The view is Divine

Developer Eric Blumenfeld, who is trying to seal a $44 million deal to convert the Divine Lorraine Hotel at North Broad Street into apartments and ground-floor restaurants, takes in the view from 11 stories up. "This could be transformational," he says. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Developer Eric Blumenfeld, who is trying to seal a $44 million deal to convert the Divine Lorraine Hotel at North Broad Street into apartments and ground-floor restaurants, takes in the view from 11 stories up. "This could be transformational," he says. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 27, 2012

Eleven stories above North Broad Street, developer Eric Blumenfeld balances on the peak of the roof of the Divine Lorraine Hotel.

It's best not to look down from this aerie, but Blumenfeld, 49, looks unfazed.

In his pinstripe suit, he seems as comfortable perched on the asphalt as he would sitting behind a desk.

Over his left shoulder is the iconic red Divine Lorraine Hotel neon sign - a beacon on Broad Street, luring countless urban adventurers.

Four times in the last three weeks, intruders have broken into the Divine Lorraine, adding to the layers of graffiti that cover walls like garish tattoos.

There's the giant vertical calling card on the south side of the building for TOBER and KNOX, and a cryptic message on the roof: "URADORK RODAK!"

But the days of tagging the Divine Lorraine may be over.

Blumenfeld is trying to seal a $44 million deal to convert the old hotel into 126 rental apartments and ground-floor restaurants.

"If North Broad Street is all about connecting the dots," he said, "this is the logical next dot."

To the south, he has a clear view of two nearby old factories in the 600 block of North Broad that he has already converted into loft apartments.

To the north, he can see the cranes rising over new projects on the campus of Temple University.

"Think about what is happening on North Broad Street," Blumenfeld said. "This could be transformational. We're only halfway there."

He said that the deal he is working on is "complicated" but that a key step has been taken: He has an agreement to purchase the debt on the building from Amalgamated Bank of New York.

The current owners owe Amalgamated almost $20 million, plus $800,000 to the city in back taxes.

Blumenfeld said the Divine Lorraine was expected to go up for sheriff's sale in October, which would give him a way to gain title.

He said he has been working closely with city officials and bankers and is "optimistic" that the process in play "will put us in a position to bring this back."

For Blumenfeld, this would be his second time around with the Divine Lorraine, which stands near where Fairmount and Ridge Avenues cross Broad Street.

In 2003, his company, EB Realty Management, bought the building and an adjacent 4-acre lot for $5.8 million.

Blumenfeld acknowledges now that he had too many projects on his plate.

He was trying to convert the former Botany 500 garment factory at 600 N. Broad St. into lofts. "The banker said, 'You want to do this - or that,' " Blumenfeld said. "At the time, that [the Botany building] was a lot easier and four times the size.

"But that's done now and I've always had this void," he said.

Blumenfeld almost doubled his money when he sold the hotel and land in 2006 to a partnership including local builder Michael Treacy Jr.; a Dutch company, Sunergy Housing; and Michigan-based NSI Real Estate Group.

They had big plans but were stopped dead in their tracks by the real estate downturn in 2008.

The years since then have not been kind to the Divine Lorraine. The once-grand lobby looks as if it has been torn up by a tornado and smells like a wet dog. The alabaster floors are buried under layers of debris; a skylight has been boarded over.

The upper levels of the hotel, which once held 26 rooms a floor, are nothing but open space. The walls have been stripped all the way back to exposed brick. Here and there are holes in the concrete floors - which have been known to swallow intruders.

Robert Gollwitzer, director of operations for EB Realty, said a young "urban adventurer" fell four flights through a hole in the floor and landed in the basement with a broken leg and nose.

Eight months ago, a scavenger, probably looking for copper wire in the basement, cut an artery in his leg and bled to death, he said.

Since gaining possession of the building recently, EB Realty has tried to seal it up better. But the lure of the Divine Lorraine is intense. Someone used a battering ram to break down a back door that was covered over with plywood. It's now sealed with cinder block.

"This is the biggest trophy," Gollwitzer said. "If you can tag this baby, you're big in the city."

Opened in 1894 as the luxury Lorraine Apartment House, the building was one of the city's first "skyscrapers." It was purchased in 1948 by the Rev. Major Jealous Divine, a charismatic preacher who used the building as the base for his followers and his International Peace Mission. But the building has been empty for more than a decade.

On a one-hour tour of the building - starting on the roof and ending in the dank basement that used to be a Prohibition speakeasy - Blumenfeld saw nothing but potential.

"This is like the Titanic," he said, his black dress shoes crunching over shards of glass.

Blumenfeld said he hopes to include historic tax credits in financing for the project. But that will require him to spend more than $1 million to bring the lobby back to its former grandeur, with speckled columns and mirrored archways.

As part of any financing package, he also would set aside about 25 units as affordable housing.

Despite the damage, Blumenfeld said, the bones of the 118-year-old building remain strong. "Every nook and cranny of this building is wildly interesting."


See video of developer Eric Blumenfeld at the Divine Lorraine Hotel at www.philly.com/buydivine


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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