“If you knew that your life was merely a phase or short, short segment of your entire existence, how would you live? Knowing nothing ‘real’ was at risk, what would you do? You’d live a gigantic, bold, fun, dazzling life. You know you would. That’s what the ghosts want us to do – all the exciting things they no longer can” – Chuck Palahniuk
She stands as a colossal Victorian deteriorating like a forgotten cathedral on the Philadelphia street corner of Broad and Fairmount. The days of elegance and grandeur have passed away beneath the tomb of her hollow arches only to re-emerge with an even more distinct majesty and allure.
Lorraine beckoned to me for years, her towering presence and asbestos dust seeped beneath my skin. It was only a matter of time until I’d find my way deep into the heart of her presence. From a cold black basement chasing light up a swirling marble staircase up ten stories to a massive penthouse ballroom turned hollow shell of abandonment. Where once the melodic clinking of silverware on fine china clattered against the muffled laughter and chatter of hundreds of guests dressed in their classiest attire was now condensed to a faint whisper in a slow swirl of white dust against sunlight peeking through empty arched window frames.
Once the home to the super wealthy of the industrial revolution, the Lorraine Luxury Apartments towered above a city void of skyscrapers at the end of the 1800’s. The ornate Romanesque style chosen by architect Willis G. Hale was considered outdated for its time as America hurtled forward into a new modern era. At the time, Lorraine boasted the latest amenities such as electricity and had its own staff, eliminating the need for servants.
From apartments to a hotel in 1900, Lorraine was prosperous up until the Great Depression, beginning her descent into deterioration. She was eventually sold to the founder of the International Peace Movement, Father Divine in 1948 for $485,000 ($4.4 million by today’s standards). This shady religious leader came to Philly after fleeing Harlem amid accusations of abandonment, sexual abuse and loose ties to the communist party. Lorraine went from a Gothic hotel to a consecrated temple sanctified under the authority of a devious cult leader.
The grand ballroom on the top-floor was transformed into a house of worship, the ground floor kitchen opened to the public serving needy Philadelphians, and Father Divine’s strict rules permeated throughout the building. For the first time in America, people of all races and classes were welcome within Divine Lorraine as long as they upheld Father’s standards of vigorous morality that he himself may have been privately exempt from.
Father was visited several times by a young Indiana man whose mother claimed he was the Messiah. Jim Jones was a troubled outcast as a child who was obsessed with death and held funerals for small animals on his parents property, including a cat that he himself stabbed. A graduate of Butler University, he carefully studied Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Joseph Stalin. Standing inside the colossal hotel cathedral with Father Divine in the center of the penthouse worship hall, Jones became inspired to build a temple of his own. Night had fallen over the East Coast, the yellow spotlight of City Hall’s clock beamed across Broad Street. The two communist sympathizers looked down from the arched windows exchanging radical teachings and theology. Father led Jones to a basement office cluttered with dust-caked books, worn photographs and metal filing cabinets. Among the chipped paint and faded upholstery hung a crucifix, a portrait of The Virgin Mary and a tattered missionary’s map of Guyana. Jones’ retinas burned into the map, his nerve impulses triggered light passing via the optic nerve in his brain forming the outline of the country. It flashed against his eyes in a red, hellish flame.
“Jim?” said Father, shuffling against the desk. “Jim? The book you were looking for.” Jones took from the gaunt, skeletal hands of Divine the ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead.
After Divine’s death in 1965, Lorraine fell into complete disarray. However, it was just the beginning of her true divinity. Lonely she stood watching over Philadelphia as the city grew and buildings cropped up in Center City. Soon, the law prohibiting skyscrapers from surpassing the statue of William Penn atop City Hall had been broken and the twin Liberty Towers took their place as guardians over the city of Brotherly Love. Lorraine’s cadaverous shadow bared down upon a changing Broad Street that was once prosperous with industrial revolution affluence, now diminished to poverty and urban decay in her section of town.
Her balconies gazed down upon new generations of a more transient Philly as her interior plaster cracked and metal beams crumbled. She had gone from luxury apartments to the first racially integrated hotel in the country to something sacred and holy under a cultist movement to something with true and wondrous divinity.
Adopting many of radical teachings from the influence of Father Divine, Jim Jones became the leader of his own movement known as ‘The People’s Temple.’ Guyana became home to “Jonestown” a commune of his devout followers. On November 18th, 1978, after reports of human rights abuses, California Congressmen Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to ‘Jonestown’ to investigate the allegations. Accompanied by Temple member relatives, an NBC camera crew and various newspaper reporters, the mission ended with an attack by Jones’ armed guards, killing the congressmen and four others.
Later that day, Jones led 910 people to their deaths by drinking a cyanide-laced juice in the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. That day, the scent of death around a pavilion in Guyana traced its sting back to the ballroom and the basement of The Divine Lorraine.
A bewitching enchantment embodies Lorraine. She stands as a ghost; a rotting corpse of divine allure having only now entered into her fullest glory, 120 years after her birth. When her first stone was placed, did the infantile Lorraine know her future fall and decay would be her greatest feat?
Just like the very city she inhabits, Divine Lorraine is a mixture of old and new. Rather than being destroyed, the old takes on a new form and meaning in its present age, re-emerging onto the modern scene as a Victorian throwback that thrillingly haunts Philadelphia now more so than ever. Like her city, she gives insight into rich history while telling a relevant story from the present. What’s old is now new again, just re-born and re-shaped with an even more prominent dignity and glamour.