Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost Building of the Week-- September 7th

The Continental Hotel

838 Chestnut Street

                    Philadelphia actually once held the title of the city with the largest hotel in the world. That little bitty building up there is what the title was talking about... it was 18 fucking 60.
                    The monster was the result of one of the most badass Quakers in history, Junius Edward Kingsley. This guy was the Steve Wynn of his time. He got educated in an old-timey country schoolhouse and then blasted and bombarded his way through the hospitality industry. He ran all the way up the ranks of cruise line service crewmen until people were offering him management of entire line of cruise line and then partnership in big city hotels.
                    In the late 1850's Kingsley was approached by another badass hotelier, Paran Stevens, with a plan for the largest hotel in the world located in the most badass city in the world, Philafuckingdelphia. The Philadelphia Museum and Equestrian Circus, a famous city landmark of the time, had recently burned down, leaving a large plot of land in the middle of the city's central business district. At this part of the 19th Century, the largest buildings in town were Churches and the occasional 6-8 storey thin-ass commercial building.
                   The gruesome twosome came up with the idea of a super-massive modern hotel, many times larger than any in the city at that time. They found a young architect named John MacArthur, Jr. who was up to the job. MacArthur was a badass. He didn't just design buildings, he loved designing gigantic stone megaliths with a million superlative qualities. 35 years later he would go on to design Philadelphia City Hall, which is still breaking records. He gave Kingsley and Stevens a brownstone juggernaut that wrapped all the way around the property from Chestnut, down ninth, then front George Street (now called Sansom) around the back.

Under construction across the street from John MacArthur's previous gigantic building, the Girard House Hotel.
This style of architecture is called Badassisism
                   That may not look big or imposing by today's standards, but this motherfucker was decidedly massive in 1860. It took three years to build! Kingsley and Stevens shit themselves over the design. They were excited as fuck and made sure this spot would not only be the largest hotel in the world, but the most luxurious. They got the most skilled designers and builders to create and construct every detail of the interior from the staircases to the door handles.

The lobby as it first appeared when the place opened.
                        In a time when elevators were barely seen, this thing had TWO of them. They called them "steam elevator cars". Since other large hotels in America had been lost in fires, this hotel had its own FIRE DEPARTMENT and a six-storey tall water tower running through it just in case shit went down. The guests lucky enough to stay in this motherfucker were greeted with the finest and most kiss-ass service anywhere.                      
                  The Continental had single-sex reading rooms, entrances, and lounges. It held stores with the finest products of the day. It even had its own goddamn merchant exchange so you could network with the other rich-ass tycoons that were staying at the hotel.
                  The hotel opened for business on February 1860 and by the next year the place was so famous that anyone who was anyone in the WORLD intended to visit. Abraham Lincoln stayed in the hotel while president-elect in 1861. He spoke from his balcony to the thousands of citizens that surrounded the hotel due to his presence. All of the most famous 19th Century celebrities stayed there. The Emperor of Brazil, P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, King Edward the Seventh, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Japanese Ambassador are but a few of the famous figures to come by.

Buffalo Bill daydreaming about the Continental Hotel as an albumen print.
                     The Continental stayed popular through the centennial but once the 20th Century rolled around it had become old news. By 1925 it was demolished in order to build another kick-ass hotel, the Ben Franklin, which is a pretty cool building itself. The Continental reminds us that there was once a time when a block-long six-storey building was a thing of fantasy and wonder. Good job, MacArthur. For City Hall, too.


  1. Not a big deal, but I think you meant Centennial not Bicentennial.

    Great post.

  2. The Continental's brownstone stair, which rose from the main lobby, was the only "self-sustaining" (i.e., free from the wall) staircase in the US at the time. And its elevator was also referred to as a "vertical railway" and was reputed as the second hotel elevator in the country, the first being in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. Furthermore, the Continental was said to have had the largest bar in the country! See also Robert B. Ludy, Historic Hotels of the World: Past and Present (Philadelphia, PA: David McKay Co., 1926), at 233-236.

  3. Scoats-- Thanks, I'll fix it.

    Harry-- Thanks for the extra info... this thing had so many superlatives going for it.

  4. Ever read the novel, "Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer," by Steven Millhauser? If you're ever looking for a great story about an amazing hotel this is your book.