Straight Snapshot: The St. James
The tastefully elegant 12 story residence on the southeast corner of Walnut and 13th Streets has looked down over that busy intersection in the Gayborhood for a little over 100 years. It owes its existence to two men who’ve played an important part in shaping Philadelphia’s development, builder John Stafford and architect Horace Trumbauer.
STAFFORD AND TRUMBAUER
In the 1890s, real estate developer John Stafford had made his fortune constructing hundreds of rowhomes in North Philadelphia. Toward the end of the century he turned to Center City and the construction of more prominent, public buildings. The trend toward large, high-end residential hotels was just gaining momentum in Philadelphia; The Gladstone Apartments had opened on Pine and 11th Streets in 1890. In late 1900, the real estate section of The Inquirer announced that the tenants of the four story dwellings on the southeast corner of Walnut and 13th Streets, above, left, had been given notice that Stafford intended to build a new, modern apartment building on the site. In December, it was revealed that he had hired Horace Trumbauer to design the project.
The 33 year old Trumbauer, left, had gained a reputation as an architect for the elite of the city, designing many residences and estates along the Main Line. This new project of Strafford’s was to be Trumbauer’s first large commercial design. Trumbauer’s firm would go on to design the Philadelphia Art Museum, the addition to the Land Title Building, the Widener Building, the Ritz Carlton Hotel and the central Free Library of Philadelphia. Trumbauer would die of alcoholism in 1938.
Trumbauer’s modern, steel-framed structure, right, was to be called the St. James Hotel, presumably after the nearby newly named St. James Street, even though there was already a St. James Hotel to the north, on Arch Street. It would be a grand Second Empire structure, towering over 13th Street and boosting Trumbauer’s reputation and career. It opened in 1901, a record breaking year for Philadelphia real estate development. The new St. James was furnished with restaurants, shops on the ground floor and a barber. Strawbridge and Clothier designed its silver service. Journalist Lincoln Steffens, below, stayed there in 1903, while researching a muckraking series on political evils in American cities for McLure’s Magazine. He’d forever brand the city with shame, when he entitled his article about Penn’s city “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented.” The St. James was a success and only three years later, Stafford bought the lots at 1226 and 1228 Walnut Street, immediately to the east, and doubled the hotel’s size, above, left. The Philadelphia Blue Book (a social directory), listed over a dozen prominent Philadelphians as residents of the St. James in 1906, including portrait painter Julian Story. The Philadelphia Dickens Club was formed there and the Rotary Club held their luncheons at the St. James every Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:30.
BOOM AND BUST
In 1909, Stafford dissolved the St. James Hotel Company, which he incidentally owned all the stock of, and became the sole owner. He then built an annex to the hotel a few doors further east at Walnut and Camac Streets and constructed what would later be the Camac Baths to use as a laundry facility, power plant and housing for his staff. The buildings were all connected by tunnels that ran under Chancellor Street. I’m told that they are still there today.
Stafford’s passion for real estate speculation was to be the undoing of the St. James. In 1918, creditors and mortgage holders began filing suits against Stafford, who claimed he was solvent, but short on funds because of his investments in other real estate ventures. By 1919, the hotel was in receivership and shortly after, went up for public auction. The building was withdrawn from auction when no bids were made. A year later, it was purchased by Louis Cahan at sherriff’s sale and re-opened under new management, announcing its commitment to “courtesy, refinement and high ideals.” Cahan slowly rebuilt the St. James’ clientele and reputation.
HOTEL, THEN APARTMENTS, THEN ST. JAMES NO MORE
In 1922, the Bonwit Teller lingerie shop, above, formerly at 13th and Sansom Streets, re-located to the street level of the hotel as “The St. James Shop.” Throughout the 20s, the St. James would continue to advertise nationally, not declining in stature or popularity until the Great Depression in the 1930s, when it was forced to rent out portions of the building as office space. Before World War II, the Philadelphia chapter of the entertainment industry’s Showmen’s Club made the newly air conditioned hotel their home. The photo, right, looking east on Walnut Street in 1944, shows how the St. James dominated the 13th Street neighborhood, rising well above the three story rowhouses and commercial spaces in the area.
The building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was added to the National Register in 1976. In the 1980s, the hotel became apartment units and was rechristened the St. James House, below.
In 1993, the building changed hands again and became the Walnut Square Apartments. (In the 90s, “Squares” sprung up on dead end streets, in plazas and inside enclosed shopping malls all over the country, an odd nostalgia for America’s lost rural town squares). All association with the St. James name has been erased and transferred to the newer St. James tower five blocks east on Walnut and 8th Streets.
The hundred year old building is not in great repair. The mansard roof leaks and there are stories of intermittant power outages, but the dignified Horace Trumbauer design still watches over this intersection of the Gayborhood and the late night crowds leaving Woody’s and Voyeur. I don’t know of any connections or anecdotes that link the St. James to the LGBT community’s history, but I’m sure they’re there.
Looking west on Walnut St. from the St. James in 1913.