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Then and Now

The Broad View

June 2024
1min read

A century and a half’s worth of commercial buildings energize Philadelphia’s main drag

This is the classic view of downtown Philadelphia, where a precisely defined perspective leads the eye north from Spruce Street down a South Broad Street lined with theaters and hotels to the towered City Hall. So many early pictures were taken from this exact spot that it’s easy to imagine a ghostly time-lapse series of photographers, including ours, all standing in the exact center of Broad and daring the traffic—from horse to horsepower—while lining up City Hall in their viewfinders. The version at left dates from around 1915 and was given to us by a generous reader who was clearing out an old house. A comparison with the modern scene at right reveals the permanence and loss that are the legacy of all such urban swaths. At the far left the old Horticultural Hall is gone, replaced in 1927 by a Shubert Theater that was refurbished in the 1980s as the Merriam Theater. The next structure on that side is a survivor, the Renaissance Revival Academy of Music, built in 1857 and the oldest musical auditorium still in use in the United States. The low roofline just beyond it was replaced in 1927 by 230 South Broad, an office building. Behind that in both pictures rises the mansard-roofed structure built as the Bellevue Hotel, which flourished until 1976, when it became the birthplace of Legionnaires’ disease. Eventually it was converted to a mix of shops, offices, and the smaller Park Hyatt hotel.

The right side of the street has fared less well. Missing today is the conical-topped Walton Hotel, whose exotic interiors featured a medley of styles from Elizabethan to Venetian Gothic. Opened in 1896, it came down in 1966, and the parking lot that replaced it gave way in 1983 to the outsized and brutally modern Hotel Hershey, now the Doubletree. Its sprawl includes a space once occupied by the wonderfully named Kiralfy’s Alhambra Palace, at the far right in the earlier photo, but you can’t blame the hotel for that loss. The theater, built in 1875, was gone by 1937, onion domes and all.

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