The Old Benwalt Hotel Blows Its Top

I have a bit of fondness for architectural oddities, and the Benwalt Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, with its impressive Quonset Hut roof, was a definite Oddity when I took these pictures in 2006.

Beneath that rather awkward veneer is a three-story brick hotel, built in 1927-28 and designed by Meridian architect R.C. Springer, who also designed the Neshoba County Courthouse around the corner. More importantly for understanding the hotel, it was built by Howell Construction Co. of Philadelphia, a firm owned by partners Ben Howell and Walter Perry. Ben and Walter not only built the hotel, they also owned it and named it Benwalt–can you guess where they got the name?

The hotel had at least one major renovation before its really big addition in the 1970s. As you can see from comparing the picture above with the photos I took in 2006, a glass-block, Art Moderne storefront was inserted in the central section, announcing the entrance to a very cool streamlined diner/cafe inside. This might have been done either right before WWII or right after–hard to say.

The Quonset hut took its place on top of the building, according to people I’ve talked to, around 1979, after the hotel had become a Downtown Motor Inn. When I first saw the roof, I assumed it probably dated to the 1960s, but if you look at pictures of the 1964 and 1966 civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can see it wasn’t there then, and the oral history supports that. The balconies were also placed on the building at this time, changing the room access from an interior hallway to the exterior balconies.

Because major changes were made to the building after the 1960s, the Benwalt is listed as a non-contributing element in the Downtown Philadelphia Historic District, listed on the National Register in 2005 with national significance for its role in the murders of James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner and in the later civil rights marches. The Benwalt stands just a stone’s throw from the jail in which the three men were held before being released to their fate, and at least one of the marches came past the hotel.

I honestly have wondered if there was any hope for the Benwalt; I questioned whether anyone (with money) could see past the gawkiness of its Quonset incarnation. But, starting a couple of weeks ago, the Benwalt began shedding its top, losing the Quonset and the exterior balconies. Surprisingly, the building is much more intact underneath all that than I would have expected. In fact, I’m told by my friends at MDAH that only a few sections of the parapet were removed to attach the metal roof structure in 1979, and that even those removed sections were placed neatly beside the parapet wall in a crawl space.

Benwalt Hotel, Feb 2010, photo courtesy MDAH

According to the Neshoba Democrat’s “Tin dome being removed from historic Benwalt downtown” (which has some even better pictures of the roof being removed):

A California couple with ties to Neshoba County purchased the historic Benwalt Hotel on Byrd Avenue and plans to turn it into a non-profit cultural center with restaurants and overnight accommodations.
. . . .
Amina Carter, whose late grandfather was a founding member of Mt. Talley Missionary Baptist Church in the Stallo community, is exploring funding options and grants, along with her husband, for the project.

In addition to establishing a cultural center, the couple wants to refurbish the restaurant and hotel built in 1928 and left vacant since October 2002.

In order to pursue Historic Preservation Tax Credits (the same credits that helped make the King Edward Hotel project a reality), the owners are asking for a change in the status of the building from “non-contributing” to “contributing” in the historic district, according to the latest Democrat article on the project “National registration status sought for Benwalt.”

Congrats to the new owners for getting this far and showing the possibilities of this piece of history in downtown Philadelphia. Here’s hoping for continued success as you proceed!

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Categories: African American History, Civil Rights, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Hotels, National Register, Philadelphia, Recent Past, Renovation Projects

7 replies

  1. The “quonset hat” the building sported for all these years was unusual, but the building is far better off without it. How great to see that it is being restored! I wonder about the glass block- is there anything much left of the interiors?

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  2. “Quonset Hat”–perfect! Why didn’t I think of that? :-)

    The interior is very much intact–the diner, lobby, large meeting space at the back, and the hallways and rooms are all pretty much unchanged, so there’s a lot to work with, underneath a layer of metal and years and years of neglect. It’s a really exciting project and would give such a boost to downtown Philadelphia, which has really been trying to fix itself up for several years now. Really a miniature King Ed in that respect.

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  3. Exciting. I have always found this building fascinating…

    the article says:
    “….the hotel was structurally sound, though the interior would have to be gutted….”

    It would be great to encourage them to look at reusing what they have as first option before “gutting”.

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  4. I think (i.e., hope) that the word “gutting” was mis-used here. They will definitely have to tear out old carpet, etc. but the historic preservation tax credits, I hope, will provide enough incentive (if they weren’t already thinking that way) to re-use rather than gut.

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  5. What a great landmark this could be for those travelers who don’t care to insert themselvees into the casino environment. I hope this project makes it through.

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  6. Do anyone know if the Ellis Theater down the street had it’s facade and interior redone in the Art Moderne style at the same time? Original photos of that theater show a different exterior, so I would assume interior as well, although to me they’ve now acquired some of their own historical significance. I know that the Philadelphia Neshoba Arts Council received a Building for the Future Grant from MAC to redo the lobby, but I don’t believe they have a master plan for complete renovation/restoration of the building.

    Photo of the exterior here:
    Ellis Theater
    The interior is very cool, but I couldn’t find photos.

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  7. I stumbled upon this site today…three years after the last comment was posted. My parents, Jerome and Ruth Kasdan (then newly weds) lived in this hotel for about 9 months when they first moved to Philadelphia in the early 1930s. My father managed a dry goods store in Philadelphia owned by my grandfather. As a child in the late 1950s, I visited Philadelphia with my parents and stayed at the Benwalt as a guest of the people who either owned or ran the hotel at that time. I believe their last name was Phillips. I have very sketchy recollections of that visit but I do remember the interior hallways of the hotel which (to a child) seemed to have enormously high ceilings!

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