Mid Mod Prison-Motel On The Schuylkill River Paroled

 

In 1997, the University Motor Inn, built in 1960, was converted into a secured facility for work release inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System. | Photo: Michael Bixler

If you’ve ever crossed the University Avenue Bridge or taken a boat ride down the Schuylkill River you may have noticed an odd, Mid-century Modern building on stilts wading out from the shoreline. This curious box was built in 1960 as a motor lodge geared toward the families of students and visitors of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1997, the building was taken over by the Philadelphia Prison System for their University Avenue Facility, which closed three years ago. The old motor lodge now sits vacant, waiting for either a bright idea and a brilliant renovation or the wasting of opportunity through neglect and decay.  

In the late 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold off a segment of land along the Schuylkill River that they had owned for seven decades. A portion of it went to PECO, but the majority of the parcel was sold to Stanley Slote of Hartsdale, New York, a developer and builder who ran the Scarsdale, New York-based Crossway Construction Company. The firm was known in the Westchester County, New York area for building hundreds of homes targeted to middle income buyers having trouble finding affordable housing in the affluent area.

Slote was establishing a national chain of hotels called Crossway Motor Inn. Due to its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, the motel on the Schuylkill River was named the University Motor Inn. White Plains, New York architect Henry H. Moger Jr. was commissioned for the design, who fitted the long, slim, 90-room motel with a pool, bar, restaurant, lounge, and a large parking lot. Moger was quite prolific in New York City and Hudson Valley. He is best known for designing the IBM facility in White Plains.

Postcard photo of the University Motor Inn when it opened in 1960. | Image: Ebay

After a little tussle with the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustments over building a motel on a site zoned for industrial use, the project was approved for construction in March 1959 and completed in 1960. The design, in its original configuration, is one of the nicer examples of Mid-century Modern architecture orbiting the core of Center City. A series of low-pitched and sloped roofs cover three stories of 13′ x 17′ rooms that jut out over the river, with one floor below street level. Large windows open into the hallways on the east side of the building. The pool and lounge once faced the parking lot.

In 1961, University Motor Inn was doing so well that an addition was proposed that would have provided 57 more units, but it was never built. In 1964, the motel, now called Crossway University Inn, was sold to Penn. It is unclear why the successful motel was put on the market, but it may have something to do with Stanley Slote’s mid-life career change from developer and builder to writer and teacher. He earned his PhD from Rutgers University and wrote Weeding Library Collections: A Selected Annotated Bibliography for Library Collection Evaluation, a well-known book among librarians. Slote had a third career change as an efficiency consultant for small businesses. He died in 2016 at the age of 99.

Penn reused the University Motor Inn as a dormitory for medical students, but this only lasted a short time. The university closed the dorm in 1971 with the intention of renovating the building for another motel with additional rooms and a two-story addition for event space. Penn abandoned the plans and the property was leased in 1973 to the West Philadelphia Community Mental Health Consortium (aka Consortium Inc.).

The University Avenue Facility was closed in 2014, and the old motor lodge now sits vacant. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Consortium Inc. purchased the motel in 1982 and turned it into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center with vocational workshops, clinical offices, and a cafeteria. They occupied the building for 14 years, the longest, single use in the building’s history. Geri-Med acquired the property in 1987 and used it much the same way Consortium Inc. did, providing services for mental health patients instead of drug rehab patients.

In 1997, the property’s current owner, the Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation, purchased the old motel and reengineered it into a halfway house for 180 qualified work-release offenders. Inmates were mandated to participate in a community re-entry program provided by Firetree, Ltd, a nonprofit that engaged inmates with vocational training, job placement, counseling, and life skills education. An unused portion of the parking lot became a public lot with valet service. Other organizations took over the re-entry programming over the next several years.

After a brief shutdown, the prison reopened in 2005 and continued using the facility until closing for good in 2014. Today, the old University Motor Inn sits gated and vacant with no apparent plans for reuse in the works.

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.

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28 Comments


  1. Great story about another “mystery” building!

    As for why the motel changed hands in 1964, it may have something to do with the fact that the Inn’s reputation was tarnished when Dom Parry, the manager of the Crossway Motor Inn’s cocktail lounge and Virginia Walters of Horsham were arrested in the bar in 1963, then indicted by a grand jury on charges of prostitution. It seems Parry, who was president of the “Four Fours” management which ran the lounge, would “send men” up to her room while he was working. Further testimony revealed a whole crew of call girls operating there. The Inn had its liquor license revoked and closed in April of 1965. It was leased to Penn in November.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I’ve wondered for years about this building. Such an interesting building, and even more interesting story!

  3. Very interesting story and it still looks good as the postcard of 1960. This could spark developer interest today. If the piers are in good shape and holding, the existing building on top of the piers could be torn down and something of interest could be built. It would depend on what the zoning for this site is, especially the by right privileges of the zoning were a developer to bypass negotiating with the local RCO. Assuming the by right is three stories and assuming the existing structures are in reasonably good shape, apartments could be constructed inside the existing buildings and that would be priced accordingly to attract professional people or people working in temporary jobs. Model for this would be a Holiday Inn type of building for those renting apartment or living in one temporarily until employment is ended on schedule. There would be provisions aimed at banning use of the apartments for prostitution and given the fact it is located near Manayunk such behavior would be unlikely to happen.

  4. I really enjoy reading stories like this, thanks for the investigation!

  5. Or the RCO would approve six stories in all for the site, an additional three stories over the existing three stories. This would make it worthwhile for developer to build as apartments.

  6. Great story. The motel is visible from the 34th Street bridge, not the Grays Ferry bridge.

  7. Thanks for the profile. I am familiar with the building from teaching classes there a few years back when it was a Phila. Prison System work release facility. I hope planning future uses will take into consideration how this building is pragmatically situated for its more recent uses as a residential facility for stigmatized populations, with its central location and lack of neighbors who would object to its presence.

  8. I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Scarsdale, and am now back in Philly — imagine my surprise and delight to find today’s Hidden City article with a connection between my two hometowns!

    There is a ~.6 mile long road in Scarsdale called Crossway – I wonder if there’s a connection with Slote? Interesting choice for Slote to commission a Westchester architect, too, though that was likely due to the circles he was in at the time.

    Thanks for your research on this building — hope to see a new use for it soon.

  9. Really glad you covered this,thanks! There is a great view of the motel from the opposite bank of the river on a little observation deck that is part of the Gray’s Ferry Crescent trail.

  10. Great story! When I canoed by a few years ago I received “hellos” from the windows.

    Due to the location with the onramp to 76, it seems like a difficult spot to develop. But I would love to see a Schuylkill marina with boat launch…

    • That is probably the best use for the property as nobody wants a motel there. They can demo the three stories and use the pier to proceed on with construction of slips, climbing stairs for boaters to use. Had it been in Manayunk which I thought it was located at, I am sure it would be an apartment conversion.

    • When you canoed that stretch of Schuylkill, where did you launch from and pull out? How was your trip?

  11. Great findings – this mystery modern finally gets its due here on Hidden City! It’s such a fascinating building with the piers on the riverfront. I don’t know what it would be like to stay in that basement level and face the water at night but I would like to find out. It would be a great site as seasonal “haunted house” similar to Eastern State.

  12. Seeing as this is adjacent (just dip under the railway bridge) to Penn med and basically directly across the river from Pennovation’s campus (and the crescent trail which will someday connect to Schuylkill trail) Penn will ultimately scoop this up for some purpose. Maybe they’ll connect the far side of the sidewalk (and the baseball field) to the river and build a pedestrian bridge across the river. Doubtful I know. I jog across 34th St bridge all the time, and it’s OK. Regardless, I expect Penn is drumming up something.

  13. Historical site~this is the site where former Eagles ? Sonny jurgeson Tom Mc Donald and Pete Retzlaff got caught with prostitutes forcing their trade// eagles practiced a crossed the street at that time

  14. Divine Lorraine & The Beury building have always been in the back of my mind. Does anyone know of any other great places like this in Philly?

  15. great story.. and now to use it before its in total collapse

  16. I see no reason for it not to resume service as a motel, which is something we sorely need. Tourists would be happy to have it. It would also be great as an apartment complex for low-cost apartments, especially if it has a pool and diner/lounge. In fact, it would be perfect for seniors. If the construction is sound enough, it should not be altered but returned to use. If the walls are thick enough, it would serve creative people nicely, making a nice community. I’ve never seen this, it is certainly an oddity, but to overlook the river is quite charming, indeed.

  17. Great story about a unusual building. Its not a great building, its probably not a ‘historic’ building, but it certainly is slightly weird and I’m glad to know its history.
    Any ideas how they got permission to build in the river?

  18. The University Inn’s reputation, as referenced above by Bob Skiba, was well established in the Philadelphia sports community, particularly with the Eagles who played nearby at Franklin Field. If I remember correctly, Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo may have informed the Eagles that a player could be implicated in the activities going on at the motel. The mysterious trade of QB Sonny Jurgensen to the Redskins in April, 1964 may have been the result.

  19. Wonder if any part of the building has been untouched since it was a Motel, or any elements since it was a Motel can be visible? Perhaps a room was left in the format it was when it was a motel.

  20. I somehow missed this article when it came in my Hidden City mail, but I coincidentally stumbled upon it today right after this discussion on my flickr stream! Cosmic!
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexandrajones/39679259911/

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