People think they know what the Parker Spruce Hotel holds, but a night in a room there provides a clearer view.
"Philadelphia?" she says.
"Yes," I reply.
So for my address, that's all she writes down. "Philadelphia."
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Parker Spruce. At the front desk, on this night, the place seems to be exactly what its critics think it is. But I've only just arrived.
Built in 1925, the Parker was designed as a 12-story, 209-unit "bachelor's apartment." Originally dubbed the Spruce, the residential hotel featured single-room accommodations with both shared and private bathrooms.
According to a period advertisement targeted at potential investors (see p. 24), "The demand for Bachelor Apartments is unusually great in Philadelphia and since the announcement of the construction of this hotel a large number of inquiries have already been received. Our tenants will be limited to men and we will cater to select and permanent tenants only."
The ad further boasts that "The Spruce" will have an exterior of "excellent design," a large doorway of "richly carved limestone" and a marble-floored lobby. The rooms will be modernly furnished and on par with "the high grade bachelor residences in the larger cities."
Today the Parker is generally regarded as a fleabag hotel, an eyesore and source of concern for the community.
The Washington Square West neighborhood, which runs from Seventh Street to Broad and Walnut to South, remains somewhat dominated in public perception by 13th Street, which despite vast improvements over the years continues to function largely as Philadelphia's very own old-fashioned Times Square, where locals and visitors alike can find porn shops, drug dealers and prostitutes. For many, the single largest symbol of 13th Street's many available vices remains the Parker.
"I think it's a derelict building," says Judith Applebaum, president of the Washington Square West Civic Association. "I think that probably the conditions people live in are horrific. We have, on a few occasions, asked the Fire Department and the Department of Licenses and Inspections to take a look, because our sense is that it's not a safe place to be."
Since only a small number of Center City denizens actually enter the Parker, most people's impressions of the building are influenced by what they see happening out front on 13th Street.
|Priced right: The Parker would cost approximately $10 million or more to build today.|
"What I see is that there are people hanging out in front of it," says Applebaum, "some of whom are clearly inebriated, some high on drugs. I don't know if they're the people who live in the building, but I do know that if there is someone who runs the building, they make no effort to discourage people from hanging out in front of it."
"There are always undesirables hanging out there, and not just at nighttime," says Washington Square West resident Teresa Valls. "You feel like you're running a gauntlet when you walk down that side of the street. It certainly doesn't improve the feeling of safety in the neighborhood."
Among Philadelphia police the Parker has been seen as a trouble spot for at least a couple of generations. "It's been a hub of deprivation and crime forever," says Michael Chitwood Sr., who worked the Center City district when he joined the Philadelphia police force more than 40 years ago. "We spent a lot of time down in Center City and in that facility back in 1967. It housed drug addicts, prostitutes, wanted persons. If there was a street crime in the area, the first place we would look was that hotel."
Chitwood, now the superintendent of police in Upper Darby Township, walked by the Parker again just a few weeks ago. "All the old cop memories came flooding back," he says. "It still looks the same--dirty and desolate. It was a toilet then, and it looks like a toilet now. It's a bust-out joint."
Chitwood's son and namesake has the same feelings. "Ah, the Parker Hotel," says the younger Chitwood, now chief of police in Daytona Beach, Fla. "The memories that place brings back."
The younger Chitwood calls the Parker "the end point of a lot of my journeys," saying, "we locked up many a person wanted in other parts of the country who somehow discovered the charms of the Parker Spruce."
Chitwood Jr. worked the 6th Police District some 20 years after his father, and later, when he was a supervisor of detectives, often returned to the Parker in search of wanted men. "It was a den of iniquity when I started on the force," he says, "and a den of iniquity when I left in 2004."