One man's life is inside the Palestra


PHILADELPHIA -- His name was Landgrath. Or it might have been Landgreth. It's been a while, so the spelling is a little fuzzy.

At every game he stood at the same post -- on the corner of the court closest to the visiting benches at the Palestra.

This was back in the 1950s and '60s, when security guards wore uniforms similar to the state police, so Landgra(e)th looked pretty imposing, like the kind of guy who would gladly toss a gate-crasher back on the streets.

The kids knew better.

They'd slide through the door behind Landgra(e)th and he'd motion at them with his eyeballs.

"Like this," Dan Harrell explains, rolling his eyes up and to one side. "He was showing us where the empty seats were."

The secret entrance the Southwest Philly pack used to get from the corner of 33rd and Spruce to Landgra(e)th's station has since been boarded up, closed off in the name of progress when the University of Pennsylvania renovated neighboring Hutchinson Gymnasium two years ago.

There used to be a door in the gym's basement weight room. It opened into a dusty storage area that currently houses old water buckets and other basketball detritus. On the opposite side from the door, a pair of wooden steps led to the Palestra tunnel and around the corner from that, another door opened to the promised land.

"This one," Harrell says. "You'd go through this door and you'd be on the court."

Harrell is 70 now. He and his wife raised six girls and those girls have given him 14 grandchildren. In June 2012, he retired. He worked at two places in his life; the first was General Electric and, after he was let go there, the University of Pennsylvania. He got a job in housekeeping at the Wharton School; later he was moved over to the Palestra.

For 23 years, he served as the gym's custodian in the truest sense of the word, caring for the place as if it were his seventh child. The Other Woman, Harrell called it in a love letter of an essay he once wrote, the man and the building becoming so intertwined that people here know him simply as Palestra Dan.

The boy who used to hop the trolley and sneak in with his buddies now has a key to every door in the place. No one dared take those keys when he retired. He knows the building's quirks and noises, its nooks, crannies and even the friendly spirits who visit when it's quiet. He can tell you where a sunbeam will fall at a certain time of day, and spin a story about almost every section.

If you want to know the Palestra, really know it, ask Palestra Dan to give you the tour.

"This is the heart of the Palestra," Harrell says, beginning the tour by ducking through a door off of equipment manager Johnny Borraccini's office. Two men, Jack and Harvey, are standing in front of a long table, folding uniforms.

The heart of the place, it turns out, is the laundry room, where the hum of the industrial-sized washer and dryer keeps in time with the work Jack and Harvey do.

It's not much to look at, unless, that is, you know where to look.

Harrell does.

"See these floors?" Harrell says, pointing to the blond hardwood. "These are the original floors from 1927."

The Irish storyteller is just beginning to spin his tale.

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