The eye catching sun room that wraps around the former location of famous soul food restaurant, Big George’s Stop-N-Dine, at 52nd and Spruce hasn’t seen a customer in 15 years. The building originally opened as a tap room in the 1920s and now stands as an unsung landmark of Philadelphia’s African American music history. After 94 years of changing hands many, many times, the building is still in good shape and ready for another encore.
Tapping in to a Burgeoning Corridor
South 52nd Street first established itself as a cultural and retail corridor in West Philadelphia in the early 1910s. It was built with the character of a bucolic, suburban town within the city. The noise pollution, crowded density, bad air, and dreariness of North Philly, South Philly, the Riverwards, and what we now call Center City was nonexistent there. Early residents of the area even tried to ban alcohol sales on 52nd Street in order to keep the area calm and pristine.
However, by the 1920s, with population growing, 52nd Street exploded with movie houses, drug stores, cafeterias, and bars. The realty company Brown & Leonard was one of the developers to take advantage of this growth. The firm was no stranger to retail development and began prospecting 52nd Street after building in almost every other part of the city.
Brown & Leonard’s go-to architect J. Ethan Feldstein designed 285 South 52nd Street in 1921, altering a preexisting house on the corner of 52nd and Spruce into a short retail strip. A tap room, whose name is long lost, was the building’s first occupant.
In 1935, local surgeon H.W. Schaffer purchased the building and continued to lease space to the tap room. After seven years, he sold the building to local businessman John J. Staraks. Shortly after the sale it was purchased by restaurateur Abe Engel who opened the Colonial Bar & Restaurant there.
Engel initially had difficulty opening the restaurant on the corner property. The previous tap room had operated without a liquor license from the then nine-year-old PLCB. Engel was immediately denied a license because the entrance to the restaurant was less than 300 feet from the Chapel of the Mediator at 51st and Spruce Streets, a common ordinance still upheld today. To remedy the issuance dispute Engel bricked-up the existing entrance and built a new one just a little further west. The PCLB insisted that the new entrance was still within 300 feet of the church. Engel brought his case before the Common Pleas court where Judge W. Curtis Bok (son of Edward W. Bok, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, editor of Ladies Home Journal, and namesake of Edward W. Bok Technical High School) overruled the PCLB and granted Abe Engel the liquor license.
In 1952, the corner property caught the eye of Morris A. Kravitz, the legendary retail developer and pioneer of the modern suburban shopping center. Kravitz planned to purchase and overhaul the building into a short strip of small stores, but the project never materialized. A decade later he developed the King of Prussia Mall in 1962 and many other suburban malls in the region. At the end of his career Kravitz’s retail portfolio totaled almost 15 million square feet.
The corner building continued to attract successful Philadelphia businessmen. In 1958, 283-285 S. 52nd Street captured the attention of William P. Mannion, who held on to it for only a few years before becoming owner of the Norcross Greeting Card company.
A series of bars and restaurants filtered through the first floor, and the 2nd floor was leased to several different offices and stores over the years. Rese Realty rented the second floor for most of the 1950s. The firm is still in operation today and located in Wayne, PA.
Jazz Joints and the Sounds of Sweet Philly
In 1962, new owner Marvin Weiner overhauled the second floor with renovations. (Weiner became well known in historian circles later in life for having the largest collection of pre-Revolutionary War American Literature.) He leased the first floor to Maxine’s Fashions, specialty custom apparel store, and the second level to John “Stan the Man” Watson, who established the Philadelphia soul recording label Philly Groove Records in 1967 with Sam Bell. The label is best known for R&B artists Delfonics and First Choice.
The building became part of the “52nd Street Strip” of jazz clubs in the 1960s and housed Coupe DeVille with the legendary Mr. Silk’s Third Base supper club operated directly across the street. (Mr. Silk’s was featured in the blaxploitation movie, Trick Baby, based on the novel by Iceberg Slim.) The T-J Cougar Lounge took over the space in the 1970s under the next owner Julian Harmon.
In 1979, Charles and Ruth Overton purchased the property and operated a restaurant there until a fire in 1985 caused serious structural damage. The building stood vacant for two years.
Southern Fried 52nd Street
George T. Wake bought the building and the old row house next door in 1987. Wake, known as “Big George,” spent the next year making plans for a soul food restaurant and renovating the fire-damaged building. The biggest change Wake would make was the addition of a “sun room,” a glass enclosure that would wrap around the corner. Because it encroached five and a half feet into the sidewalk, City Council had to pass an ordinance to allow it. Afterward, Wake went back and forth with zoning officials over the large sign that he would add to the façade.
Big George’s Stop-N-Dine opened in 1988 and immediately became one of the neighborhood’s most famous and celebrated establishments. Lines wrapped around the block on Sunday mornings. The breakfasts and desserts at Big Geroge’s Stop-N-Dine were considered by locals to be the best in town. Wake himself became a well-known philanthropist who contributed heavily to the community.
On February 13th, 1998, Big George’s Stop-N-Dine received national attention when then President Bill Clinton and Mayor Rendell stopped by with a cadre of Philadelphia politicians. They chowed down on $81 worth of Big George’s soul food. A crowd formed at the corner to greet the President Clinton who came out to shake their hands.
In 2005, Wake was ready to upgrade the operation. His plans included a massive renovation of the diner that would include an extension of the sun room into the building next door. Plans were initiated, contractors were engaged, and approvals went through. There was even a City Council ordinance signed by Mayor Nutter allowing the encroachment into the sidewalk by the new sunroom addition. Big George’s closed for the renovations, which did in fact begin, but the popular restaurant never reopened. Despite rumors in the press that it would reopen in time for President Obama’s visit in October 2008, Big George’s remained closed. In November of 2008, George Wake Incorporated owed the City of Philadelphia $223,897.57 in delinquent business taxes. Wake filed for bankruptcy with the United States Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania in August 2009.
The building has been listed for sale three separate times over the last decade and a half. It is currently on the market for $389,000.