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.
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.).
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.