The Lincoln, at the southwest corner of Camac and Locust Streets, mostly fits into the “Straight Snapshot” category, with a history that includes the YWCA, the Seamen’s Institute and a swanky nightclub. However, there was a brief, but important, LGBT connection in the early 1980s.
THE 1890s PHILADELPHIA APARTMENT BOOM
Philadelphia grew at a tremendous rate in the second half of the 19th century. During the period from 1860 to about 1910, the city tripled in population from 500,000 to a little over a million and a half, just about what it is today. Along the southern edge of Center City, it was not unusual to find eight or nine families of immigrants crammed into three story rowhouses that were known as Philadelphia’s “horizontal slums,” left. For middle class Philadelphians looking for housing further west near the rising City Hall, new options were appearing. One of these was a recent concept called the “apartment hotel.” The apartment hotel took an already socially acceptable model for mutiple unrelated people to reside under one roof—the hotel—and extended it to families. Apartment hotels included not only rooms for rent by the night, but suites of rooms or apartments, that could be rented by the month. High end apartment hotels included dining rooms, barbers, hair dressers and laundry and maid service. Middle class Philadelphians could now maintain a convenient city residence to entertain in during the winter and still escape to their shore homes in the summer.
At the end of the nineteenth century, much of what is now Philadelphia’s Gayborhood was a desirable residential area. It was close to the business and entertainment district on South Broad Street, the shopping areas on Chestnut and Market Streets and the Library Company and Historical Society on Locust Street. One of the first of these modern apartment hotels was the Gladstone, completed in 1890 at Pine and 11th Streets, where Kahn Park now stands. A few years later, the Lincoln, right, opened on Locust Street at Camac. The Lincoln had 52 “artistic and comfortable” rooms and 26 baths, a dining room, a sitting room and private rooms for luncheons and dinners. From the 1890s through the 1910s the Lincoln was home to upper middle class bachelors and comfortable bourgeois families who spent the summers at Cape May and hosted debutante parties for their daughters. One resident, Miss Elizabeth Crawford Washington, was a descendent of the grandfather of our first president. A member of the Colonial Dames of America, Miss Washington now lies in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
IT’S FUN TO STAY AT THE YWCA
In 1920, the Young Women’s Christian Association bought the building and operated it as a league branch, the first hotel in Philadelphia exclusively for women. The YWCA toyed with the idea of renaming the building the more pointedly feminist “Betsy Ross Hotel,” but voted to stay with “The Lincoln.” They advertised to “business and professional women” and offered classes in dressmaking, homemaking, music and psychology. In 1922, their “Rainbow Division,” above, held a bazaar at the Lincoln to raise money for their Sisterhood Fund, which provided scholarships for girls who wanted to take educational courses.
The YMCA continued to operate out of the Lincoln, providing a comfortable, safe place for women in Philadelphia until about World War II. In the late 1940s, when nightclubs sprang up all over Locust, Camac, St. James and Thirteenth Streets, the first floor of the Lincoln was home to the Tabu supper club and musical bar. It was owned and run by Stanley Schwartz and Dominick DiMattia who also ran the Alhambra in Maple Shade, New Jersey. This ad for Tabu, right, and its “ultimate in food,” is from the 1953 Philadelphia Yellow Pages.
The Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834, was an affiliate of the Episcopal Church. Its mission was to provide spiritual care, legal help and education to mariners. In 1957, when it lost its enormous city-block wide Walnut Street facility near the river to the plans for Independence Park, it moved into the Lincoln further west on Locust Street. The photo, right, with the SCI Hotel sign, was taken in 1959, looking east from 13th Street. As the YWCA did for women, the SCI at the Lincoln offered not only beds but a social space for seamen, a haven where they could find wholesome recreation, companionship and moral support while stationed in Philadelphia. In 1974, the SCI relocated to the former Corn Exchange Bank in Old City at Arch and Third Streets, closer to the Delaware River.
THE SECOND HOME OF THE GCCP
On November 27, 1981, the first Gay Community Center of Philadelphia on Kater Street closed its doors, to re-open a month later at 222 Camac St, in the former Lincoln Hotel, by then renamed The Midston. The photo, left, by PGN photographer Harry Eberlin, shows volunteers working on remodeling the space. They spent thousands of dollars and many hours making the aging structure usable. At the same time, the Center’s administration was reorganized from the old two committee system to a new Board of Directors, co-chaired by John Cunningham and Laurie Barron. John is visible on the far left, in this PGN photo, right, taken a few months later, at a party at the Center celebrating the passage of the city’s gay rights bill in August, 1982.
As had happened at Kater Street before, after only two years, the enormous amount of work they did to make improvements to their rented space only earned the volunteers at the Center a triple rent increase. Even though the co-chairs were able to talk the landlord, Grace Richardson, down to only a double rent increase, it was too much for the organization to bear. The Center at 222 S Camac St. closed on December 15, 1982, to be reborn for four years as Penguin Place, the “Community Center without walls.”
THE LINCOLN IS REBORN ONLY TO DIE IN FLAMES
For about 10 years, the building continued to decay as The Midston, a ninety-two room fleabag hotel that rented tiny rooms by the hour and was the site of several stabbings. In 1984, during the first wave of the rehabbing of Locust Street, Historical Developers, Inc, bought the building for one million dollars and announced that they would spend another four million to renovate it into 46 luxury apartments. The firm’s president, Thomas Scannapieco said that the plan was to rent the units our for five years, then sell them as condominiums.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the owner began that condominium conversion. New appliances and fixtures were being installed that summer, when a four-alarm fire broke out in the building on the night of June 30th. By the time firefighters had the flames under control, the upper story wooden joists had collapsed, crashing down through the lower floors. All that was left was the exterior walls. Locust Street was closed to traffic for weeks as cranes scooped out debris from the site. Neighbors were not happy.
The building remained a boarded up shell for five years until rumors began to circulate in 2011. Cecil Baker and Associates presented a plan to renovate the building, that included preserving the exterior and creating 6 studio, 32 one bedroom and 6 two bedroom apartments for a total of 44 units. The Washington West Zoning Committee voted not to oppose the project, but nothing happened. In September of 2013, rumors again circulated that new owner David Perelman of Pelican Properties had plans to renovate the property. In June of 2014, Philadelphia Magazine confirmed that work was due to start soon. A few weeks ago, in August of 2014, fencing appeared around the Lincoln, left.
If work continues, the Lincoln will reopen to a very different neighborhood than Locust Street was just eight years ago in 2006. The hundred year old structure is now surrounded by several new restaurants including Vedge, Little Nonna’s, Green Eggs Café and Nomad Roman, not to mention the string of popular new spots on the 13th Street corridor. Across narrow Camac Street, Uncle’s has been reborn as U Bar. The same nearby amenities that made the Lincoln Hotel a desirable place to live in the 1890s make it just as desirable today. The face of the Gayborhood has changed while the derelict building slumbered.