Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2019 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Unlisted Philadelphia highlights interesting and significant Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. To learn more about the local designation process and how you can participate in nominating a building to the Philadelphia Register, visit the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s website for more information.
BUILDING: Hotel Powelton
LOCATION: 20-24 N. 40th Street
ARCHITECT: Unknown (Thomas C. Sloan, Builder)
This impressive collection of Queen Anne turrets and Romanesque arches, constructed in 1893 as the Hotel Powelton, has a layered history. German immigrant Charles Sauer, who built the hotel, dispensed beer and whiskey from its corner tavern and fresh oysters on the sidewalk. In 1902, young doctor Albert Barnes and chemist Hermann Hille rented rooms there to set up a makeshift pharmaceutical laboratory for producing Argyrol, a silver-derived treatment for gonorrhea and other infectious diseases. After Argyrol’s stupendous success, Barnes purchased the entire building and converted it into a full-blown factory. For the cultural edification of his employees, he set aside special galleries to display his collection of Picassos, Modiglianis, and de Chiricos. In other words, some of the Barnes Foundation’s most famous paintings made their American debuts on these walls. (For more about this history, check out Vivienne Tang’s 2013 article in the Hidden City Daily.
After Barnes, the old hotel did a stint as the Powelton Cafe, a jazz club at the heart of West Philadelphia’s then thriving Black Bottom. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all played here.The building survived the University of Pennsylvania’s 1960’s “urban renewal” of the Bottom. The storefront now houses, fittingly, a pharmacy.