A Not-So-Exciting Future for Former Mid-Century Motel on the Schuylkill River

We admit it: we are a sucker for Mid-Century Modern architecture, and wish there was more of it in greater Center City. The former University Motor Inn, built right along the banks of the Schuylkill River at 600 S. University Ave., was a rare example, with its zig-zagging roof hovering over the river’s edge. A Hidden City story from several years ago provided a deep dive into the history of the site, which changed hands often before eventually becoming a work-release facility for former inmates. Let’s George Jetson-our way back to the height of the Atomic Age to see what used to stand here.

A map of the site, showing off this odd little parcel on the Schuylkill outlined in blue
View of the site back in 1960 when it was the University Motor Inn
View of the motel on the water looking northeast towards Center City (courtesy Emma Lee/WHYY)
View of the former motel, striking an unmistakable silhouette against water
View of the front of the building from several years ago

This site was recently the subject to potential re-mapping when former City Councilperson Jannie Blackwell attempted to up-zone the parcel. According to a story by Plan Philly, the re-mapping was attempted, not realizing that the parcel had a new owner: PECO. Did the energy company suddenly get the bug to redevelop old motels? For only the second time since the 1970s, PECO used the power of eminent domain to compel the sale of this parcel. When we recently went past the fenced-off site, we wondered: what happened over these last several years and what’s to come?

Current view of site, fenced off and with a new building
An alternate view of the site

So are we getting an adaptive reuse to apartments? A return to motel glory? Could HUP or CHOP gobble up yet another lot to add to either of their growing campuses? Sadly, none of those are in the cards. The former motel met the wrecking ball last year, and this industrial-zoned site has a less exciting future. PECO is still the owner and according to zoning docs, two low-rise utility buildings will rise where the motel and its parking lot once stood. Check out the thrilling elevations below.

Aerial of the site shows the lot and the former motel in the bottom right
Site plan for what's rising and what's to come
Elevation for one-story switchgear building
And the two-story GIS hall building - this one has windows!

We’re always bummed to see an unusual piece of the city’s architectural history fade away. This type of idiosyncratic design comes along only every so often, so to see it disappear for a couple of non-descript buildings definitely stinks. We understand this is a difficult lot to develop but given the proximity to the hospitalsĀ on the west side and Pennovation Works directly across the river, we had greater visions. If we had to bet though, we’d guess some of the other odd parcels in the vicinity will someday have a more interesting fate.

The Pennovation Works campus in the foreground, with the former motel just behind on the river