In light of a grim analysis by Axis Philly of the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s expansion as that with financial troubles and a bleak forecast, it’s especially bittersweet to reconsider the buildings lost to make way for it. The still empty and deteriorating Liberty Title & Trust Building at Broad and Arch Streets is the only structure on that block to survive the 2011 expansion that destroyed the beautiful, historic Race Street Firehouse and Romaldo Giurgola’s renowned brutalist Philadelphia Life Insurance Company building, among others.
One of those others is the Odd Fellows Temple, on the southeast corner of Broad and Cherry, which was dedicated on May 21, 1895, 118 years ago today. I developed a soft spot for this temple long before it razed and have a bit of an archive on it, including two books issued when it was going up. Knowing the building’s history made its destruction in 2008 all the more difficult to accept.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was a benevolent (though secretive) charitable organization founded in 18th century Britain whose members helped those in need, particularly families of factory workers, farmers, and orphans. In the 1800s, English members of the order expanded the society to North America. Like other similar fraternal groups, they inaugurated lodges in Philadelphia, New York City, and other east coast cities.
The Broad Street corridor north of the yet-to-be-finished City Hall became one of the most opulent in the city by the end of the nineteenth century, home to gentleman’s clubs and secret organizations. With construction starting in 1868, the Masonic Temple at Broad and Filbert was the first of them.
Odd Fellows of Philadelphia built their hall one block north of the Masonic Temple. They had been meeting in a building at 140 North Sixth Street for some fifty years, but, finding this place inadequate for their growing association, the local I.O.O.F. membership purchased the Broad and Cherry property in 1888. They bought it for $140,000 from the Reading Railroad, which had a freight station on the site for decades. (In 1862, the depot had been rebuilt for use as a hospital to treat injured men during the Civil War. The Broad Street Hospital closed in January 1863 after the completion of Mower General Hospital in Chestnut Hill, but reopened briefly following the Battle of Gettysburg.)
A few years passed until the Odd Fellows broke ground on December 12, 1892. Members laid the cornerstone on July 18, 1893, a momentous day complete with proclamations, poems, orations, music, and prayers. A 96-page souvenir volume was published, a copy of which I own.
Finished in 1895, this Italian Renaissance building was soon regarded as the finest Odd Fellows hall in America: “It is doubtful whether the Independent Order of Odd Fellows have anywhere else a structure which will compare with it.” And 20 years later, the temple was still pictured on post cards.
The first three stories of the classical eleven-story building’s outer walls were made of marble. The remainder was built of buff Pompeian brick, with light colored terracotta for the pilasters cornices and other ornamental details. This was all in contrast to other buildings nearby, including City Hall, the Masonic Temple, and Arch Street United Methodist Church.
Though imposing, the Odd Fellow Temple was deceptively squat and small. Besides four floors rented out for offices, the building offered fifteen luxurious lodge rooms, two encampment rooms, and over a hundred offices for lodge purposes. Its first-floor auditorium, seating 2,000 people, provided the venue for lectures, concerts and the like. A drill room was under the auditorium and a restaurant was on the tenth floor “for ladies and gentlemen.” The architects were Edward Hazlehurst (or Hazelhurst) and Samuel Huckel.
The building’s impressive dedication ceremony on May 21, 1895, drew several thousand spectators, with similar festivities as two years before. The New York Times reported that some 100,000 men and women (members of the Daughters of Rebekah, the feminine branch of the Odd Fellows), were in the city to participate in the dedication festivities. “The central idea was the erection of an altar dedicated to purity,” said the Times.
The Odd Fellows were so proud of their new hall that they almost doubled the size of the groundbreaking’s souvenir book with a 154-page illustrated book for the day’s event: Souvenir Commemorating the Dedication of the Odd Fellows Temple (1895). I own a copy of this lovely hardbound volume too, but an online version is at Google Books and modern reprints are also available. It is fascinating—and sad, in a way—to read about the planning and care that went into raising this structure.
The Odd Fellows believed that their fireproof building would last for hundreds of years. The following quote is at page 39-40:
The building is without a peer in the whole range of fraternal buildings, and to attempt to describe it would also consume more space than the Souvenir would admit of. If you will walk through it you must allow at least two hours, and what one can see in that time cannot be described in a few pages of this book. Over a million of dollars has been raised and expended. The greatest panic the world has ever seen [the Panic of 1893] has been successfully passed. The finest and best of materials have been gathered, and the best workmen have manipulated them, until, inch by inch, brick by brick, the Temple has come up out of the ground, arisen to its present proportions, and to-day it is not only gratifying to the Order, but is a notable addition to the architectural beauty of this city.
Membership in the I.O.O.F. declined in the early to mid 20th century, but the organization still exists in this country.
Meanwhile, the edifice was apparently the object of a receivership sale in 1909, although the Odd Fellows continued to meet there. It then became called the Parkway Building for a time. In 1911, one of the building’s tenants was the Philadelphia School of Wireless Telegraphy; the Navy took over the school to train its radio operators during World War I.
The building was sold again in 1918. Odd Fellows activity there then ceased, as members were ordered out of the building before the first day of March, 1920. (The radio school moved out then too.) The edifice was fully converted into office space and a host of businesses, many related to technology and communications, moved in, establishing sales offices and the like.
Another type of company to use the building was the Sweeten Auto Company, which directed some of the renovations. During the reconstruction in 1922, parts of the tenth and eleventh floors and a wall collapsed, injuring several workers and killing two. Inadequate shoring of a wall girder was blamed. The accident was reported in several engineering journals.
The former temple subsequently became known as the City Center Building, at least until the 1960s. Sometime along the way, its roof balustrade was removed and the façade was redone. The building was purchased in 1983 for $3.5 million by a New York developer.
A commemorative plaque extolling the historic importance of the Odd Fellows Temple was installed in 2005. But it didn’t forestall the end. When the building was demolished without much note or protest in 2008 for the Convention Center expansion, preservationists and others decried its destruction. Inga Saffron wrote about it in her column. And in its place, we have a now doubled Convention Center struggling to attract conventions.