Aug. 15, 2017
By Mattie Stringer
After the completion of the Market Street El in 1907, commerce exploded along 52nd Street near Market and beyond, and the area eventually became known as “The Strip” for its lively stores, bustling restaurants and thriving nightlife. In 1910, the properties at 17-23 S. 52nd St., which consisted of four row homes converted into commercial establishments, were demolished to make way for an eight-story modern office tower and headquarters for the Parke Bank.
No zoning or other squabbles ever took place because the four adjacent buildings belonged to one person—Mary M. Parke, a widow and heir to the Parke Bank fortune who lived in a 6,000-square-foot mansion on 63rd Street in Overbrook. But it did run into other issues. By 1912, the building was only seven stories high, with the eighth floor not even constructed yet, and its interior unfinished, too. The whole eighth floor of this residential tower with street-level commercial space was supposed to be a deluxe apartment in the sky high above the street, spatially lit by a skylight, which was beyond modern for its time.
But due to the delays, many of the tenants pulled out, and the work was handed over to local developer Louis H. Cahan, who spent $30,000 finishing the structure, sans the eighth floor. That would never be built. In its place, a beautiful cornice was installed, which fitted the top of the building as perfect as a crown. After its completion in 1913, the building's owners attracted tenants quickly, keeping the property fully occupied for the next 30-odd years.
"West Philly's Main Street" was a lively thoroughfare then, lined with shops and restaurants attracted to the street by the opening of the Market Street elevated in 1907.
In the late 1920s, when Bankers Trust came into ownership of the property, it refitted the first and second floors, converted the upper apartments into office space and added the columns to the limestone and granite facade that graces the first two floors of the building. The rest of the building's skeleton is tiled with white terra cotta.
After World War II, though, the demographics shifted and the building fell into unimportance, much like the rest of 52nd Street would witness in the decades to come. In May 1965, the building was donated by philanthropist Sol Feinstone to the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Center, which trained area residents. This lasted until 1983, when the building was purchased by an investment firm which, coincidentally, didn't invest anything and left it to rot for the whole decade. The only floor that was occupied was the first floor, where Provident National Bank had leased the space since the 1950s.
In 1991, the building was purchased for $459,000 and the first two floors renovated, largely for the bank. Provident National Bank soon became PNC, which still leases the first floor to this day. Though the whole building was supposed to be renovated, it never occurred, and the upper floors remain empty. For a building that witnessed a plethora of names, none seemed so exciting, yet as disappointing as what it's named now—the Renaissance Center.
The second floor is occupied by a mosque. West Philadelphia Economic Development Corporation leases an office in it as well, but other than those three businesses, the most use the building receives is bouncing cellphone transmissions off the relays on its roof. Sadly, even though its name may say otherwise, there was no renaissance, revitalization, or refurbishment.
It still towers over much of the area around 52nd Street, but that's about it. But with plans to revitalize commercial districts all over the city, perhaps this building will see new life yet. The red awnings that surrounded it and the rest of the commercial stores around the El were removed in December 2009, much to the chagrin to the street merchants who sold their wares—knockoff Michael Kors purses, boots, headphones, and more—under the awnings. They chained themselves to the faded canopy that had been built in the 1980s to give the street the appearance of a mall. But the canopies had long since served their purpose and the city was right to tear them down. They were not just ugly, they were dirty too.
With redevelopment spreading west from the universities, the area is ripe for revitalization, and this building is a prime location for an investor who wants to take a chance on 52nd Street and a building that really is “built like they used to build them” because it is 102 years old.
During the reconstruction of the El in the 2000s, over half the businesses left the area around the Parke Building and 52nd Street Station. But a 2006 Philadelphia City Planning Commission study found that $160 million in unmet demand residents have for goods and services is just waiting to be tapped into by businesses. Let's hope one of those businesses decides to return the Parke to its former glory—and maybe even roll back the clock and convert it back into a mixed-use space with residents filling the top floors.