BY RON BERNTHAL
In 1932 a Swiss architect named William Lescaze partnered with the well-known Philadelphia architect, George Howe, to design the new headquarters for the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, one of the oldest banks in the country at the time.
The 36-story PSFS building, as it would be called for many years, cost $8 million to construct during the Great Depression, a huge sum at the time, and was considered an architectural marvel. It was the most modern building of its era, and the first building of its size to be fully air-conditioned.
I was not aware of the hotel’s history when I entered its front doors on Philadelphia’s busy Market Street, and spent a few minutes checking in at the front desk. It was after I walked to the 12th Street side of the hotel, and saw the 12 1930′s-style elevators, six on each side of an original black marble floor, with Art Deco paint schemes on the walls, that I realized the building was so much more than a typical downtown hotel. It was a well-preserved treasure of modern design that I would need to explore during my visit.
My 23rd-floor corner room was quite spacious, with spectacular views of the city skyline from two sides that allowed plenty of natural light into the room. Actually, I never even closed the black-out curtains, trading an early morning wake-up sunrise over the Delaware River for the airplane-like view of urban street lights that stretched for miles from center city to the suburbs.
All 581 rooms have Art Deco décor, black granite bathroom counter space, and a large work desk. Guest room Internet access is available for a fee, but complimentary in the public areas. Although the guest rooms contain new furnishings, installed after Loews purchased and renovated the building in the late 1990′s, there are 48 original, hand-crafted furniture pieces, and other historic artifacts, scattered throughout the public areas of the hotel.
The hotel has a fitness/spa/salon called “breathe” that, at 15,000 square-feet, has to be one of the largest health facilities of any urban hotel. The facility offers aromatherapy, deep tissue, hot rocks, four-handed, and pregnancy massages, facial, waxing and nail services, and body treatments like Aromatic Sugar Glo and Tuscan Mud Wrap. A dozen treadmills, lots of other exercise equipment, and a modern 20-meter, 4-foot deep, two lane, heated lap pool is also part of the health club that takes up almost the entire 5th floor.
The property has enough meeting space to be considered somewhat of a mini-convention center, which seems redundant since the huge Pennsylvania Convention Center is just across the street. But keeping conference groups in-house is easy with 42,000 square-feet of meeting space on floors 2-4. The second floor, where PSFS banking was done for more than 60 years, is now part of a two-story ballroom, and the original safe deposit boxes, less cash and jewels of course, is preserved in this area for guest viewing. The bank’s original vault is displayed downstairs, off the lobby.
In my exploration of the hotel I noticed the original Cartier-designed clocks, still in working condition, that are on each floor, opposite the elevators. During my explorations, I went up to the 33rd floor, where the PSFS executive dining room was located. Only the firm’s most powerful executives were allowed to eat at the top of the building, surrounded by windows that offered 360-degree views of the city. Today, Loews uses the large space as another meeting venue, with two of the rooms named after the architects, Howe & Lescaze. The wood paneling and floor is original, as is the desk and chairs in the 18-seat Boardroom.
The 491-foot building, Philadelphia’s first skyscraper, was also the first office tower in the United States to be built in the International Style, and office workers called the new, central air-conditioning system “weather in a box,” and thought the forced cold air was harmful to their health. A building engineer had to spend 24-hours a day, for a week, living in the building to convince PSFS workers that it was perfectly safe.
The hotel’s restaurant, called SoleFood, is located off the lobby, offering three meals a day, as well as the evening SoleFood Lounge, with a lovely Art Deco-style bar that was busy with guests and locals every night I came back to the hotel. On some nights the sounds of live entertainment from the lounge drift through the nearby reception area and give the hotel a hip and happening ambience, and a pleasant and convenient place for a late night drink. A Business Center is open 24-hours a day, and reminded me of a Kinko’s, with its assortment of desk-top computers, printers, a copy machine, and various office supplies, all available to guests.
In 1992 PSFS, then under the name Meritor Savings Bank, went out of business and the National Register of Historic Places building, constructed with stainless steel, granite, glazed black brick, limestone, marble, and rare woods, was taken over by the FDIC, which closed its doors. The huge PSFS red neon sign on the roof, the first neon advertising sign that was integrated into the design of an office building, was turned off.
As soon as Philadelphians noticed the rooftop sign was out there was a massive city-wide protest to turn it back on, and a few days later it was brightly lit again. Loews Hotels purchased the building in 1997, and started to convert the office and bank building into a hotel a year later. It opened as the Loews Philadelphia in 2000. Out of town guests of the hotel can never get lost in the City of Brotherly Love. All they need to do is look up and walk towards the illuminated PSFS neon sign above the hotel. In a city with hundreds of architectural treasures, this early 1930′s modernist structure in downtown Philadelphia offers a feast for the eyes, as well as a good night’s sleep.
Loews Philadelphia Hotel
1200 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
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