inquisitive student of architecture with the best intentions I asked the locals; the father who has to walk his girls past this sad looking fallen star everyday doesn't want a fancy hipster art center with tourists everywhere. He wants it to be a hotel again. Not because he wants to stay there but because he doesn't want his girls to have to walk past such a reminder of their present plight. Where the article says "it's what's on the inside that counts" is such a dangerous train of thought. It COMPLETELY neglects all the impoverished neighbors in its plan. A bourgeoi art center , that sounds expensive!
As long as they maintain the spatial integrity of the top floor, I don't care anymore.”

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11. patrick said... on Apr 10, 2014 at 03:20PM

“Crazy. Table for one.

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12. BZMama said... on Apr 10, 2014 at 05:06PM

“There is an opportunity here for the entire city to come together.... Noah, your concern for the neighborhood residents (Miss Kunkle included) is appropriate. As one who has headed charitable organizations with members of differing viewpoints, I know first hand how change is possible. If that means it is piggy backed off of one persons vision so be it... So long as it addresses all of the concerns. I feel her current plan has merit. Any plan from one person can always be open to tweaking. She is just opposed to what has been proposed so far, from overall naysayers I would note. I see this as a catalyst for a real change at that property and to the city arts in general. A big positive. I do agree that the residents should have a voice. And anonymous... I simpy addressed your grammatical focus. I can't recall where race was an issue in anything you or I stated previously here. Perplexed? Especially as a woman who has interacially dated many times over. I am chuckling now. Thanks”

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13. swan tonamo said... on Apr 12, 2014 at 01:37PM

“Her plan is specious at best. The main goal being tourism doesn't magically trickle down to the surrounding neighborhoods in a way that makes the community that already exists better for the people living there; it pushes people out and just makes it "nicer" for the incoming gentrifiers. Look at Northern Liberties and the "Art Triangle", as she puts it. Remember when Mayor Nutter stopped food distros on the parkway right before the Barnes popped up? Remember when Dilworth Plaza was leveled to be turned into a tourist attraction, with the explicit intention of making it uninhabitable to all the homeless folks that lived there? Tourism is NEVER about helping the people in this city. I don't know what this womyn thinks she's doing for the city besides legitimizing the status quo. The city needs to stop bullshitting the world by making itself look nice for people that don't live here (i.e. tourists) and address the issues it loves to ignore so adamantly.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Apr 12, 2014 at 11:53PM

“So, this woman wants the local government to take someone's property, and then to transfer it to her because she has "a vision". Really? She has a lot of nerve. If I would be the owner, I would sue her in a heart bit. Under the U.S. Constitution, the property cannot be taken without the owner being justly compensated. As a taxpayer, I don't want my money should be used for such a nonsense as an interactive museum in the middle of a ghetto. I am 100% that the local authorities would never dare to use the eminent domain because it will be very hard to justify the taking in front of the court. There is basically no story here.
If she has a vision, she should risk her own financial stability or use the money of one of the millionaires from her "salon" to buy the property. She sounds like a delusional individual, and the fact that you published such a nonsense story on the cover it is both hysterical and very sad”

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15. Anonymous said... on Apr 13, 2014 at 12:08PM

“You are missing the point if you have negative comments. I'd like to think The Weekly did a cover story to promote her "vision" and bring attention to help reach the financial goal. Its impressive that someone believes they can extend an arts corridor in Philadelphia AND have a thoughtful idea.( And what a grand idea it is!) Neighborhoods thrive when artists pioneer and make them safe for everyone else. I admire her determination and hope this eventually becomes a reality.
Art is culture, unless you think more historic buildings should be converted into Walgreens.”

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16. Anonymous said... on Apr 24, 2014 at 10:46PM

“Philadelphia continues to expand and develop the community. Having an art triangle that maps out national landmarks in the city is a good vision. And I don't think she's trying to take the building from the owner, after all... it's an abandoned building right up the road from the Convention Center and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Taking the initiative to target rundown city buildings and make them work for the community works for me.”

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17. James Barlow said... on Sep 11, 2014 at 11:09AM

“This dream will ripen the real estate world. Thank you Ms. Kunkle for putting action to your dream and turning it into reality.

James Barlow,
Director of Business Development
At B.L.F.S”

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18. mak said... on Sep 26, 2014 at 09:45AM

“You know what would be really interesting? A story about the actual owner's plans for the development of this historic Philadelphia building. Since, you know, that might actually happen.”


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