Departments: Society: Score-chester!
‘‘It’s the true walk of shame,” says a guy-about-town we’ll call Mr. Horndog. He’s harking back to his single days in the early ’90s, when he’d spend the night at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square, then tiptoe out at dawn past the front desk, the friendly doormen, and the annoyingly chipper early-morning exercise crowd. Horndog never lived at the Dorchester, but was frequently there — he had some guy friends in the building and was always hoping he’d meet a hot girl at Carolina’s around the corner and get lucky. Sometimes — he estimates 30 percent of the time — he did. “I once counted the number of steps from the elevator to the front door,” Horndog remembers. “I think it was 57. I’d be thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here before I see someone who knows my mom.’”
That’s the Dorchester for you — though 32 stories tall, the place is far too cozy for anyone to get away with much. And even if you can make it through the lobby without encountering someone you know, the building’s glossy, glass-fronted entrance expels you directly onto the southwest end of the Square, a.k.a. Gossip Central. Of course whatever you’re doing — and who you’re doing it with — will be seen, dissected, speculated on (and, depending on your age, possibly relayed to your mom).
Look around Center City today and you’ll see plenty of new high-rise residential buildings climbing skyward, yet it’s unlikely any of them will ever match — at least in terms of gossip-worthy behavior — Center City’s original modern high-rise, the Dorchester. Since it was built in the ’60s, the Dorchester has been the go-to building for the Beautiful People on the Square, with an eclectic mix of residents filling its 536 units. They range from wealthy power couples and young professionals to some lucky grad students, and all of them seem to be having a lot more fun than the people at, say, 1900 Rittenhouse Square. With its blank cement facade, it isn’t the most classically beautiful building around — “You want to live in the Dorchester so you don’t have to look at the Dorchester,” jokes Fred Mann, the philanthropist and CEO who’s resided there for 34 years — but the cool vibe attracts a particular kind of person with a particular view of what city living should be. The Barclay may be grander, the Rittenhouse more grandiose, but in Philadelphia, the Dorchester is emblematic of modern city living — carefree, even a little risqué.
The “Dormchester,” as past and current residents of the building fondly refer to it (including this writer, who loved living in the building and had her own share of fun times there), has everything going for it. Power couple Sharon Pinkenson and Joe Weiss have combined several penthouse apartments; Joe Wolf (who manages Georges Perrier’s restaurants) and his personal-trainer wife Jane live here; socialite and former Convention & Visitors Bureau executive Julia King is a resident, as is stereo heiress Prema Bose. It attracts athletes and media types: Newscaster Marc Howard, Phillies legend Steve Carlton, and radio host and author Michael Smerconish have all lived chez Dorchester. There’s a rooftop pool, plus, “It’s one of the few buildings that have balconies,” says realtor Jeff “City” Block, who lived in the building for much of the 1990s and sells apartments there frequently. (Block’s now engaged to be married, but like Mr. Horndog, fully enjoyed the fact that pretty young women tend to live there: “And I brought a lot of girls to the Dorchester,” he says.)
In the late 1990s, you might have seen one young lawyer parading his giant pet rabbit through the Dorchester lobby; legendary PR pro Stanley Green regularly dropped off gallons of matzo-ball soup for his hungover friends on Sunday mornings in the ’70s. And the quirkiness continues. “There’s an older man who lives in the building, really well-dressed,” relates a current resident, “who I’ve seen in the lobby with a cocktail — he goes out to his very nice car, holding the cocktail.”
And then there’s the sex. It basically comes with the deed to your condo: You will get laid. “I had my regular boyfriend, but I was fooling around with another guy in the building the whole time,” says a mom of three who lived there circa 1992. “One night the doorman let my real boyfriend upstairs without calling from the front desk, and I was naked on the couch with my Dorchester boyfriend. My boyfriend was banging on the door. I had to pretend I wasn’t home, and when he went back downstairs to call up, the other guy snuck out and went back to his apartment on the service elevator.
“Didn’t work out with either guy,” she muses.
The Dorchester opened its doors in 1964, a time of enormous change for the country, a push-pull between tradition and modernity, between abandon and innocence — Viva Las Vegas and Goldfinger were in theaters, but so was Mary Poppins. In Vietnam, a war was tragically unfolding, and at home, civil rights riots shook North Philadelphia. In New York, Andy Warhol was making movies such as Blow Job and creating giant Brillo boxes.
This being Philadelphia, things were still leaning toward the traditional: Throughout the ’50s, there were Square-front mansions peopled with butlers and footmen. Socialite Gloria Etting had tea daily with her husband’s aunt, Mrs. John Brown Jr., who lived in a home where the Dorchester now stands: “She had a man in green livery,” Etting once recalled. But modern times called for skyscrapers, for real estate that accommodated more baby boomers, and so in the early ’60s, New York developer William Zeckendorf — unencumbered by a hovering historic commission, as he would be today — bought Mrs. Brown’s mansion and the dozen or so smaller brick townhouses that wound back from the Square toward 20th Street to create the footprint for the Dorchester.
Designed by architect Milton Schwartz — who also drew up Park Towne Place and Wynnewood’s Green Hill condominiums — the cement-and-steel Dorchester was to be erected next to its high-rise neighbor, the unusually narrow, ornate Chateau Crillon (Rittenhouse 222), designed by Horace Trumbauer.
Schwartz designed two towers linked by an open-air space, which the developer then ordered him to combine into one more efficient, L-shaped building. Otherwise, the architect had carte blanche. “It’s one of the very early buildings in which exposed concrete is used as the exterior finish,” says Schwartz, now 88 and living in Sandwich, Massachusetts. “At the time, Louis Kahn was a pretty prime example of what was termed ‘brutalism’ in architecture, using massive forms of reinforced concrete. Certainly a major influence in that was the French architect Le Corbusier.”
The Dorchester did look remarkably of-the-moment, if somewhat Soviet in style, as it rose up over its neighboring townhouses and churches, a village upended into the sky. As is the custom with Square buildings — the built-in-1925 Regency (now the Parc Rittenhouse), the circa-1928 Barclay, the Savoy and the Claridge, both built in 1951 — its name was intended to evoke a London landmark. But the Dorchester was cooler than its neighbors, and far more accessible, with studios and one- and two-bedroom spaces instead of massive pre-war apartments that sprawled over half a floor. “When I moved to Rittenhouse Square, the Dorchester had just been built,” recalls realtor Joanne Davidow, who was then 21, living at the Claridge with her husband, and paying $180 a month in rent. “I couldn’t afford it; it was considered the luxury building — the most modern, gorgeous place.”
Like beachfront in Palm Beach or the apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue and Central Park, there’s obviously only so much square footage that sits on Philadelphia’s most desirable park. By the ’70s, rents topped $1,000 a month for two-bedroom apartments at the Dorchester. Everyone wanted to live there — except art collector Henry McIlhenny, that is. McIlhenny famously owned a mansion just yards from the Dorchester’s front door, where he entertained friends like Princess Margaret, Truman Capote, Warhol and Jackie Onassis. Oh, the horror when the structure that would house nearly 1,000 people began blotting out the sky across the street from his home. Brutalism, indeed. “I’m sure he was upset,” says real estate saleswoman Patricia Royston, a ’70s resident. “I would have been.”
Oh, well. The well-dressed crowd that immediately flocked to the Dorchester was having a ball, and McIlhenny ended up becoming friendly with Royston and other Dorchester neighbors. “I just remember waking up and saying, ‘What are we going to do today that’s fun?’” Royston recalls of her days on the 18th floor. “It was just a carefree, no-responsibility place.”
Well, maybe not totally carefree. “Mrs. Cairo was the manager then,” adds Royston. “She was French and a little scary — quite chic, actually. But it was like having a headmistress at boarding school. She used to do spot-checks early in the morning to see who’d spent the night!”
Fred Mann moved to the Dorchester in 1973, a time when you still had to provide references to live there. “Luckily, I was right out of law school, so I hadn’t had time to acquire many poor references yet,” he says. To his own surprise, Mann has lived in the building ever since.
The rooftop pool became the official pre-disco gathering spot for the crowd Mann and Royston ran with, which also included Today’s Man founder David Feld and councilman-at-large Jack Kelly, Grace Kelly’s Olympic-medal-winning oarsman brother (who liked to frequent transvestite Rachel Harlow’s nightclub). “We’d take over a corner of the pool — it was Club Dorchester,” Royston laughs. “We’d rope it off for our group and make Cape Codders. … it was just total frivolity.” Artemis was the disco of the moment, on the 2000 block of Sansom Street, and the restaurant renaissance was in full swing, with Astral Plane and Friday Saturday Sunday as Dorchester hangs. Residents remember it as a basically innocent time, though one frequent Dorchester guest recalls showing up at a party there and having poppers of amyl nitrate suddenly waved under his nose.
One sunny morning in the late ’70s, fate found Fred Mann at the rooftop pool in the form of a young divorcée named Sandy, who’d just moved in with her two little girls. “It was a Sunday morning after a night of overindulging,” Mann remembers, “and a friend of mine looked up and said, ‘Here comes Mrs. Fredric Mann and his two children.’” Mann fell in love at first sight, and in fact the two married, started buying apartment after apartment on the 31st floor, and raised the girls there.
These days, Joe Weiss and Sharon Pinkenson are conducting a similar land run, buying any apartment that comes up for sale around them. But even they may never achieve the massiveness of the 1970s spread of movie-theater moguls Merton and Barbara Shapiro, who had some eight apartments put together, and installed a screening room. “I remember sitting there watching new movies before they’d get to the theater,” says Royston. “The phone rings, Merton yelled at me to pick it up, and it was John Wayne. He was Merton’s best friend.”
Not every night at the Dorchester was so benign. Knight-Ridder newspaper heir John Knight was murdered in 1975 in his 23rd-floor apartment by a young hustler and drug dealer he’d befriended; the killer apparently sneaked into the building at 3 a.m., hoping to find cash in Knight’s white-fur-bedecked apartment. Knight was quickly buried in his native Georgia, while news cameras hovered outside the building for days, ghoulishly looking to film the blood spots on the lobby carpet that were said to have dripped from the killer’s shoes.
The Knight murder had a chilling effect all around the Square, spurring a new emphasis on safety in all the high-rises and inspiring rancorous, panicky community meetings. The Dorchester quickly sealed the inside door into the adjacent 7-Eleven. Nothing like the Knight incident ever happened again, and it didn’t seem to slow down the fun pace of the ’70s for long.
By the ’80s, the Dorchester was so established as the go-to building for beautiful people that it made cinematic history in the excellent film Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy and a pre-Sex and the City Kim Cattrall. McCarthy’s girlfriend Roxie, a gorgeous fashionista, lives at the Dorchester, and in one cheesily wonderful scene he arrives to pick her up on his motorcycle with the building’s tall, canopied entrance making a chic backdrop.
“I remember when the building went condo in 1980, I bought an efficiency there,” says Allan Domb, the Center City developer. “I rented out the apartment myself, to this guy who didn’t pay. This was early on in my career, and I needed the money to pay the mortgage.” When Domb showed up at the apartment to collect the cash after a second month of non-payment, he found his tenant had undergone a sex-change procedure. “Her name had become Nancy, I’ll never forget,” he recollects. “After 75 days, I had to evict her, and store all her stuff.
“The thing I found in the freezer, I didn’t store,” he adds.
Perhaps most significantly in the late ’80s, Michael Smerconish moved in. Just out of law school, he rented apartment 2606, and enjoyed the fruits of the neighborhood. “Carolina’s was in full swing then. It was fabulous,” he remembers. “A couple of my law-school buddies had bribed the pool boy for keys. I’d go up on hot August nights. … I mentioned I was single when I lived there, right?”
Smerconish also believes he initiated Frank Rizzo’s sole visit to the Dorchester, while Rizzo was preparing for the 1987 mayoral debate. “They needed Rizzo to receive quiet, peaceful preparation from this guy who was a Churchill scholar,” Smerconish says. “I had this oil I’d bought in New Hope, a full-scale nude, so I have this recollection of Rizzo sitting on the sofa with the full-scale nude above him, getting schooled by a Winston Churchill expert on how to debate Wilson Goode.”
By this time, Royston had moved across the narrow, leafy street to a townhouse, but she still hung out with her Dorchester friends. Steve Carlton had gone Dorchester — Michael Smerconish remembers seeing him on the elevator after his last night pitching for the Phillies, holding a takeout bag from Downey’s at Front and South streets. Ad exec Elliott Curson also showed up for most of the 1990s, living right above Julia King. Curson was known for his Square-side balcony parties, and, unfortunately, for the night his dishwasher exploded and leaked down into King’s place, ruining a rack of her couture dresses. (Insurance reimbursed King.) “We always remained friends,” Curson says happily. (Hey, this kind of thing is news on the Square.)
And that seems to be the essence — the meaning, if you will — of having lived at the Dorchester. “You always have friends, you’re never lonely if you live there,” says a woman who raised her son there while she was a single mom in the 1980s, adding that she could always walk to Carolina’s or go up to the pool if she felt the need for company. In a city that can be a crowded but rather lonely place, that is a great comfort: Even if you live alone, there’s always somebody else at home.
As for the Horndog, he’s officially retired from the Dorchester, and his signature line — “Hey, I have some weed, do you want to go watch Seinfeld?” — expired in 1993. “The women there were always really polite when they rejected me,” he says thoughtfully. “Very pleasant girls.” Horndog still has ties there, of course: “I called my one friend who lives there — let’s call her Michelle — and she said, ‘I’m having the wildest afternoon. I’m having lunch at Rouge and this guy’s all over me. So we go back to my apartment, we’re making out like a plane’s going down, and I notice after five minutes he’s doing something with his briefcase — he’s huffing — sniffing paint!’” That didn’t deter Michelle: “The scenario goes to oral sex, and then a climax situation in broad daylight in Fairmount Park,” says Horndog, with apparent relish.
Mostly, things march on happily at the building, and in fact, a funny thing has happened over the years: The longer the Dorchester looms in its steel-and-concrete blockiness, the better it looks. “The location is the best on the Square,” avows Fred Mann, who now sits on the building’s board. “It’s like a village. The maintenance staff has been pretty much the same family for decades; Don [the current head of maintenance] replaced his father.” And once you’re part of the Dorchester family, you never really get over it.
“I thought it was the best place in the world to live,” sighs Dawn Keer, an advertising sales rep who reluctantly moved two years ago to Lafayette Hill. “It’s like Central Park when you walk out the front door.” Keer misses her favorite doorman Rafiq, the Wawa in the back of the building, walking to Rouge, and even the endless fire alarms. Her time there was literally music to her ears, since her neighbor was a basso profundo opera singer, and she’d hear full-on operas wafting out from under his door every day when she came home.
Bess Collier, a lawyer, met all her neighbors on the 24th floor on the occasion of the 7 a.m. implosion of the Vet in 2004. “My friend Hilary Takiff met her husband waiting for the elevator,” Collier, who’s single, adds, “so I always look around when I get on the elevator.” (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was once engaged to a man she met on the Dorchester elevator — which didn’t work out even though it seemed like destiny. In the meantime, there were five years of nightly runs to Twenty Manning and D’Angelo’s, balcony parties, and general inter-condo craziness.)
The Dorchester is still a place where romances bloom, or sometimes die. “I invited this guy I liked over to swim one time,” says one current resident, “and when he took off his pants, I was shocked. He was wearing a Speedo,” she says sadly. “We’re just friends now.”
Well, nothing’s perfect, even in this fairy-tale place. “I love the Wawa,” says a current young resident, a striking blonde who praises the building’s feeling of security, the doormen, and people-watching while she gets her mail or witnesses Sharon Pinkenson’s glam comings and goings.
“But,” she adds, “the homeless guy outside the Wawa said to me recently, ‘Get the fuck out of here, Cinderella.’”