Inquirer Leaves Good and Bad Memories at 400 North Broad Street
When it comes to the Inquirer, I have a serious edifice complex. For sheer majesty alone, nothing can replace the iconic Tower of Truth at 400 North Broad Street.
Built in 1925, the 18-floor Art Deco masterpiece measures 526,000 square feet and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It represents everything newspapers used to be: powerful, respected, indispensible.
Those days are long gone, of course, and the Inquirer building bears the scars. As of mid-July, what remains of the Inky staff, along with that of the Daily News and philly.com, will do business out of one leased floor in the old Strawbridge’s building at Eighth and Market.
The timetable was pushed back from July 1st because of ongoing problems with the new publishing system, Saxotech, newsroom insiders say. Because some staffers are still on the old system, those servers must also be moved—a contingency that Philadelphia Media Network had not foreseen.
I worked at the Inquirer building for 30 years, and I loved it. In the old days, when it really felt like a newspaper, you could stand in a glass-walled passageway overlooking the cavernous composing room and watch the papers speed off the giant presses. It gave me goose bumps every time.
When the presses were cranking up, the whole building shook. The ink-stained pressmen—yes, they were all men—wore folded newspaper caps. It was right out of The Front Page. The pressmen left when print operations moved to Conshohocken. The composing room was rebuilt into a giant newsroom for the Inky.
As the industry inexorably changed, so did the newsroom. It got emptier, quieter. At one point, departures became so frequent that a week didn’t pass without one of those funereal “sheet cake parties.” They started to feel like Groundhog Day, so I stopped going.
The building, however, while achingly under-populated, stood tall, its illuminated clock visible throughout the city. That meant something.
Quick sidebar: I wonder if the new owner of 400 North Broad, Bart Blatstein, will keep the clock when he turns the tower building into a 200-room hotel, part of his proposed casino-entertainment complex. Tick tock, you’re all in hock. Come back soon!
The Inky staff has mixed feelings about the move, with much of the grumbling focused on dramatically increased parking costs. Also, many of those working the night shift are fearful about taking SEPTA after dark in Center City.
To metro columnist Karen Heller, a 26-year veteran, the relocation “is like leaving home …. But the building is a white elephant—outsized and half-used. It’s long outlived its original purpose.” The irony, she adds, is that the neighborhood is “finally beginning to thrive, after so many false starts.”
Fellow columnist Daniel Rubin, a staffer since ’88, doubles that irony with some of his own. “It only took us 87 years to transform that neighborhood,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what we do around the Gallery.”
Public health reporter Don Sapatkin, who joined the paper in ’87, says it will be tougher for him to commute by bicycle from Mt. Airy because the new Inky digs won’t include showers and lockers. Both are available in the tower building—another leftover from the days of the old presses.
Longtime business reporter Jane Von Bergen remembers how she proudly walked through the back door—the employees’ entrance—on her first day of work. Hopelessly lost in the maze of corridors, she eventually ended up in the pressmen’s bathroom. “‘OK,’ I said to myself. ‘This is not the newsroom.’”
On her first day, in ’85, Nancy Phillips, assistant to the publisher and former investigative reporter, experienced “a magical feeling, knowing I was going to work for Gene Roberts’s Inquirer.
“In those days, the building was filled with legends in the business—Barlett and Steele, Bill Marimow, and so many others—and they were inviting me in. That was humbling and wonderful.”
As more furniture is cleared out every day from the increasingly grungy newsroom, Phillips says she looks forward to a “sparkling, new space.”
Rubin, too. “I’m in the reality business,” he says. “People are pining over the old place, but that’s already gone. We couldn’t afford it. We’re going someplace where we have a better chance to make it.”
Not that Rubin is without feelings for 400 North Broad. When he first stepped foot inside, “I thought it was the coolest place in the world. It looked like it stood for something. It did, and it does.
“Now it will have to stand for something else, and it will.”