The "Grand Old Lady of Broad Street," as the Bellevue Stratford Hotel became known, is getting her bustle bolstered, her buttons polished and her makeup carefully retouched.
In her 84th year, the massive French Renaissance structure is undergoing her fourth restoration and this one involves more than a cosmetic facelift.Opened Sept. 20, 1904, as a 1,090-room hotel, the Bellevue Stratford became the mecca for every president who visited Philadelphia, from Theodore Roosevelt on. It was the social center for Philadelphia's debutantes and elite, as well as the watering hole for politicians of all stripes.
The downtown hotel continued to attract patrons until 1976 when 100 people attending the annual Pennsylvania American Legion Convention became sick. Twenty-nine died before the disease was identified and dubbed "Legionnaires' disease." With that stigma, the hotel closed.
After a $25 million renovation, the Bellevue reopened as the Fairmont in 1979 with just 560 rooms. It struggled and lost millions under two managers and was again closed in 1986.
Richard Rubin, who bought the hotel after it closed in 1976, promised it would be reborn, this time as a multi-use facility with offices and stores and a smaller, but elegant hotel on the top seven floors. The Hotel Atop the Bellevue is run by Cunard, which owns The Ritz in London and The Watergate in Washington.
Tyson said the Bellevue hotel will have a much better chance for success than its predecessors because of its reduced size - 170 rooms. The quality of the office space and the clientele it attracts also should help the hotel and vice versa, Tyson said.
"It's really being designed more as a carriage trade hotel," Tyson said, with appeal to the upper end of the travel market, and upscale weekend visitors.
"The mixed use concept is a wonderful way to reuse an old building," said Hyman Myers, a nationally recognized architect in historic restorations who is overseeing his second renovation of the Bellevue. "The reason is, it keeps it active all day and all night."
Just 18 months ago, Myers unveiled what he called "the dream" for the new Bellevue, a $100 million reconstruction.
The plan calls for three and one-half floors of public retail space and 10 floors of office space with lofty ceilings, bay windows looking onto City Hall and an abundance of warm wood, polished brass and plush carpeting. On the top seven floors of the 19-story building will be the 170-bed luxury hotel with an atrium, reached by private elevators from Chancellor Court, a narrow street being closed at one end, canopied and cobbled.
"The space turned out better than the dream," he said.
The building, designed in a capital "E" shape, had many historical features worth preserving, he said.
The former hotel lobby, which becomes the entrance to the office space, is warmed by the honey tones of Golden Siena marble, which is being cleaned and polished.
Myers chief joy, however, is to see the 18-foot high semi-circular windows on the 19th floor stripped of paint and plaster and, after 45 years, once again bathing the rooms with light.
A pair of the windows will enclose Founders, a private club. The decoration that caused it to be known as the Cameo Room North will be retained and statues of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, astronomer David Rittenhouse, and artist Charles Wilson Peale installed.
The other pair of windows will enclose the hotel salon, named the Barrymore Room after Philadelphia-born actresss Ethel Barrymore.
Although construction is 3 1/2 months behind schedule, the first tenant for the office space is expected to take occupancy in October, with Polo/Ralph Lauren, the anchor for the retail space, moving in next July, said Judith Morse, a spokeswoman for the owners. Eighty percent of the office space is already rented, at $23 a square foot.
Morse said the honor to be the first event in the restored Grand Ballroom goes to Myers and his Preservation Fund of Pennsylvania, of which he is the president. That will be in late March, and will coincide with the opening of the hotel.