A History of North Broad Street

North Broad Street has changed through time and through Temple.

Although this winter’s weather kept many Temple students inside for the first half of the Spring 2010 semester, the arrival of the sun has revitalized Main Campus. Broad Street is no longer a ghost town, but a place where students come to hang out with friends, show off and be seen.

North Philadelphia used to be the place to “be seen,” historical and forensics architect Robert Skaler said. On March 31, the Wagner Free Institute of Science presented part of its lecture series “A History of North Broad Street” to an audience of 80 people. Skaler used information from his book, Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South & North, and postcards from his 4,000-piece collection to revive 18th century North Philadelphia. The browning cards picture the many Victorian and grandeur homes that once lined Broad Street.

“North Philadelphia was a respectable area,” Skaler said. The area earned its reputation from the affluent people who lived there and used their fortunes to build enormous and elaborate mansions. His lecture took everyone on a walk from South to North Broad Street 100 years ago. Many of the Rite Aid pharmacies and gas stations disappear as gothic cathedrals are resurrected where they once reigned. The streets are again lined with train tracks and littered with people as they stroll between church, theaters, ballroom dances and afternoon cocktails with friends.

Nowadays, walking up and down the Avenue of the Arts is not all that glamorous. Instead of people, the streets are lined with trash. Much of the architecture, which used to be eye-pleasing in its heyday, is now rotting, abandoned and ignored.

Mansions and Mistresses
Once an amazingly beautiful building, the Divine Lorraine is the best example of a decaying masterpiece from 19th century architecture. The building was “the cat’s meow when built,” Skaler said. Designed and built by Willis G. Hale, the Lorraine was the tallest high-rise apartment complex in the city. It was home to many of the wealthy Philadelphia residents who accumulated their money during the Civil War. The Lorraine was once home for the elite, but its reputation changed drastically.

“Over time, the building was used to house mistresses,” Skaler said.

While many of the buildings from the past have aged, some still have held onto their 18th-century charm and are perfectly livable spaces. One building many Temple students have walked past, or even partied in, is a big part in North Philadelphia’s history. The John Stafford Mansion, better known as the home of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, continues to stand tall on the corner of Broad and Norris streets. The mansion, which has been dubbed a haunted piece of architecture by the Tri-County Paranormal Research Society, used to have a ballroom on the top floor that has since burned down.

“It’s sad to know what the buildings once were and see what they have become, but it is up to the community to help these structures stay alive,” Skaler said.

Preservation and Persistence of the Community
Many alliances came together to make the lecture possible, including: the Tyler School of Art, the Arts and Cultural Allegiance, Avenue of the Arts and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
“We’re reaching out to people who might not know about the history that surrounds them every day,” Shayna McConville, the coordinator of exhibitions and public programs at Tyler, said. “Our mission is to make North Philadelphia a destination.”

“The saddest thing was where it came from to where it is now,” local resident Pat Schuyler said. “The trash and dirt was never this bad.”

Temple and the Community working together
As Temple continues to build into North Philadelphia’s future, the university is keeping the community’s history in mind. With the restoration of the Baptist Temple, the university combines past and present elements in the overall image of its campus.

“Temple is doing a terrific job, but the students need to open their eyes and take in their surroundings,” Skaler said. He said the students at Temple need to do their part in keeping the historic buildings alive in the university’s memory.

The $29 million renovation will allow the Baptist Church to not only serve as a place of worship, but also as a performing arts center. By adding another art and musical landmark to the campus, Temple is making a powerful presence on the Avenue of the Arts and is becoming a destination spot as McConville envisioned.

“They are supposed to be expanding the Avenue of the Arts all the way up here, including Uptown Theater,” Chesney Davis, a senior journalism major, said. “I think that would be pretty cool if Temple became involved in the city’s overall plan for improvement.”

Stephen Rose can be reached at stephen.rose@temple.edu.

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