In 2008, Frederick Oster happened to be walking past 507 South Broad Street when he saw a sign that read, “Auction Today, 1 pm.” It was noon. Oster immediately called his wife. An hour later, they placed a bid. It didn’t matter that the property was sandwiched between a fast food joint and a senior center. Oster saw its potential. His business, Vintage Instruments, had outgrown its space on Pine Street. “We weren’t the highest bidder,” he said, “but three months later we received an invitation to bid on the property again.” That too fell through.
As it turned out, the vacant mansion on Broad Street, just south of Lombard, is connected to Father Divine. Yes, that Father Divine, whose Divine Loraine Hotel lights up the night sky on North Broad Street. Board members of Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement were eager to liquidate 507 South Broad Street, which was owned and used by Circle Mission Church, one of six churches incorporated under the aegis of Peace Mission, for over half a century. They invited Oster and other bidders to meet with them again. “They asked each bidder what we intended to do with the building,” said Oster. “When I explained the nature of my business–buying, selling, and repairing vintage musical instruments–they said, ’It’s yours!’ ”
Call it “divine intervention.” Oster hadn’t been the highest bidder. But anyone who steps through the doors of Vintage Instruments is aware of the symbiosis between the property and its owner. The same passion for authenticity and historical research Oster applies to vintage instruments, he channels into the restoration one of the last remaining mansions of South Broad Street’s Millionaire’s Row. “Father Divine had not done anything to improve the property,” said Oster. “But he hadn’t done anything to ruin it either.” All of the original architectural details, including period light fixtures, stained glass windows, and tile fireplaces were intact.
“People often mistake this for a Frank Furness building, but the architect was George Pearson,” Oster said. The stately, red terra cotta mansion was designed as an addition to the home of James Dundas Lippincott and his wife Alice at 509 South Broad Street. Construction began in 1882 and was completed around 1886. The adjacent mansions were connected until 1906. Oster speculated that the Lippincotts lived in 509 South Broad Street and that 507 South Broad Street was Alice’s “party house.”
As members of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent families who devoted their time to philanthropy and entertaining, the addition to the Lippincott home spared no expense. The interior woodwork was milled and carved from oak, chestnut, and mahogany. Decorative fireplace tiles bear the mark of J.&J.G. Low Art Tile Works of Chelsea, Massachusetts. The light fixtures were designed to use both gas and electricity. The stunner? A 10 x 20-foot stained glass sky light that can be seen from every floor due to the mansion’s atrium design.
By the time the property fell into Oster’s hands, it was covered in grime. He didn’t just clean it. Oster painstakingly restored the mansion to its original elegance. “I ordered wallpaper from Bradbury and Bradbury, a company specializing in period reproductions,” said Oster. Alice Lippincott would be delighted to see a reproduction of wallpaper designed by Christophe Dresser of London, which was first exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. She would also give a nod of approval to the furnishings, rugs, etchings, and paintings, which are well suited to the late 19th century architecture. The “wow” factor is inescapable. Once you walk through the front door, you go back in time.
“The sense of history in a building with unique architectural appointments makes for a great space to peruse, enjoy and listen to instruments,” said Oster. A vintage instrument consultant for Christie’s for 25 years, Oster displays his vast collection of instruments in antique showcases that come from prominent 19th century Philadelphia dealers. “Whenever a dealer goes out of business, I buy,” said Oster. Every floor of the four-story building is filled with violins, cellos, guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and harps dating back to the 17th century. “Besides string instruments, we also work with 19th century woodwinds and brass, and a wide range of historical instruments,” said Oster.
One large room is dedicated to Martin Guitars. “Guitars from the 1920s and 1930s are most in demand,” said Oster who recently sold a guitar to Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. “Every musician who passes through town stops by or sends their roadies who are also collectors,” he said. Oster also tracks down rare violins and cellos for members of symphony orchestras and students at Curtis Institute of Music, but his roots are in folk music.“I grew up in Lafayette Hill and started out playing guitar, mandolin, and five-string banjo in the 1970s,” he said. “Back then, vintage instruments were all anyone could afford. New instruments were expensive.” Oster started buying and selling vintage instruments while he was a student at Farleigh Dickenson College. “My first shop was a 2nd floor studio in Chestnut Hill in 1974. Then we moved to a larger space on Walnut Street before moving to a 1860 townhouse on the 1500 block of Pine Street. In 1996, we expanded to a second townhouse on Pine.”
Vintage Instruments’ current location, with 12,000 square feet, has the spaciousness and opulence of a museum. Each room has a specific purpose. A room to shop for cellos, another for violins, and a cozy, rose-colored room for well-known musicians who want to try out instruments in total privacy without being seen. The mansion also contains the largest vintage instrument library in the region. Meanwhile, in a quiet, light-filled workroom on the third floor, staff members work with the dexterity of surgeons expertly repairing and maintaining violins and bows.
If you are having trouble placing 507 South Broad, here’s a clue. Its north wall displays one of the most beautiful murals in the city, Theater of Life by Meg Seligman. And, if you’re wondering whatever happened to the Lippincotts, they are resting peacefully in Section 7 of Laurel Hill Cemetery.
A look inside Vintage Instruments on South Broad Street. Photographs by Michael Bixler