Ben Franklin Ballroom Restored To Splendor

Posted: December 08, 1988

Last year at this time, the Crystal Ballroom of the old Benjamin Franklin Hotel was merely a memory. Developers had converted it to ordinary office space.

But today, the ballroom is back, resurrected because of pressure from the National Park Service.

The park service notified the hotel's developers that unless the ballroom, as well as the original bronze finish on the building's exterior, was restored to its previous appearance, the Ben Franklin rehabilitation effort would be declared ineligible for $11 million in federal tax credits.

According to Albert Eisen, one of the lead investors involved in transforming the old hotel into an apartment/office complex, the cost of restoring the ballroom has added $350,000 to the $45 million expense of the rehabilitation project.

In addition, the investment partnership would have to swallow the initial cost of converting the ballroom into office space and any future money that the project would have received by renting the space out to office tenants.

The investors quickly decided those costs were small compared with losing the tax credits, according to Eisen, executive vice president of Strouse, Greenberg & Co.

Without the tax credits, Eisen said, the entire project would not be financially feasible.

The developers - Altman Properties in Glenside, Eisen and real estate broker Albert Gilbert - had obliterated the ballroom by turning the huge space into two separate floors. The old Crystal Ballroom had a mezzanine level that ran across three walls. A new steel and concrete floor was constructed at that level.

In addition, the developers had decided to cover the old bronze storefronts - considered the height of style when the hotel opened in 1925 - with a ''glitzy-eighties" coat of gold paint.

It is the Park Service that decides whether to approve any project for a federal investment tax credit of 25 percent of the cost of a historic rehabilitation. In this case, the agency didn't become aware of the work until the project was completed.

"But when we heard," said Park Service architectural historian Dennis Montagna, "we notified the developers that if they wanted that tax credit, they would have to demolish the new floor and remove the gold paint."

According to Montagna, the tax credit law does not require an historic structure to be totally restored to its former glory. In the case of the Ben Franklin, the Park Service had agreed that 1,200 hotel rooms could be converted to 416 apartments and five floors of commercial space.

"We are mainly concerned about preserving the character of the former public spaces," Montagna explained. In the Ben Franklin, that meant the

exterior of the building, the ballroom, the lobby and the old Garden Terrace restaurant.

"Those spaces can be put to new uses," he said, "as long as their previous appearance is maintained."

Montagna said that final decisions had not been discussed for those spaces when the developers went ahead with the work.

The ballroom and bronze work should be totally restored by the end of this month, said Eisen.

The three huge bronze and crystal chandeliers that gave the ballroom its name will be back in place - cleaned, polished and rewired. The decorative plaster work atop the columns that rise in the ballroom has been repaired. And the last of the gold paint will disappear within the next few days.

The Park Service already has approved the restoration work in the lobby and the Garden Terrace. The lobby has been repainted in nine antique colors and three types of gilt.

The Garden Terrace has been converted into office space for McGettigan Travel Service.

Those offices have walls that rise only nine feet, said Eisen, so that visitors will still be able to see all of the old ceiling.

No tenant has yet been found for the ballroom area, said Eisen. "A caterer has expressed some interest in leasing it. But that is still undecided."

Whoever rents it will have the satisfaction of occupying a room considered important enough to become an $11 million issue. "We're very pleased about the way this has worked out," said Montagna. "It's nice when something that has gone down the drain comes back."

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