Local art collaborative director Caryn Kunkle says she’s tired of seeing one of Philadelphia's most famous vacant properties rotting away without use. So yesterday, Kunkle started a petition on Change.org to rally supporters around the idea of turning the gutted Divine Lorraine Hotel on N. Broad and Fairmount Streets into an interactive, contemporary art museum.
“I’ve been interested in the building for many years. I just keep thinking, what amazing concepts we could put there that would really unite the city,” Kunkle said.
Kunkle, 31, has been living in the Fairmount neighborhood and advocating for creative use of the Divine Lorraine for more than three years. She believes that the Fairmount neighborhood, which she says has been plagued by violence and gentrification, could be united through the restoration and collaborative use of the building.
Specifically, Kunkle wants the city to use eminent domain to convert the space into The Philadelphia Interactive Museum of Contemporary Art (PIMOCA). Kunkle says the space could be used to showcase local, national and international art exhibitions, as well as an interactive space for local high school arts programs, and other art schools’ activities.
The Divine Lorraine building was built between 1892 and 1894, and was originally used as an apartment building until it was sold and converted into a hotel in 1900. The building is more popularly known among Philadelphians because of its use as a hub for the Universal Peace Mission Movement when it was sold to the mission’s leader, Father Divine, in 1948.
The Divine Lorraine building has remained a topic of discussion among developers and community members since it closed in 1999. It was named a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and was subsequently gutted of its contents in 2006. Since then, proposals to turn the building into apartments, condominiums, and retail shops have risen and eventually flopped, primarily due to exorbitant cost estimates for rehabbing the space.
Kunkle says her vision for an interactive museum that would make use of the building’s historic elements by letting them remain is the most cost effective option for the 100+ year old building.
“The Divine Lorraine, it’s just not possible to turn it into condos or retail space because of the overheads costs of renovating it. It’s just too cost inhibitive,” she said. “I’ve seen all of the business plans, and to me, it’s just not financially feasible. I think what it’s gonna take is philanthropy married with investment.”
Kunkle compared her idea to that of museums in European countries that house art in older, historic buildings, and the Eastern State Penitentiary—a 185 year-old building here in Philadelphia—which has become the site of popular guided tours and annual Halloween attractions.
The Lorraine Divine Hotel was purchased by developer Eric Blumenfeld in 2012. Blumenfeld reportedly had plans of converting the building into apartments. According to Philadelphia Office of Property Assessment records, the building was sold to its current owners, Divine Intervention Hotel, on Jan. 17 of this year for $1.5 million.
Kunkle says her idea has previously been brushed off by city and state officials, but she’s hopeful that with the support of the community, her proposal will be more seriously considered. She says she already has a meeting scheduled with representatives from Gov. Tom Corbett’s office, and she plans to host numerous roundtable discussions with community leaders in the coming weeks.
“It’s been really hard for me to get anybody's attention. Nobody seems to listen,” she said. “I’m really tired of hearing that it’s not a good idea, so I’m just gonna try this and see what happens.”
So far, 273 supporters have signed Kunkle’s petition.