Photos: Ethan Wallace
When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter talked about getting the Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street cleaned up and reused, my first thought was “How close to City Hall does a blighted building have to be before the Powers-That-Be seem to care?” The answer, in this case, is exactly 1.1 miles according to Google Maps.
The Divine Lorraine is a wreck, yet it is fortunate in a sense, hard as that may be to believe. The building is close enough to Center City to be an embarrassment to city officials, a once-desirable property (it was sold three times in the ‘Oughts) that may become so again, and an object of fascination to the public–not a bad trifecta.
Yet not too much further north, in a much poorer neighborhood, stands another historic building on North Broad Street that has been left to crumble: the Beury Building. Also, historic, also once beautiful, the Art Deco tower appears to be too far from the heart of town to be saved. Indeed, photographers and history buffs aside, the building rarely gets talked about at all, except when people comment on the large “Boner 4 Ever” tag on its facade.
The building’s original name is the National Bank of North Philadelphia and it has towered over the intersection of Broad Street, Erie Avenue and Germantown Avenue since 1926. Architect William H. Lee had designed a number of the city’s opulent movie palaces, and created an unusual blend of Late Gothic Revival and Art Deco for the apartment building. The 14-story structure (the Divine Lorraine is only 10 stories) became known as the Beury Building after the bank’s first president, Charles E. Beury, (pronounced “Berry”) who was also once the president of Temple University.
Classic Art Deco trappings can still be seen on some of the walls, and one can still get a feel for the splendor from the ornate terracotta rooftop. Like the Divine Lorraine it is stained in soot, its exterior walls are marred with graffiti, its windows are broken and the lower level has recently been sealed. The inside has been mostly stripped and there is old evidence of some attempt at restoration. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since May, 1985, but has sat empty for two decades.
They say the key to real estate is location, and this is the Beury’s biggest problem. The neighborhood the Beury once crowned has become rundown, better known for crime and poverty than for the affluence it once enjoyed. When the State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden Streets was sold in 2008, the Beury was suggested as a new location to house 900 state employees. The project might have been the catalyst for revitalizing the neighborhood, but the $30 million price tag, and parking and security concerns doomed the idea.
The Beury is trapped in a common Catch-22. A restored and populated Beury could bring some much-needed income and traffic to a poverty-stricken area, but that same poverty make it unlikely anyone will invest there. Buildings aren’t saved by history and beauty alone; private development dollars often drive the process. And when a building stands vacant for more than 20 years, the market is saying that nothing will happen without significant government incentives–and even then it’s a long shot. So it seems the Beury will stand empty for the foreseeable future, a scarred and crumbling monument to the days when the corner of Broad and Erie was a prestigious address.
Editor’s Note: Homepage photo of the Beury Building by Steve Ives