Today I picked up some things from a storage locker sale I had purchased. One thing was a limited edition book published in 1965 when I was a year old. Philadelphia: The Unexpected City by Laurence Lafore and Sara Lee Lippincott. The publisher was Doubleday. It was a copy of the “Philadelphia Edition.”
I don’t think too many people would be as excited to see this book as I was. But it was a book I remember people having in their homes when I was growing up, especially people that lived in Society Hill because there was so much of Society Hill in the book.￼
And there’s one thing that’s a picture of when they were raising the houses around Front Street to basically put in the highway. And I remember when they were doing all of that because it took a while to build and my mother’s friend Margery Niblock the artist had done a wood cut of it that I have the artist’s proof of￼￼.
So again, unless you live there during this time this probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But it means something to me because there are so many pictures in this book of what Society Hill looks like when people like my parents came in and bought house is dirt cheap and started to restore them.
And the restoration of Society Hill is still a historic preservation triumph even with all of the houses that were in such bad condition they had to be demolished.￼￼
I guess that’s why sometimes I wonder why municipalities let people say “Oh we can’t possibly fix this, it has to be taken down!”￼ I look at what happened then when I was a kid, and the technology wasn’t as advanced and so on and so forth, yet the historic preservation actually happened and restoration actually happened.
So I wish people would look at examples like this, and then look more towards preservation where they live. It is possible. Communities just have to want it. And if communities want it, they need to make that known to local government.￼￼
People have to realize you can save pieces of the past and people will love them and will live in them.
This section of Philadelphia when I was growing up was a sea of construction and scaffolding. I remember the contrast of going to neighborhoods where other people we knew lived and then coming back to our own. But it was exciting to see.￼￼￼ Even then.
Hopefully someday when I am no longer around, someone else will happen upon what is now my copy of this book and love it as much as I do.￼
This was something the greeted me this morning when I popped open my tablet. An update from Meg Veno at Life’s Patina about the restoration in progress of the Jenny Lind house in Historic Yellow Springs Village￼ this morning she was talking about antique fire backs and it triggered a memory in me, reminding me of my late father upon seeing these fire backs.
When I was very young, as I have written before, my parents bought a wreck of a house from the redevelopment authority in Philadelphia. Literally a wreck. It was their first house and they had lived in an apartment close by as newlyweds.
An 1811 double front townhouse turned into bad apartments in the depression (if memory serves.) This was the early 60s and most of Society Hill was a slum. I remember my father hunting for fire backs for all the fireplaces (and almost every room had one except for the back building.) Because the homes were in such a general condition of disrepair, you would salvage for missing parts quite literally from other homes being torn down.
This was the original “sale sign” on the house my parents bought in the ‘60s in Society Hill
Yes above you see the actual sale sign that was hanging on the house my parents bought from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in the early 1960s￼. I will note that in today’s world, realtors and others get the actual date of this house I was born in wrong. Sometimes it’s just buy a couple of years, other times it’s been by decades. I don’t know how they can’t do their research. I keep the sign with me as a souvenir of my childhood there.
I have distinct memories of Society Hill when I was really little and it was like a giant construction site. There were so many houses that were beyond repair being torn down, other houses being restored, and in some cases entire blocks being leveled for new construction. Including next door to our house.
From Philadelphia government archives. Photo dates to 1957
If you look at those photos, the one immediately above the one that was taken in the 1930s when the house was part of an entire row of homes built in the same early 19th ￼century. The photo above that is from 1957 and a bunch of the houses had already been demolished. I will further note that the house at the end of the row in the 1957 photo (269 S. 4th) was torn down by the time my parents bought their house (271 S. 4th.)
When I was a little girl until they started building, right next-door to us was a big old empty lot with a giant sycamore tree in the back corner.
When I look at that photo I get wistful because the little street tree is a pin oak tree my father planted when I was a little￼ girl. I also have that memory of him planting the street tree and taking care of it throughout the years. Just like I have memories of my mother scrubbing down by hand the white marble steps. It was the only way to keep them clean.
The next screenshot is a Google shot my parents’ old house today￼￼. I have no idea who owns it I know it’s sold a couple of years ago. I presume it is still single-family. It would kill me if it was put back to apartments after all these years.
And look to the left of my parents home townhouses built in the early 1970s.￼￼ I don’t think it was late 1960s, but maybe they were at least in planning. Look at the difference between what you see being built today and what was built then. It has a better size and scale to fit into the existing neighborhood. The design while modern, nods to the past.￼ It is a shame we can’t get that today with new construction, isn’t it?
Society hill in the 1960s was a very different place than a place you see being gentrified today. It was like this unspoken word-of-mouth saying that when houses were being either taken down or strip to the studs, people from the neighborhood that were in the middle of restoration projects always got a pick at salvage basically.
Meg’s photo of her firebacks took me back to when my father was restoring the fireplaces in our house back then. I have no idea if the fireplaces are still wood-burning, but they were when I was a child. And I remember my father going in and out of houses being torn down or houses that had been torn down and all were left were piles of rubble looking for hardware and firebacks and even some mantelpieces￼. The mantelpieces in this house I was born in were predominantly marble. A lot of them were black marble with beautiful veining.
The mantelpieces my father picked up out of homes being torn down were wood. Some of those had future use in other houses. Daddy hated the waste so he literally collected hardware, doors, etc. Everyone did in those days. Of course yes there were scavengers that just stole from everyone but I don’t remember them actually living in Society Hill. They would just appear like carrion crows every now and again. I do remember my father chasing a contractor out onto the roof of the 4th floor for using interior mouldings as window trim. (But I digress as I ramble)
The PhillyHistory.org is a treasure trove of photos. You can see how bad a lot of the houses were on the inside, let alone the outside. I haven’t been able to find archival photos of my parents’ house from before they bought it but here’s a screenshot I took from one of the neighborhood homes of these archives that will give you an idea of the restoration that was necessary:
It’s crazy when I think about the way it was to what it has become as an area today. One thing no one ever talks about is how Society Hill got the name Society Hill. ￼ Cue USHistory.org :
Named after the long defunct Free Society of Traders, this area of Philadelphia extends from Walnut to Lombard Streets, from Front to 8th Street.
The Society for which Society Hill is named is now defunct. The Free Society of Traders, a stock company to whom William Penn made liberal concessions of land and privileges, encountered virgin territory and woodlands stretching westward to the Schuylkill. They found some Dutch and Swedes living here as well. Though by 1683 the Society’s assets already included a sawmill, a glasshouse, and a tannery in Philadelphia, but two score years later they were bankrupt. The Assembly put the property of the Society in the hand of trustees in order to pay its debts.
Home to many members of the federal government when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, the area also attracted the locally wealthy and international nabobs as well. As the land juxtaposed the river and the seat of government, it was the most valuable in the city. From greed and speculation, lots were divided and divided again. The result: the serpentine walkways, abrupt angles, and tiny alleys that today make the area so appealingly intimate.
Over decades the area lost its cachet and ultimately became a dilapidated slum with a massive food distribution center located on Dock Street
But an interesting thing about when Society Hill came back to life is a lot was abandoned and derelict and empty. It wasn’t a case of just displacing people to allow gentrification. That happened in many other areas of the city, however. I am not going to say the Redevelopment Authority was full of angels. There were always stories growing up.
Harry Schwartz, 84, remembers when his neighborhood, Society Hill, was one of the poorest parts of Philadelphia. But by the time he moved there as a young lawyer in 1969, things had changed. City planners had fixed up crowded blocks of crumbling old houses and razed a congested, old wholesale produce market to make way for majestic modernist towers. Schwartz and his pediatrician wife were attracted to Society Hill’s architectural gems, tucked among its cobblestoned, walkable streets. Soon, they found themselves surrounded by a community of artists, activists, and young professionals like them.
They loved it. Society Hill allowed them to bike to work and walk to friends’ houses for Julia Child-inspired dinner parties…The reinvention of Society Hill in the 1960s is widely considered one of the first instances of gentrification — although no one called it that at the time….“What happened in Society Hill in our experience, and I speak only from that, was not displacement,” says Schwartz, who moved in about a decade after city government spurred the redevelopment of the neighborhood. “But rather [by the time they moved in 1969], re-occupation and restoration.”
It was different. And it was a time where progress didn’t hurt so much and people were actively participating in historic preservation.
There is this website I have discovered called Preserving Society Hill. They have these oral histories transcribed. Some I have read have made me very emotional reading them. These are the people of my earliest years, the faces of where I lived. Some I still know today. It is boring for all of you to hear me talk about this website, but for me, I am reading interviews given by people whose houses I played in or who my mother was in the babysitting co-op with and so on.
I will share a snippet of one given by Mrs. Burnette. She and her husband who is an architect were friends of my parents and my sister and I went to school with their daughters. They lived on S. 3rd Street. I loved their house and still am connected to the daughters today:
DS: Tell me more about the condition of the house. Had it been open to the elements? Had it been vacant for a long period of time?
MB: I think it had been vacant for a while, because it was – as I remember, it was just large and dirty. [Laughs]
DS: Large and dirty. Were there animals or anything inside?
MB: No, no, it didn’t seem to be that way.
MB: No. Of course, it’s surprising that we went up into the attic and cleaned (5:00) the attic first of all. I remember being up there with a broom and sweeping out the attic and finding an old shoe. But the rest of it was pretty open. I don’t know if the Redevelopment Authority had come in and cleaned some of it out. Has anybody else said anything about that?
……DS: The Redevelopment Authority – you bought it from them.
MB: Yes. As I remember, it was $9,800.
Another oral history was given by my friend’s father Philip Price. What an amazing man he is!
Philip Price, Jr.’s account of his experience restoring 321 Spruce Street seems to include more lawsuits than do those of other narrators. A fire on the third floor had done a lot of damage to the house when Phil and his wife Sarah bought the place in 1965. The house was in “absolutely appalling” condition, but Phil and Sarah wanted to live in Center City and “enjoy the challenges of moving into a redevelopment area.” They also bought the property next door, 319 Spruce, where they would enjoy planting a garden. They did a complete rehab of the house: electrical, plumbing, roof, painting, nine fireplaces all restored to working order, and ultimately shutters required by the Redevelopment Authority.
One lawsuit arose after Phil and his contractor discovered that the chimney shared by the unrestored, unoccupied house next door at 323 Spruce was about to fall off the houses and crash onto the sidewalk – so imminently that Phil had the chimney removed immediately and wrote a letter to the other owner describing what had happened. The other owner sued Phil, but Phil prevailed
Truthfully this Preserving Society Hill website is a gem to me. Even some of my childhood playmates are interviewed with the oral histories. If you lived in Society Hill when we did you will love the memories evoked. It’s why I love oral histories and think they are so important. I have always said communities should commit to oral histories.
But what is also so great about the oral histories I am reading on this website is I am not mis-remembering things. Like all of us who got jumped or mugged. Yes truly and as kids. They stole my friend’s bike right out from under us in Bingham Court which was down the street from our house. My friend wore glasses and they smashed them in her face. Then there was the Halloween a whole bunch of us got mugged for our Unicef collection boxes. And we were with parents. I remember we were wearing these giant paper costumes by Creative Playthings too – parents loved them because you could bundle kids up underneath.
Society Hill was tough but it was wonderful. I loved the history of it and still do. It was proof that historic preservation does and can work. This is my touchstone when I think about historic preservation anywhere. Society Hill brought together people from all walks of life, backgrounds, races, religions. Oh and guess what else? Most people had walled gardens they created as they were restoring their houses.
So Meg Veno? Thank you for inspiring me today and evoking happy memories that made me take another ramble down my own memory lane.
We need more preservation. We need development to fit with where we live when it happens. It is possible.
The photo above has me in the center. Circa 1976- 1977. It has just been too long that sadly, I don’t remember the exact date.
Where am I? At one of my favorite historic sites on earth. Historic Harriton House in Bryn Mawr. I think technically, my friends and I at the time, beat Chef Walter Staib into the kitchen there by a few decades.
When we first moved to the Main Line from Society Hill, I missed the history and old houses of Society Hill. Yes, I was kind of obsessed by old houses even then. So neighbors introduced our family to historic Harriton House. And as a related sidenote, Historic Harriton House is a remarkable story of preservation. I urge everyone to take the time to go visit. The site is a little slice of heaven.
Before we moved from the city to suburbia, I also did something kind of historically minded for a kid.
At 11, I was probably the youngest volunteer tour guide the Park Service ever had in Society Hill. I gave tours of the Todd House and Bishop White House. In Colonial garb with a little mob cap.
But this is just something I have always loved since I was a kid. Our history, our architecture, our old houses.
I am not a new house person. I am a preserve the old house person. It’s just the way I am made. I am a realist and I don’t think every old house can be saved, but I think a lot more can be saved then are actually being saved.
Whenever I have these conversations with anyone about historic preservation, I go back to my childhood in Society Hill. And the reason is simple: that area was a total slum when people like my parents as newlyweds bought wrecks of old houses in Society Hill for peanuts from the redevelopment authority in Philadelphia.
My parents and their friends restored these houses with architectural details and hardware and windows and woodwork from houses that were too far gone to save. And as kids, a lot of the time we went with our parents when they were visiting these wrecks of houses to see what they could salvage out of them. And salvaging then wasn’t so much a big business as it was sort of a neighbor helping neighbor collaborative. People would give you the stuff out of the houses being torn down. It was a very different time.
It was through these expeditions that I learned about things like shutter dogs. Busybody mirrors. Box locks and more. The details of historical architecture which have traveled with me throughout my life.
This is where my love of old houses began. And it has been a lifelong affair.
A lot of people don’t like my opinions. And I’m sorry they don’t share my love of old houses and history. But as Americans we have a magnificent history. And we can’t just keep bulldozing it away.
Cabinet makers, custom furniture builders, and artisan wood workers are a dying breed. It takes real artistic talent combined with years of work. Some people call themselves cabinet makers and so on, but they really aren’t. Seriously, it is an art form.
I love custom woodwork and cabinetry. It’s luscious and beautiful.
I do not often promote businesses and if I do I must have personal experience with them. I am going to introduce you to one.
Sherman & Gosweiler Fine Cabinetry and Woodworking. They have been in business since 1976 and I LOVE their work! If you can dream it, Dick Gosweiler can build it. Whether it is an urban space like a chic Manhattan apartment or townhouse; a penthouse on Rittenhouse Square; a second home in Bay Head or the Hamptons; or even a simple farmhouse in Chester County this is who you want.
In addition to making your dreams for your home come to life this company also can do period reproductions. One of my particular favorites are the mantelpieces and mantelpiece surrounds they have done over the years. I mean don’t you just hate to see people put gobs of money into either a new house or an extensive renovation only to cheap out on a stock mantelpiece and/or mantelpiece surround for a den or living room or great room?
On my wish list for my home someday I would love one of their mantelpieces.
Anyway, just was thinking about house stuff and thought I would throw this up here.
Sherman & Gosweiler have a website and a Facebook fan page. If you need their services they can be reached at (610) 270-0825. They are located at 401 East 4th Street in Bridgeport – that is their physical shop, but they travel pretty much anywhere for installations and whatnot.
What they say about themselves is as follows and utterly true:
Since our inception in 1976 we have always had the same philosophy: To craft beautiful and functional cabinetry delivered on budget and on time. We are committed to making the entire experience easy and pleasurable for our clients. From creating a great design to a trouble-free installation, we are available to answer your questions and coordinate with other tradespeople on the job. Let us show you why scores of interior designers, architects, builders and hundreds of homeowners have put their trust in us.
Yes, in my garden menagerie inherited from previous owners are also a couple of pear trees. I am really frustrated right now because I need one of those picking poles (don’t knopw what else to call them). At the tippy top of the trees are the best pears. And I am in a race with birds and bugs to get to them…probably squirrels too.
One summer when I was growing up and I went to Strasbourg, I will never forget the visit to a pear orchard. There pears were growing into bottles placed at the ends of limbs when the pears were teeny-weeny. These pears later became an eau du vie Poire William.
Also, my parents had a friend when I was growing up named Harry Niblock. He was an artist (he passed away a few years ago) and he loved to paint and draw pears. Of course the amusing thing about Harry’s pears is they almost reminded you of people when he was finished. Some (like at left) were more traditional still lives. But some of those pears? Odd to say but they were downright sexual in nature.
His ex-wife Margery Niblock is also an artist. She taught me how to do woodblock and linoleum cutting and printing. I still have the scar on my wrist from when she warned me how to hold my tools when cutting and I did not listen. The mini photo of a woodcut of geraniums is one of her pieces that I actually have – found it at a flea market and it took me back to when I was a kid. To this day, she is still one of my favorite artists. If I see her work anywhere, I buy it. One time when we were little, she used my sister as a model. My sister was a little thing sitting on the beach playing with my mother’s wide brimmed straw hat and playing in the sand. And during the holidays, Margie would also create these fabulous Christmas-y wood cuts.
So I thought of both of them today as I was trying to get a few pears down to photograph and this is the result.
Posted on: May 24th, 2012 by David Garber 2 Comments
Today’s Preservation Round-Up is a selection of stories you alerted us to on our Facebook page. As much as we have our ear to the ground for local preservation stories and efforts around the country, we can’t be everywhere at once, so we greatly appreciate your shares. Here are some recent posts worth checking out.
I am honored and psyched to be featured on their blog which is awesome, and I hope it brings attention to the plight of this church as it raises funds to raise the roof once again.
If you would like to donate to St. Peter’s, here is how you do it:
It is a horrible economic time to have a crisis with a historic structure, let alone one of the most favorite and beloved in the Philadelphia region. It is because of that this blog is making a little side trip to the Society Hill section of Philadelphia where I was born.
St. Peter’s, is an 18th century, American Revolution relevent Episcopalian Church in Society Hill and 4th and Pine streets. I went to grade school at St. Peter’s School, so I have many happy memories of this church (and others like getting a book autographed every year at the St. Peter’s book fair by Marguerite D’Angeli who was a friend of the headmistress.)
St. Peter’s was one of the Society Hill landmarks that was my playground as a child. It is also one of the most beautiful and serene places in Philadelphia.
I attended Easter Services at St. Peter’s and it was like instantly going back in time to when I was a little girl. St. Peter’s is one of those places that makes you realize you can go home again. From her beautiful windows to the high boxes inside the church, to the climb up the stairs for a look out over the church yard, St. Peter’s is just a very cool place.
I learned on the news today that St. Peter’s needs the help of anyone who can spare a dollar or two. The church is being forced to close due to instability in the roof of the historic structure. St. Peter’s Church was designed by Robert Smith and opened in 1761 as an offshoot of Christ Church in Old City. The Church’s tower, designed by William Strickland, was added in 1842.
St. Peter’s is a National Historic Landmark.
Saint Peter’s is not just a historic structure, it is a church that does many good things including a food cupboard. They live their slogan of “Open Hearts. Open Minds”
Can you help save St. Peter’s? The faster they have angels drop donations on them, the faster they will reopen.
St. Peter’s Church at 3rd and Pine streets has been in continuous use since the 1760s, but parishioners will not be able to worship in the sanctuary this Sunday.
The Inquirer reports that St. Peter’s sanctuary roof is at risk of collapse. An engineering firm reportedly inspected the sanctuary’s roof trusses and found their condition dangerous enough to order the building closed until stabilization measures can be completed.
When George Washington was in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress, he attended services at a relatively new Episcopal church called St. Peter’s in what’s now known as Society Hill.
Now, more than 250 years after it was built, the same church still stands at Third and Pine streets. It serves more than 400 families and educates children at its elementary school across the street.
The stalwart church, however, is in danger after so many years…..Even after the building is reopened, Laughlin said the congregation will need to raise $1 million to completely update the church’s structure, a prospect which could take up to three years.
The sanctuary of the historic St. Peter’s Church in Society Hill has been closed after several roof trusses were deemed at risk of collapse, the Rev. Ledlie Laughlin told congregants in an e-mail Wednesday.
An architectural engineering firm concluded that the trusses “are sufficiently at risk of collapse that the sanctuary must be closed at once,” Laughlin wrote. The firm said the sanctuary could be reopened in several months if the roof is stabilized. Replacing the roof could take two or three years.