Delorean Time Machine: Benjamin Franklin House

The Benjamin Franklin House is one of the more elegant living solutions in Center City. Occupying the Southeast corner of 9th & Chestnut, the residential building and mega-ballroom are collectively referred to by familiars as The Ben. As its name implies, the site has an intimate relationship with the city’s history as well as a somewhat lengthy list of former occupants. According to Bryn Mawr College, occupants through the early and mid 19th century included Cook’s Circus and Chinese Museum (1838), Burton’s National Theatre (1841), and John Mustin Jr. Trimmings, Threads, Bindings, Fringes, etc. store. The last of these is shown here below in an 1851 sketch taken from Philadelphia Buildings.

Mustin Trimmings, get your threads, bindings and fringes here in 1851

The building that housed these three prior occupants burned to the ground in 1854. For at least some brief stretch of time thereafter, the plot was occupied by something called the Penn Manor House. Though we could find little information of the building’s purpose, history or demise, the image taken from Hexamer & Locher’s 1858 Philadelphia Atlas gives evidence of its brief existence.

Penn Manor House doing something in 1858

The Penn Manor House was gone by the end of 1858, when construction began for The Continental Hotel. The Continental opened in 1860 and was apparently nice enough that President Abraham Lincoln gave his inauguration speech from its balcony in 1861. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Thomas Nast illustration below depicts the historical event.

Lincoln’s inauguration at the Continental in 1861, beard not pictured

In 1876, Frank Furness put his own stamp on the building, remodeling the entrance and ultimately producing the structure seen in this New York Public Library digital collection, from 1897.

The Continental Hotel in 1897

Among the hotel’s important accomplishments, in addition to being the most modern and lavish in the city to that point, was its innovation of one of the world’s earliest hotel elevators. In spite of its progressiveness, by 1922 the Continental was seen as old-fashioned. It was demolished to make way for the ultra-modern Benjamin Franklin Hotel, which officially opened in 1925. The website Card Cow offers the postcard shown below, postmarked 1940 and, on the reverse, describing a “very lovely sweet consisting of a bedroom and two baths.”

The Benjamin Franklin Hotel circa 1940

As with its predecessor, The Franklin Hotel catered to the wealthiest of visitors and recreation-seekers with its finely appointed rooms, luxurious ballroom and gourmet dining options. Many of these very same features would be incorporated into the hotel’s next life. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the building was renovated in the mid-80s and ultimately reopened as The Benjamin Franklin House apartment buildings and offices. Shown here below, the exterior of the apartment’s immediate predecessor is quite well preserved.

The Ben in 2013

–David Tomar