A Home for the Community Center Part III

by ilcorago


In this, the third and last part of the story of t 1315 Spruce St., two buildings become one and later on Philadelphia ‘s LGBT Center finally gets its own home.


In 1929, after 22 years at the Spruce St. location, rather than move again, the Engineers Club decided to undertake major renovations and remodelling to make the two very different buildings’ exteriors reflect their interior usage. The picture, left, was taken in August of 1929, right before this makeover, when the  Club occupied the two buildings with awnings in the center.  Since the window levels on both buildings were different, they chose to entirely rebuild the front, rather than to just reface the old façades.  The architectural style they chose was Colonial Revival, which had become very popular after the country’s sesqui-centennial in 1926. The work was begun in late 1929, not long after the photo above was taken, and completed by the end of the year.

The result is shown at the right. Moving the entrance to the center gave a pleasing, symmetrical dignity to the façade. The matching pair of buildings on each side adds to the effect. Compared with the previous picture taken only a few months before, the transformation was incredible. New windows were installed and both old entrances were sealed off. The eastern 1315 entrance was not to reappear until fire codes required it in the 1960s. The front lobby space was entirely opened up, with only one supporting column where the old dividing wall had been between the two buildings. You can compare the new 1929 plan of the first floor, below, with the 1917 plan shown below in Part II.


The three pictures below were taken for insurance purposes in the ’30s. You can almost smell the leather and cigar smoke.

The club’s dining room, which is today’s Philadelphia Room.

The lobby and the Library alcove used for exhibit space now.

The rear main stairway and the fireplace that once graced the corner to the left of the dining room entrance.

THE 1940s AND 1950s

Renovations and improvements were continually made on the now hundred year old structure. The kitchen was renovated and new refrigeration added in 1945 and in 1948 the booths were installed in the bar downstairs. The building next door at 1319 had been torn down in the late 1930s and was already being used as a parking lot by the Burlington Apartments. In the mid-1940s the Club had to add reinforcements to the exposed west wall and paid to have the parking lot resurfaced to stop leaks into the basement of the club building.

In the late 1950s, there were still dormitory rooms for members for rent on the third and fourth floors and the basement bar continued to be a money-maker. The club looked once more into purchasing the 1319 lot, but it was not available. They turned their energies into re-doing the lobby and hired interior designers from Wanamakers to repaint, slipcover the furniture and add new rugs. A few floral prints were even added to the Ladiesʼ Reception Room to soften the “institutional effect.” The Society of Women Engineers, which was formed in 1950, affiliated in 1959, but the first woman did not join the Engineersʼ Club of Philadelphia until 1961. By 1969 there were 5 women members.


Throughout the 1960s, the Engineers continued to update the heating, lighting and cooling systems. When they decided to refurbish the public areas again they turned to socialite New York decorator, Dorothy Draper, left.

Dorothy Draper was the first woman in America to head her own interior design firm. Her style and use of color were big, brash and bold, using traditional elements in a grandiose, somewhat shocking manner. In 1939, she had published “Decorating is Fun!: How to be Your Own Decorator,” the first do-it-yourself interior design book.

Draper had been the darling of the wealthy Rittenhouse set in Philadelphia in the 1930s and ʻ40s. When the engineers hired her she was in her 70s, but still writing a syndicated home design advice column called “Ask Dorothy Draper.” The article below appeared in 1962. . . little did she know!

THE 1970s & 1980s

The last pictures we have of the clubhouse when it belonged to the engineers are from a brochure they published about 1979, just after the centennial of the Club. Below are some photos from that brochure. You can compare them with the 1930s pictures, above.

The Philadelphia Room. Red, white and brown galore.

The front lobby. Even MORE red carpeting.

The basement bar. Cocktails, anyone?

In the 1980s, the Engineers decided that the building was too large for them. They moved out in 1989, first, to temporary quarters in the Public Ledger Building on 6th and Chestnut Streets, then, to their present home at the Racquet Club on 16th Street. 1315 Spruce Street would remain vacant for 7 years. The company that owned the building wanted to demolish the huge old  building, and turn the space into a parking lot. They got permission to tear down the club, but not for the parking lot idea.


Since 1990, the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia, or Penguin Place, as it was then known, had been housed in a space at 201 Camac St. After years of renting less than ideal spaces around Center City and even existing as “The Center without Walls,”  the center committee had begun the search for a permanent building. The photos below are from a 1993 appraisal of the old Engineersʼ Club as a suitable new home for the Center. The building had only been empty 4 years, but the neglect was showing.

The lobby.

The Pennsylvania Room, tattered red carpet and all.

In 1996 the board approved the purchase of the building, and named it in honor of board member William Way, who had died of AIDS in 1988. Bill Way had embodied the spirit that kept the Community Center alive through the ʻ80s when it was “Penguin Place, the Community Center without Walls.” The William Way Community Center has flourished here for over 15 years now, at 1315 Spruce Street, the first building the community has owned.

For more information on the story of this building and block, stop by the Willam Way Community Center and ask at the desk to see the booklet “1315-1317 Spruce Street; A Brief History.”