The Deacon Hotel in Philadelphia serves as a gathering place for both out-of-town travelers and local entrepreneurs. This unique space is also housed in an old church with rich history.
The Independent Lodging Congress is excited to hold part of our Philadelphia Confab at The Deacon on April 21st. In prep, we spoke with developer Everett Abitbol about the history of the property, his partnership with Yowie's Shannon Maldonado, and his favorite things about the City of Brotherly Love.
Come check out The Deacon with us at INDIE Confab: Philadelphia on April 21st! Register now.
What lead to your purchase of the building which is now The Deacon?
We purchased the building and parcels related to the Church in 2016. At the time of acquisition, we did not have a plan that included a hospitality component. As we began to redevelop and renovate the building, we kicked around several ideas for the sanctuary space, some office and some residential. However, upon a trip to San Francisco for a family member's wedding, we came up with something different: creating a space geared towards group travel with an events component. In August of 2018, we began constructing what is now known as the Deacon. The Deacon opened its doors in April of 2019.
What’s the story behind The Deacon – the history & name?
The church has a rich history. The First African Baptist congregation had existed in Philadelphia since the early 1800’s. At the beginning of the congregation, they didn't have a building of their own and held services in community centers and Quaker meeting houses. Sometimes even outdoors which was not uncommon for black congregations. By the early 1840s, the congregation had grown to approx. 200 members.
They set out to find a new pastor to lead and grow the congregation. There was a pastor in Virginia who had been distributing his writings and teachings. He was around 19-20 years old and a slave on a plantation. The congregation raised some money and sent several members to negotiate the purchase of his freedom. When unsuccessful, they began to journey back to Philadelphia on horseback. However, two of the Deacons decided to turn back.
The pastor lead the congregation over the next 4 decades and it flourished: acquiring land, erecting a 30k sq ft church and growing to over 2000 congregants. First African Baptist has been at the center of the black community for over 100 years and the congregation still exists in their new facility in West Philly.
Tell me about your relationship with Shannon Maldonado of Yowie because I love the story behind you meeting!
It’s a great story. I was driving down Walnut Street with my newborn son and passed a streetwear store called Ubiq. In the window was a ceramic cast of a Nike Air Jordan 11. I was intrigued. I stopped at the next light and called the store to see if they were selling this piece of art and to have them hold one for me.
The item was actually part of a pop-up shop collection for a new company called Yowie. They had given Yowie a week or so in the space and transferred me up to the third floor. That was the first time I spoke with Shannon. I shared my interest in the ceramic shoe, asked the price and how many she had.
I think they were around $100. She had 7. I said, "I'll take them all! Can I pay over the phone?" She seemed a bit surprised and responded that she would be happy to sell them to me but that I needed to come in. Unfortunately, I was headed out of town. So, like any good boy would, I called my mom and asked if she could buy them for me - which she did. I think Shannon was still a bit surprised when my mom actually showed up to buy them all.
She called me back and explained that one of the 7 were apart of the display. She would need to hold onto it until the pop-up was finished but I could then pick it up from her store which was under construction on 4th street in Queen Village. I agreed. We met in person, had a nice conversation about art and design, and I was on my way.
I periodically stopped in the store here and there. I was always impressed with her eye for items and interesting pieces that I just wasn’t seeing curated anywhere else in Philly. It was a small store but everything was very thoughtfully selected. The space felt almost curated like a museum. After several conversations, I mentioned a few small real estate projects that I'd like to consult with her on design. We had a few failed attempts to begin working together on some more traditional residential developments.
When I returned from SF and walked into the church, my vision was clear. Shannon was my first call. She came by to walk the space and, after about 40 minutes of discussing , she said: "Everett, I have never done something like this before but I know I will work extremely hard on this and treat this as my baby."
The Deacon isn’t just a hotel but a really great place to host events (obviously why we chose it!) because of the common space. Tell me about your event series you put on last year – it was a pretty eclectic mix.
We are an events-driven space that - oh by the way - has hotel rooms. Somewhere along the process I began thinking about what event spaces were in hotels. They were always tucked away or on the second floor and pretty similar. Vanilla box with some lighting and an area for a stage. We decided to bring high design into this element of hospitality and push it to the forefront of the business. This allows the hotel rooms to act as something that differentiates us from other spaces. It allows large groups to travel together or events to have a more intimate feel with the ability to turn it into a slumber party.
We also knew that creating a community around the space was important. Somewhat of an homage to the church; a bunch of public facing events at a low cost to get people inside to see what we had created.
With the launch of Deacon Experiences, we focused on Culinary, Wellness, DIY and Music / Dance experiences. These allow us to showcase local entrepreneurs in an interactive and intimate setting. We have hosted 13 of these so far over the last 4 months. They have been a large part of our identity to the community here in Philadelphia. Some Experiences have been a Challah making class with James Beard nominee Tova du Plessis from Essen Bakery, a leather working class with a local women-owned Leather Goods and Handbag Designer, a Magic Dinner Theater, Astrology Class and Hypnotist experience. Our next experience coming up this February is a “Jam Session” with Glbl Vllg which is something you have to experience. It's amazing!
This was your first hotel, correct? What was the biggest challenge?
Correct, my first. The biggest challenge was the decision to be different. Instead of adding more rooms and making it a more traditional boutique hotel, I wanted to create this large common area / event space. It was something I wrestled with for some time. Ultimately, I am very happy with the decision we took .
Who in the indie hospitality industry inspires you?
I love things that are multi faceted and stray from the norms… Got to meet Dave Neupert at Indie Confab New Orleans and spent the night of the NCAA championship at his spot in the Marigny. It couldn’t have been more New Orleans to be eating (Free) Jambalaya cooked in a big cast iron pot in the street, having drinks and watching the game. It felt perfect. There is a lot of thoughtfulness in creating something that just feels right. I have a few friends that have been to Gold Diggers out in LA and rave about it.
I also love what the ASH NYC team is doing. Considering we both have done a church and our next project is near theirs in Providence I cant say we are not admirers of there work and design. Shannon actually worked with them on a project she did for Ethels Club NYC.
What’s next in the pipeline for you & the team?
A boutique hotel, event space and artists in residency studio in the Olneyville Section of Providence.
What’s a MUST see/do for those visiting Philly?
The Barnes, Bok, and I love the new trail along the Schulykill and then hoping onto Kelly Drive.
Favorite restaurant in Philly?
The most common misconception about the city?
That somehow we are rude and only eat cheesesteaks. Philadelphians are just passionate! They love their neighborhoods, which all are very unique and different from one another. That’s one of the best things to explore about this city. In no way is it homogeneous. From one small neighborhood to the next there is definitely a feel unto its own.