Renovating any historic building in Center City comes with challenges. This was especially true when Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way Community Center at 1315-1317 Spruce Street, presented his “wish list” to members of Philadelphia’s largest and oldest LGBT organization and residents of the Washington Square West Community.
“Thanks to the support of Senator Farnese and Representative Brian Sims, we recently received a $1 million Commonwealth grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program,” said Bartlett. “At a time when our community has come under attack from the government, this grant is a very positive sign.”
Located in the heart of the Gayborhood, William Way’s rainbow flag is a sign of pride and progress. But its mission as a social hub of Philly’s LGBT community is at odds with the building’s Neocolonial facade, stogy interior, and Old World sensibility. How do you bring an architecturally significant building into the 21st century? That was problem leadership of William Way presented to Community Design Collaborative (CDC), which provides pro bono design services to nonprofit organizations in Greater Philadelphia. CDC identified renovation options and created an illustrated prospectus to share with the community.
CDC concluded that the layout of the existing building, with its long, narrow rear wings and tight spaces, presented significant challenges. Renovation is further complicated by the non-alignment of floor levels between the main section of the building and each of the rear wings. In addition to interior space planning issues, the building has a traditional Colonial Revival exterior designed for a private club, which limits connections between the street and interior activities.
During multiple meetings with William Way leadership, CDC came up with a plan to increase the total area by roughly 40 percent. It involved retaining the front portion of the existing structure and demolishing the rear wings along Irving Street. The plan preserves the most desirable portions of the building, while providing new facilities. Ultimately, the proposal presents an opportunity to mix historic and contemporary architecture. Looking at the cross-section illustration provided by CDC, the group of designers successfully found a way to bring light and new life to the 19th century building.
To create a more visible and welcoming presence on the street, while preserving the character of the building, ground floor windows will be enlarged and balconies will be added to upper floor windows. The lobby, ballrooms, and John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives will be enlarged, and there will be a first floor café and an atrium to bring in more light. The 2,178 square foot Mark Segal Ballroom is currently available for baby showers, political events, and community programs. “It is a centrally located, welcoming space, and we’re very affordable,” said Bartlett.
“Originally built in the 1840s, 1315 Spruce Street was razed in the 1890s to build a more opulent residence,” said William Way archivist and Hidden City contributor Bob Skiba. At the time, 1315 Spruce Street was the home of Benjamin Etting, a prominent merchant whose ships brought tea and silk from China. Next door, at 1317 Spruce Street, lived John B. Budd, another prosperous importer who shipped goods to and from the Caribbean.
In 1907, the Engineers Club of Philadelphia purchased 1317 Spruce Street. On the first floor there was a smoking and reading room, with a large dining room at the rear. (Skiba said that when William Way first took over the building, the aroma of cigars still rose from the carpets.) Ten years later, the Engineer’s Club purchased the adjacent townhouse at 1315 Spruce Street. The two properties got a major makeover in 1929, removing the 50-foot bearing wall that separated them and changing the design of the facade from Federal to its current Neocolonial style with an elegant limestone entryway. In the 1930s, the adjacent building at 1319 Spruce Street was torn down for parking.
The dark blue canopy of the Engineer’s Club was still on the building until 1989 when the club’s membership began to dwindle. It relocated, first to the Public Ledger Building, then to their current home at the Racquet Club on 16th Street. Meanwhile, 1315-1317 Spruce remained vacant until 1996 when it was purchased by William Way, previously known as the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, which had been located at 201 S. Camac Street and then 325 Kater Street.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, the property’s interior still exudes a men’s club vibe. Wooden ceiling beams, marble stairs with carved wood banisters, and heavy wood doors date back to the 1890s. Preserving the building’s architectural history, while making the space more functional, requires significant funding.
“Our archives has almost completed renovation thanks to a $300,000 William Penn Grant,” said Bartlett. “The $1 million Commonwealth grant will allow us to complete Phase One of our renovation plans, which focuses on the front part of our building facing Spruce Street. For Phase Two we will launch a $2 million capital funding campaign to demolish the back two-thirds of the building.” Phase One will start in 12 months and is slated for completion in 2022.
Fans of the mural on the Juniper Street side of William Way depicting the Gay Pride Festival need not worry. Pride and Progress, painted by artist Ann Northrop in 2003 as part of the Mural Arts Program, will be preserved or recreated if necessary.
“Philadelphia has become an international destination for LGBT and we are thrilled to have an opportunity to build space for the community that will serve us well through the rest of the 21st century,” said Barlett.