Dinner, dancing, and a police station. Out of context, these sound like the waypoints on a good night gone bad. But for a charming corner building at 215 S. 15th Street in Center City, this constitutes a lifeblood that has kept it alive for 153 years and counting.
The building is known to most Philadelphians as the former Bookbinder’s Seafood House, a restaurant and cultural institution that operated from 1935 to 2004. For a certain millennial-aged contingent, it was the Center City Applebee’s that moved in the following year and closed in 2020. Philly history devotees may know it was originally designed as something else entirely: a modernized police station that served as a crown jewel of the department when first constructed in 1870.
Now, after more than three years of vacancy, the building was transformed again this summer with the July 20 opening of VINYL Lounge & Bar, a new nightlight destination promising small-plate fare, DJs, and live music. With any luck, it will ensure the party at this four-story building, now the runt of a neighborhood overshadowed by skyscrapers, continues for the foreseeable future.
A Broad Street Revolution
The historical nature of 215 S. 15th Street first became official in 1984 when Philadelphia’s Broad Street Historic District was successfully nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Although the building wasn’t mentioned by name, its location near the corner of 15th and Locust Streets placed it within the confines of a historic strip running along Broad Street from Pine to Cherry Streets. That strip, the nomination noted, came into its own building-by-building in the 1800s, fulfilling a vision laid out nearly two centuries earlier when surveyor Thomas Holme first drew out grid lines for the city and placed a large Center Square at Broad and High (now Market) Streets. But throughout Philadelphia’s early life, the city’s civic and commercial nexus remained situated along the Delaware River waterfront in what is now Old City.
Then came 1824 when the Pennsylvania Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb opened at Broad and Pine Streets, now University of the Arts’ Dorrance Hamilton Hall. Its architecture, inspired by a Greek temple, makes it the oldest surviving building that “helped set the tone” for the coming Broad Street transformation, the nomination noted. “By the 1840s, additional cultural institutions were arriving as well,” it added.
Churches, the Academy of Music, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Union League, and the Masonic Temple all went up in the decades ahead. But none were more significant than City Hall itself. Its 1874 cornerstone laying paved the way for the “silent, weird, beautiful” building that would emerge, to quote Walt Whitman.
With the relocation of City government from the Independence Hall complex, so too came commercial institutions, laying the groundwork for taller Center City buildings designed by Frank Furness, James Windrim, Horace Trumbauer, and other renowned architects. These changes, in turn, also made the neighborhood the geographic center of Philadelphia’s public transportation networks, solidifying “the central role of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s commercial, institutional, and civic artery feeding the heart of a great city,” the nomination concluded.
But this grand transformation had its dark shadows. For its first century-and-a-half, Philadelphia had no official police force, noted a separate 1990 nomination to the local historic register for the former Bookbinder’s building. Prior to the creation of the Philadelphia Police Department in the mid-1800s, city residents remained skeptical of such a dedicated “Republican force” and preferred to police the streets themselves through the organization of night watches. This quaint way of keeping the peace would not survive. “By the third decade [of the 1800s],” the nomination states, “social and economic upheaval associated with mass migration, industrialization, and urbanization became manifest in numerous violent displays of crime and unrest.”
The violence included street warfare among more than 100 rival gangs, five major anti-Black riots and two major anti-Catholic Nativist riots within a 20 year period, and “frequent and bloody riots between members of different volunteer hose companies,” all of which occasionally required the calling in of militia to quell.
This new reality lead, over the period of several decades in the mid-19th century, to the creation, consolidation, and empowerment of a modern police force, the nomination noted. But this effort came with its own growing pains. When Mayor Daniel Fox toured the City’s police station in 1869, he found that more than 76,000 of the city’s residents sought lodging in the buildings by night, and “walk the streets by day gathering food by begging or as they can,” Fox noted. Inside the station he found “very deplorable conditions” he called an embarrassment to the city. Chief among them was the 5th District Station House at 15th and Brighton Streets, a precursor to the building that stands today. “The cells of the 5th District are in the cellar, dark, damp, and with no circulation of pure air whatsoever,” Fox wrote. “It is almost a wonder that either prisoners or lodgers endure the privations and atmosphere.”
Dingy to Dazzling
Moving at a speed remarkable by today’s standards, the dour conditions of the old 15th Street station would be completely transformed within a year. In an 1870 update, Fox proudly reported on the construction of a new police station for the 5th District. “From its very handsome appearance, instead of being regarded as a nuisance to the neighborhood, as the old one was, it is looked up as an ornament,” Fox wrote.
Credit for that goes to the building firm of Charles D. Supplee and Son. Charles was the building contractor and his son, Davis, was the architect. Curiously, the nomination also noted that a then chief of detectives named Benjamin Franklin, later head of security at Wanamaker’s department store, also assisted with the design.
What resulted was a four-story building designed in the Second Empire style. Notable on 215 S. 15th Street’s exterior are cornices, pediments, and a mansard roof visually linking it to City Hall, one of the world’s most prominent Second Empire works. Spiritually, the building also adds to Philadelphia’s Parisian flair, further accentuated with the creation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the decades ahead.
Similarly to City Hall, the 5th District police station also took several decades to come fully into form, with original construction completed in 1870, but a significant rear expansion following in 1898. Prized as a jewel of the department at the time, the nomination noted, the building today is the oldest surviving police station in Philadelphia. But unlike City Hall, its original function would not last.
The Bookbinder’s Schism
Geopolitical movements and riots in the streets be damned, the 15th street building would next be the setting of a uniquely historical Philadelphia conflict: the battle of Bookbinder’s. It is a tale that has been told many times.
In 1893, Dutch immigrant Samuel Bookbinder opened an oyster saloon that would later grow into one of the city’s most well known restaurants. It began on the Old City waterfront, where a seafood restaurant at 125 Walnut Street carrying Bookbinder’s name reigned at the top of Philadelphia’s food chain for decades, famously hosting everyone from professional athletes to movie stars to presidents of the United States.
In 1935, an inheritor of Bookbinder’s bequeathed the restaurant to Jewish Federated Charities, which eventually sold it to local businessman John M. Taxin. Two grandsons of Samuel Bookbinder couldn’t stomach the changes and scooped up the former 15th Street police station to open a new and competing restaurant, Bookbinder’s Seafood House. The restaurant became famous in its own right for its snapper soup, Maine lobster, and cheesecake. In the back was a wall of fame on which hung photos of celebrity guests who posed for pictures with Bookbinder family members. Added to the exterior front corner of the former police station was a marquee with clam-shaped ovals displaying the restaurant’s name and the depiction of a lobster.
Eventually, both Bookbinder’s locations would go belly up. The Old City location closed in 2009, but was reopened by celebrated chef Jose Garces as The Olde Bar restaurant, with much of the old Bookbinder’s left intact. In 2003, another family squabble helped precipitate the demise of the Center City location, clearing the way for a 15-year run as an Applebee’s, which ended with the expiration of its lease in 2020.
Bright Lights and a New Life
Over the past several years the building has sat vacant. In 2019, City records show it racked up three violations for unsafe structural conditions and neglect of a historic building, but passed inspection the following year.
In January the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a new VINYL Bar & Lounge would be moving into the space, developed by partners Rob Wasserman, restaurateur of Rouge and Twenty Manning, and Josh Zwirzina, owner of The Ave Live. VINYL received its business license in April and various permits this spring, including for the construction of interior partition walls, accessibility improvements, and structural work on the Chancellor Street side of the building. City records do not show the building’s ownership changing hands, instead remaining with 1419 Tower LP, a company that purchased it in 2005.
Visually, the building’s historic marquee has been kept intact and updated, with the three clam-shaped signs now advertising “Vinyl, Live Music, Cocktails.” In early previews of the updated space on VINYL’s Instagram account, the building’s historic shop windows remain intact, but glow with a colorful and shifting neon display created by visual artist David Guinn. An interior photo shows a swanky mix of wood and metal, dimly lit by chandeliers, and furnished with curtains and hightop tables and chairs.
Maggie Huth, creative director for VINYL, wrote in an email that the development team worked with Otto Architects on the designs, which, in addition to the marquee, took several other steps to honor the building’s history. “When designing the main visual elements in the space, we took reference from turn of the century architecture as a nod to the building’s history,” Huth explained. “The grand arched bar and antique chandeliers are specific examples. There was very little from the Bookbinder’s space after the Applebee’s remodel, but we did find a Bookbinder’s mural behind some of the drywall that is still preserved there behind the bar.” Huth added that there are “also some depths of the basement that were from the original police station,” but that they are not publicly accessible.