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Echoes of an Extravagant Past: The Ben Franklin House's Continental History

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Land Title Building on South Broad, the Irvine Auditorium at UPenn, and the Benjamin Franklin House at 9th & Chestnut are all members of an exclusive family of buildings designed by architect Horace Trumbauer in the early twentieth century. The Ben Franklin House has a particularly storied history.

Known for the enormous manors he designed, like Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park and the demolished Whitemarsh Hall in Wyndmoor, Trumbauer's E-shaped Benjamin Franklin House sticks out as an oddball in his eclectic portfolio.

The last great hotel built in Philadelphia before the Great Depression, the 18-story Benjamin Franklin Hotel opened in 1925 as the go-to choice for visiting dignitaries and upperclassmen. Its most infamous claim to fame came about in 1947 when management denied Jackie Robinson a room while visiting with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a three-game set with the Phillies. Permitting only whites to stay, the team quickly packed their belongings and moved their visiting accommodations over to the Warwick Hotel at 17th & Locust.

The Benjamin Franklin House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 before being renovated as 412 luxury rental apartments in 1990. While The Ben has earned its place in Philadelphia lore, few are aware that the building stands in the footprint of what was once the world's most sensational hotel, The Continental.

Towering over the Washington Square neighborhood at a height of six stories (quite tall for its day), the 700-room Continental Hotel opened its doors to the public in 1860 and featured one of the nation's first elevators, in addition to a grand stairway crafted of polished Italian marble that ushered guests into its world of no-holds-barred extravagance. Designed by architect John McArthur, Jr. (known for Philadelphia City Hall), the Continental stood in a class of its own and could accommodate 1200 guests on a busy evening.

Many declared the Continental too extravagant and made claims that it would never be successful due to its countless amenities, like the lobby's ornately painted ceiling, an in-house barbershop, and an exquisite roof garden complete with bark-covered walls and hanging ferns. Even Philadelphia's beloved Frank Furness had a hand in its beauty, having altered the main Chestnut Street entrance in 1876.

The Continental hosted a lengthly list of the world's rich and powerful, including American presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, along with international dignitaries like Charles Dickens, King Edward VII, and Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro. In fact, thousands flocked to the balcony above the Continental's main entrance to hear president-elect Abraham Lincoln shout his pre-inaugural speech in 1861.

However, the Continental was considered a bit archaic by the 1920s and it met the wrecking ball in 1924 to make way for the more modern Benjamin Franklin Hotel.

The southeast corner of 9th & Chestnut has racked up quite a history over the past 150 years. While it's doubtful that we'll see another hotel as magnificent as the Continental once was, it's fascinating to reflect on a world where no expenses were spared and extravagance was abundant.
—Zach Patten