The building at 207 S Juniper St. which was home to Key West until 2008 has a lot in common with the building around the corner which housed Sisters until very recently. They both began as carriage houses, they both spent part of their lives as steakhouses, both owe a lot to Mel Heifetz and, unfortunately, they are both now closed. The Juniper Street building, however, took an interesting architectural detour in the early 20th century.
MELLOR & MEIGS
Architects Walter Mellor and Arthur Ingersoll Meigs set up their original office in 1907 in the newly built Lafayette Building (now the Hotel Monaco), on the corner of 5th and Chestnut Streets. They were to become one of the most successful club and residential design firms in Philadelphia, designing over 130 projects over a thirty year span. In 1912, they bought an old carriage house at 207 S Juniper Street to “reclaim” as their new offices, above. They entirely remodeled the building in a rustic, English Cotswold style, adding a large wall of small paned windows on the Juniper Street façade, another on the Chancellor Street side second floor drafting room, below, and setting a charming cupola atop the south east side. (At the time, Mellor himself was living in a stable-turned-residence in Germantown.) The whole effect was of a picturesque nostalgia for a rural past in the midst of what was becoming a busy urban commercial area. In 1915, The Architectural Record described their new offices as being part of the successful movement for the reclamation of small, hidden urban properties that was happening in Boston and Philadelphia, which the magazine called “the two English cities in America.” In 1928, their concession to 20th century technological needs was the addition of an automobile garage to the southern end of the building. The firm prospered on Juniper Street for over 25 years, until Walter Mellor died in 1940.
STEAKS & LOBSTERS
In 1946, the site underwent another metamorphosis and opened as Mitchell’s Restaurant, above. Mitchell’s was a solid, archetypical mid-century Philadelphia steak and seafood restaurant. It was the kind of place where couples from Northeast who came into Center City for a night out would find cocktails and a consistently good meal. For forty years, Mitchell served short ribs, brisket and boiled beef with horseradish to well dressed theatre goers. In the late 1970s, as competition grew from the innovative menus being served at the new restaurants that were part of the city’s “restaurant renaissance,” business began to drop off. Mitchell’s tried to reinvent itself in 1981, changing its classic menu to include Phila-centric dishes named “Mummers Melange,” “Ben’s Baby Lamb” and a surf and turf combo called “Penn’s Landing.” The new look didn’t work; Mitchell’s closed soon after.
By March of 1983, the new owners of 207 S Juniper St. were advertising in the Philadelphia Gay News as Your Place…or Mine, serving a simple American lunch and dinner and showing movies nightly on a giant video screen. Your Place was only to last a few months. Below is a rare photo of the building taken during that short time. As always, click on this, or any photo for a larger image view.
To pay back a debt to long time gay rights supporter Mel Heifetz, the owner gave over a half interest in the operation to him and Heifetz found himself in the bar business. Not long after, the original owner bowed out. On December 22, 1982, the bar reopened as Key West. Its lavish decor was inspired by the tropical Monster disco in Key West, which Heifetz loved; see opening night photo, below. (That’s Danny Ferris tending bar.)
A stunning waterfall dropped all the way the from the top floor to the first, drawing the eye up three stories; there had been nothing like it in Philadelphia. The second floor held the bar and disco and on the first floor was the dining room, below, and cabaret.
The cabaret featured local and national performers like Big Ed and his oversized cowboy hat; Mr. Ruby Rims, Amy Ryder; Carol O’Shaughnessy; and Jewish lesbian entertainer Lynn Lavner. Key West’s first manager was Richard McPeake, who was involved in the management of several Gayborhood clubs and who also wrote a column for Au Courant newspaper.
From the late 1990s through 2008 when it closed, Key West was owned and operated by Chick Winn. With a sports bar, two pool tables, a second floor disco and a top floor Sky Lounge, it served a far more eclectic clientele than many Gayborhood bars. It’s been shuttered for five years now. According to an article here last by fellow blogger Sandy Smith, the property was in the hands of Mark Bee, owner of the Silk City Diner on Spring Garden street. There was some activity there several months ago; the old signage was removed and the façade cleaned up, but things have been quiet lately. It’s one of those quirky, tucked away downtown buildings that does so much to give Center City a charming livability. It deserves a restoration and a new life.
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Very special thanks to Mel Heifetz and Jim Ross who took the time to share their memories and photographs of Key West with me.