Building Was Never A Picture Of Health

Posted: October 22, 1991

These are the final days for the old Philadelphia Athletic Club building at Broad and Wood streets. It is scheduled to be torn down at the beginning of November.

Hahnemann University Hospital, which purchased the 16-story building for $2.3 million in August, will use the site as a parking lot in the short term, says hospital spokesperson Phyllis Fisher. "We are still evaluating possible long-term uses," she said.

It is customary when an old building is torn down to recount something of its former days of glory. Alas, this building, known variously as the Hotel Philadelphia, the Broadwood and the Elks Hotel, experienced very little glory in its 66 years. More customary were bankrupcy, sheriff's sale, foreclosure, wrack and ruin.

It was built as a clubhouse hotel by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks just after World War I at a cost of $4 million (the equivalent of about $30 million in today's dollars). The idea was to shift Philadelphia's hotel district to the north side of Vine Street.

That didn't happen and the building ran into financial difficulties, not for the last time.

Aside from its out-of-it location, it seems the Elk Hotel had other problems. Its 208 rooms, designed for traveling salesmen, were considered too small.

As the hotel sank into a shambles, a succession of owners tried to rev up revenue by staging boxing and wrestling matches and even baseball games in the ballroom. (The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association played its home games there on Saturday nights.)

In 1949, Business Week magazine reported that things might be looking up for the property. The article began: "Three years ago, when a pair of optimists with no hotel experience said they were going to make a paying proposition of Philadelphia's Broadwood, hotelmen just grinned. The Broadwood has long had a name in Quaker City as a white elephant. By this week, the pair seemed to have made good on the prophecy."

The article went on to report that Joseph A. Richman and his son Willard had purchased the threadbare building for $801,000 and spent $1.2 million to renovate it.

The Richmans had some success - mainly because much of that money was invested in fixing up the hotel's health club. The handball courts were polished to championship gloss. The Olympic-sized pool got an expensive water purification system.

And, lo, the Broadwood Health Club, if not the Broadwood Hotel, attracted the city's businessmen (no women allowed) for swimming, steaming, soaking, massages and such. They paid $100 for an annual membership (the equivalent of about $500 today).

But even that success didn't last. By 1960 the building was deep in the red again. It was put up for sheriff's sale in January 1961.

It was acquired by a group of health club members, including John B. Kelly Jr., Olympic sculler, president of Kelly for Bricks, later Philadelphia city councilman, to guarantee that the club continued. They took down the sign that said Broadwood Hotel and painted the name Philadelphia Athletic Club on the building.

In 1973, that PAC group sold the building to real estate investor Samuel Rappaport for $2 million and an agreement that the athletic club could continue to operate.

The biggest draw for the building in the '70s, however, was not fitness to be found in the gym, but the bingo to be found in the ballroom. In those pre- Atlantic City Casino days, Roman Catholic High School's Alumni Association sponsored bingo games that drew gamblers from out of state. Dozens of chartered buses lined Broad Street on bingo nights. Bingo was not legal in Pennsylvania, but it was winked at by the authorities if sponsored by a charity.

By the 1980s, the Athletic Club decided to allow women members, over the loud complaints of male members, in a last-ditch effort to raise more money.

Whether the club might have been saved that way will never be known. The building was purchased from Rappaport in 1986 for $4 million by Historic Landmarks for Living, then one of the nation's premier historic renovators, with the announced intention of converting it to apartments. Historic Landmarks closed the athletic club while renovations were under way.

And that was the beginning of the end for the Elks-Broadwood-Philadelphia- PAC. Historic Landmarks ran into money problems after Congress cut back a popular tax credit program for historic rehabilitations, effective in 1987. Once again the building changed hands, this time to a limited partnership, IL Associates of Moorestown, N.J., that bought the defaulted mortgage from Meritor Savings Bank, and thereafter sold the building to Hahnemann.

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