It's around three o'clock Monday afternoon in the Palladium. It's dark, with light coming in through the half-open curtains, illuminating the dust that comes off of every crevice of the old, wooden interior.
The dining room is closed and of the six bar stools, four are vacant, as are two of the three couches, but the conversation rages on. The topics move from George W. Bush's recent speech in Philadelphia to the Phillies' season opener. Conversation segues effortlessly from one into the other, and it seems as if everyone's opinion is heard. The bartender, the waiters and even the owners join in the discussion.
This isn't just a restaurant or a bar. It's a piece of the architectural landscape, a cozy place where ideas are allowed to breathe freely, a quiet place where one can sit and think. It's just another afternoon at the Palladium, a scene that has been played over again and again at the Locust Walk restaurant for the past 20 years.
In a few weeks, that seemingly endless cycle will be cut short. The Palladium is closing. Its lease is up. The University is not negotiating to extend it. At the end of the semester, it's over.
This story doesn't begin on Locust Walk. It begins at a different restaurant at 47th and Kingsessing.
Two former Penn economics professors, Roger Harman and Duane Ball, started the original Gold Standard in 1979 after retiring from teaching at the University. At that time, the then-Christian Association building at 36th and Locust housed the CA Eatery, a grungy cafeteria-style restaurant. After the eatery closed in 1983, University President Sheldon Hackney -- a regular customer at the Gold Standard -- nudged Harman to put in a bid for the space.
"I walked in here to look at it for the first time," Ball says. "It was just a bunch of household refrigerators lined up back there.... I think they picked us because the Christian Association thought we would be favored by the University."
After the Palladium was renovated, the look was like nothing else. It's the same now as it was in 1983. The bar cuts the room in half, with conversation and drinks in front of the fireplace on the one side and diners on the other side. It's dusty, old and primarily wooden -- but there's something so incredibly modern about it as well. Ball designed the Palladium's look basically on a whim. He went into the Fine Arts Library, looked at a couple of 15th-century medieval architecture books, and then went from there. The most striking feature is the lighting -- designed with a piece of sheet metal made by a Penn sculptor and fitted into the wall with oak notches.
"People always ask about the lighting," Ball says. "That's the first thing they always do."
Kenn Kweder might not say that the Palladium saved his life, but he sure as hell could.
"It gave me stability," he says. "It was an anchor which came to me in the nick of time. I don't know what would have happened.... It got me off South Street. I was living there and...," Kweder pauses and laughs. "I came to an area where people did not know my history. I don't know if you realize it -- but being among people that I know, you guys are pretty smart guys. I had to up myself to be in on conversations."
Kweder is pure rock and roll, an aging Philadelphia musician who is still a teenager at the age of 51. He's been bartending on the side at the Palladium since 1988, drawn in by a friend who worked there. It was plain chance, but he's been there ever since. He loves the conversation at the Palladium. He loves the fact that he can sit there and think. He loves the fact that the Palladium hasn't added televisions or become a sports bar or fluctuated with trends. He loves the security.
"This is very sentimental, but the very first Christmas at the Palladium, with the decorations up, to this day -- it gives me chills," Kweder says. "It's overwhelming. When I saw that place decorated, it was too much. I'll always remember that. I might have just drifted away if not for the Palladium."
In December 1983, the Palladium and the Gold Standard opened. The space was much bigger than the old one on 47th Street and so, the plan was always to have two restaurants. The name change, however, was made to fit the new location.
"We came up with another name, the Palladium," Harman says. "It's a precious metal. We thought it had the metaphorical sense of a place that holds society together, much like the Palestra is the physical place that holds people together."
In the beginning, there were problems. They were open too many days a week, didn't know how to work large crowds -- and dissatisfied patrons vowed to never come back. A 1983 Philadelphia Daily News restaurant review detailed the complaints: "No one greeting customers on two visits. Erratic service. Plates left uncleared. Skimpy menu choices made skimpier because the kitchen has run out of items." Harman confesses, "People weren't coming to us because it said 'Gold Standard' or 'Palladium.' People were coming to us because it said 'restaurant' and it was on campus. We couldn't just go off our good reputation from the old place. I didn't pay enough attention to the food."
Apparently, Harman and Ball also didn't pay enough attention to their finances. On May 15, 1986, Internal Revenue Service agents raided the Palladium, seizing the liquor license and a cash drawer to help pay off the $35,000 owed in federal payroll taxes. Chapter 11 wasn't an attractive option for Harman and Ball, but they had to do it. In June 1986, they filed for bankruptcy.
"The first couple of years, we were just in way over our heads," Harman says. "I didn't know tax law. We had horrible records."
That wasn't the only brush the Palladium has had with the law. In the early '90s, Harman got a phone call informing him three of his employees were in jail for providing alcohol to minors. He went down to bail them out, and the police invited him to stay for a while, relax, remove his belt and shoes and empty his pockets.
"I'm the only person I know of that drove himself to jail," he says. "I got the call that my employees were in jail, and so I decided to go down and they said, 'Well, since you're here, we might as well lock you up, too.' "
Tom Sheehy is an American History major in the College of General Studies at Penn. He was invited to the Palladium by Kweder 15 years ago and has been going back ever since. What began as an innocent trip to a local bar has become a habit for Sheehy. He goes Wednesday nights after his classes -- not just to relax with a drink, but because the place is just so engaging.
"It's probably one of the best bars I've ever been in," Sheehy says. "You can have an intelligent conversation there, from the papacy of Pius X to the validity of the White Stripes."
Sheehy is a music producer, so his favorite Palladium story naturally involves a band he was promoting -- a rather unknown group at the time. Sheehy asked one of the bartenders if he could put on the band's new album. He obliged.
"I put on the tape, and all the staff starts banging their heads," Sheehy says. "The then-manager ran up to me and said, 'Is this yours? Get it off.'"
The album was an advance of Nirvana's Nevermind, the first track "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
"The funny thing was, Dr. Ball had been playing NWA the entire week before," Sheehy says. "NWA is chill at the Palladium, but Nirvana's music threatens them."
Would you believe that the cutting edge saved the etched in stone? Would you believe Intel saved the Palladium?
It happened in the early summer of 1986. There was a big computer convention at Penn in August, and Intel was surveying the Palladium as a place to hold two parties it was going to throw. If Harman and Ball landed these parties, it would be a jump-start to getting out of debt. It wasn't that simple, however -- the Palladium didn't have its liquor license back yet.
"I knew we'd have the liquor license back by the time the convention happened," Harman says. "But we didn't have it then, and so our problem was how to hide that fact from Intel. So we did some creative things, like have people at the bar drinking but not paying for it, and we were able to get them to come here."
It wasn't just one big computer party, though -- Ball and Harman got smarter, learning how to serve a theater crowd of 90, only opening for private parties on the weekend and making the Gold Standard a lunch-only place.
"The middle of '86 on, we just started focusing more on special events, not trying to do everything for everybody," Harman says.
Since then, the Palladium has evolved to hold special events almost every weekend. Most recently was The Book and The Cook Festival, where cookbook authors join up with local restaurants to eat and discuss their works. There's also the "food and film" events, homecoming, alumni weekends and Penn-Princeton basketball games. They all generate a lot of business. Economics are not closing the Palladium. The place is a victim of circumstance and the University's vision for Locust Walk.
Johnathan Zellars works in international relations and lived in Europe for 10 years, but he's a Philly boy at heart. And, to him, there's no place more Philly than the Palladium. He just happened in one day, something that seems to be a familiar story for Palladium regulars. It's just one of those places.
"It's a total international flux," Zellars says. "You never know who you're going to be sitting next to. It just brings the world to you in a way."
Zellars' favorite story involves The Book and The Cook Festival a few years back. A man walked in, not realizing what was going on.
"He just saw all this food, sat down at the bar and started to talk a bit about how starving he was, but he didn't know what to order," Zellars says. "The guy was starving to death and trying to figure out what to order. He asks the bartender, 'Hey, what do I order? Man, I've been here over an hour!' The bartender tells him what's going on and just tells him to go take some food. He didn't know the food was all free because of The Book and The Cook...
"Oh, it was Miles Davis."
The plans are still on the drawing board, but in the meantime, the building at 3601 Locust will most likely host several performing arts groups and minority resource centers. The spot where the Palladium is now will eventually become some sort of different dining institution.
"The suits come around every once in a while, people from the University and Aramark," Harman says. "I've heard them talking, they want to make it something non-alcoholic, like a coffee shop."
With a Starbucks, Cosi and several Bucks County Coffee Company and Au Bon Pain locations, another cafe-type place could be a little strange for the Palladium space. At a meeting in October, Matt Lattman, a junior UA representative, argued to keep the Palladium on campus, even though "the University doesn't want alcohol on Locust Walk," according to his proposal. The resolution passed, 18-6 with four abstentions, but nothing really came of it.
"The problem with the building is that it would be a $20-30 million project -- which is inconceivable for the University to do at this time," Lattman says. "It's so bad that Facilities put caps on the smoke detectors in the ARCH because they were going out all of the time because of the smoke from the Gold Standard."
At a school where two-thirds of the student population is under 21, it seems strange that there's a bar right in the heart of campus. And Harman's had his battles with the University administration, but he doesn't really feel like he's being forced out. He's a staunch critic of the current drinking age, and even a bigger critic of Penn's alcohol policy. Still, he doesn't think that the University's necessarily doing the wrong thing.
"They need to fix up the place, and it's hard for them to do it with all these people around," Harman says. "I sympathize with them -- it's much easier to get everything out and then renovate."
The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, which holds meetings at the Palladium, is also trying to work with the University to figure out an adequate way to replace the Palladium.
"The Palladium is unique to Penn and has become a beloved part of this institution," GAPSA Chairman Jeremy Korst says. "It would be a terrible loss if we were to allow it to become just another administrative office.... We definitely don't want to see something like another Au Bon Pain."
The Locust Walk Appropriation Committee decided last year that the Palladium and Gold Standard leases would not be renewed and that no new fraternities or sororities would be allowed to move to the Walk. The University has a plan for Locust Walk, and places that serve alcoholic beverages simply aren't included, it seems. Still, Lattman agrees with Harman, admitting that it may have been an unavoidable situation.
"Do I think it's a loss for the campus? Yes," he says. "Do I think it's totally unavoidable? I'm not totally sure.... The Gold Standard and Palladium were an important part of campus. But the feeling of the UA body was that the minority resource centers were important and needed to be given proper consideration."
After all these years, the fireplace remains perhaps the biggest draw for the Palladium. Everyone talks about it. "The fireplace! The fireplace is just magical. When that goes roaring in the winter, there's nothing like it," Kweder says. "You can't beat the fireplace," Zellars says. "Palladium customers see the next pieces of wood lying next to the fireplace, and they don't wait for the staff to put it in," Sheehy says. "It's like fire interface."
The owners weigh in on the situation, too -- "It's a bitch," Ball says. "Whoever designed it didn't know much about fireplaces. It's great to look at, but it's really shallow and hard to take care of.... You know it was boarded over when we got here? What a shame."
It's late at night, and it's a little colder than it ought to be -- and so the fireplace is on, perhaps for the last time. People sit on the leather couches surrounding the wood oven, talking about similar topics they did earlier in the day -- the war, affirmative action, Jim Thome and the Phillies.
Nobody mentions that this place is closing soon. Guess it'd ruin the evening.
This story isn't over. In June, Harman and Ball will open a new restaurant, Abbraccio, at 47th and Warrington, just south of Baltimore Avenue. It's Italian for embrace, and Harman is excited to get back to the neighborhood restaurant feel.
"It'll be nice not to have to worry as much about fake IDs and giving people directions to a place that you can't get to by car," he says. "We're going to have a fireplace... and I don't know anyone who doesn't like Italian food."
He also thinks that, this time, he'll be able to get back on his feet quicker than it took with the Palladium. "I taught urban economics," Harman says. "I would spout all this stuff about the plight of the inner-city youth, this and that, and I live it every day.... I know much more about the urban economy than I ever did as a professor."
The questions are still there, though: Will it be the same? Will the Palladium be missed?
"I feel bad for a number of reasons," Zellars says. "The Palladium is like the sitcom Cheers -- everybody knows your name. That's the family spirit."
"You get attached to your college," Kweder says. "You will go on with your life, and you go back to an area in college and think, 'Man, I had the best time of my life here, and I can't believe that it's closing.' The students and the administration are going to realize that they miss the Palladium."
"I was sad when I first heard about it, but we've had such a cushion of time," Sheehy says. "One thing I know about bars and restaurants is that they all open and they all close."
Bars open, bars close. Same old story. But maybe you can raise your glass to the death of an old campus standby sometime in the next few weeks. Cheers.
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