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The Parker Hotel: Breathing life back into a Philadelphia relic

Once a “seedy” place, owners hope for a revival

From the outside, The Parker-Spruce Hotel on 13th Street looks like most other buildings in Center City—a towering brick facade with a worn limestone, metal overhang above the entrance. It blends in so well with its surroundings that it’s easy to pass by without giving it a second glance.

But that would be a mistake.

Crews have closed off the front of The Parker ahead of its opening to do street cleaning. The metal-and-stone overhang is still visible.
Anna Merriman

There’s a history to the 1925-built Parker Spruce Hotel (commonly called The Parker), and behind its nearly century-old walls, design elements combine Art Deco with a touch of Colonial Revivalism, and contemporary styles, making it a truly Philly building.

Bob Skiba, thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com Photos were provided to Skiba by Stacia Friedman, whose grandparents ran the corner store in the photo.

It would be easy to forget this, of course. The hotel has been closed for over three years, and even before that, it didn’t hold a great reputation. PhillyMag once called it “seedy,” Philly Curbed called it “sketchy,” and the Google reviews of the place pre-2014 (when a fire forced its closure) reference cockroaches alongside two-star ratings.

But the hotel has taken on new ownership—Mihir Wankawala, of the Wankawala organization bought it in 2015—and the owners have partnered with Marriott to make it a Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel.

They’re preparing to open the building this month and they’ve renovated it with a luxury interior, in an effort to both erase The Parker’s notorious reputation, and pay homage to its nearly 100-year-old history.

A renovated bedroom in The Parker
Anna Merriman

Inside The Parker renovations

The hotel’s history is front and center as soon as you enter into the foyer and lobby. Ornamental gold light fixtures cast a warm glow over the space and a marble curved reception desk accents the room. A sleek lounge with geometric panels and—yes, more—ornamental light fixtures sits off to the side.

An ornamental gold light fixture in the foyer
Anna Merriman

Not all of the space is made up of renovations. The original marble lobby floors still exist, as well as a large (and still in-use) bronze mailbox, which has been a part of the building since its inception. It sits at the far end of the room, between the elevators, as a constant reminder of the building’s past.

The foyer’s working gold mailbox
Anna Merriman

“It’s the essence of the period,” said Floss Barber, the interior designer whose firm, Floss Barber Inc., is behind the renovations. “We want you to walk in and re-know the history.”

That carries true—at least in part—with the upstairs floors and rooms, which have been redone to blend a more contemporary style with the building’s history.

Upstairs, visitors are greeted with a “bunny wall” as soon as they step off the elevator. The wall, which details a series of neon, dark, and brightly-colored rabbit paintings against a black backdrop, is a recreation of artist Hunt Slonem’s 1980 collection of rabbit paintings. The abstract paintings complement a white and black tiled floor, which creates an optical illusion on the ground. Both are fun and playful, and it’s hard not to think of the zany scenes in Alice in Wonderland when you pass by.

Anna Merriman
Anna Merriman
Anna Merriman

Surprisingly, these lines are straight, but the optical illusion they create can’t be missed.

The rooms themselves take a more reserved approach to the renovation. They feature dark walls and cabinetry, with low lighting and gold headboards on the bed, all reminiscent of the gold and black style so popular in Art Deco designs. The design on the back wall of the bedroom also recalls the Art Deco style with its sharp angles and geometric shapes, but the blue and green image itself is a contemporary one.

Dimly-lit bedrooms with cool blue backdrops give the rooms a cozy feel.
Anna Merriman

Barber says it came from a picture of two people dancing. Designers took the people out and played around with the shapes and style of the backdrop until they had something that was both earthy and contemporary in nature.

The rooms each have a sleek, railroad tile bathroom with a backlit mirror.
Anna Merriman

The windows of the bedrooms have views that stretch out over Center City, and they shine bright light onto the rooms’ cool-colored walls. According to Wankawala, the space is perfect for a professional in town for a business trip.

There are 85 king-sized rooms and 21 doubles, averaging about 230 square feet of space each.

The Parker hotel in the early 20th Century
City of Philadelphia, via Amanda Weko and Floss Barber

A sordid—and storied—past

The tale of just any hotel’s renovation might not be noteworthy, but for Philadelphia, The Parker isn’t just any hotel. Since it was erected in 1925, the hotel has seen a number of iterations, a lot of lore, and has cemented itself as a Philly staple (albeit not always a great one).

When it was built, the hotel was called “The Spruce,” according to a statement from Floss Barber, and it offered rooms “for bachelors,” each with its own washbasin. It also had some shared baths and showers. There were writing and lounge rooms, and both a corner shop and barber shop downstairs.

In 1926, the hotel called professional boxer Gene Tunney a guest—fitting, as Philly was once known as a hub of professional boxing. Tunney stayed at the hotel during his fight with the late and great Jack Dempsey, an historic fight that would go down in history as the moment Dempsey lost his seven-year heavyweight champion title.

Bob Skiba, thegayborhoodguru.wordpress.com Photos were provided to Skiba by Stacia Friedman, whose grandparents ran the corner store in the photo.

In the years that followed—up through the 1960s—the hotel became a favorite of many musicians, who would come stay there while Philly experienced a boom of popularity in Jazz music. The city had what the Philadelphia Encyclopedia calls a “Jazz heyday” from the 1940s through the 1960s, and The Parker Spruce hotel was there in the middle.

In recent decades The Parker has taken on a notorious reputation. It started gathering negative reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor, with two and one and a half stars, respectively (“Shared bathrooms and sheets for blankets,” was how one visitor described it in 2013). In 2010, a short documentary by artist Spencer Starnes provided accounts (albeit unverified) of The Parker as a hub of alleged prostitution, drug use, and seedy dealings. Whether that was true or not, the general consensus remained the same: The Parker was a sketchy place.

It was a small fire on the north side of the building in 2014 that finally brought about The Parker’s closing. The Wankawala Organization was only managing the hotel at the time, but they bought it in a $3.47 million deal just months later, in the spring of 2015.

The layout of the renovated rooms.
Via Floss Barber

Following the fire, many neighbors wanted to make the closing a permanent one. During a community meeting to decide on the fate of the hotel, a resident read an open letter to the owners, calling the hotel “repulsive,” and saying “we don’t want you as our neighbors anymore,” according to a report from PhillyMag. Councilman Mark Squilla called Wankawala the villain of the neighborhood, but said there was hope yet for them, and for the hotel.

The building’s new lounge, before the unveiling of the floor.
Anna Merriman

Now, Wankawala and the Marriott are holding firm to that hope, re-opening what they call a “boutique” hotel. It certainly looks that way from the interior, with the sleek floors and cozy, warmly-lit rooms, but the result is yet to be seen.

Maybe The Parker will do away with that history. Maybe it will embrace the boutique hotel look. And maybe an era that a Twitter user once called, “the beginning of the end for the Parker,” might actually just signal its rebirth.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a storefront photo to Floss Barber. It has been corrected with the correct attribution: The Gayborhood Guru blog and Stacia Friedman.