217 Spruce Street

Francesca Russello Ammon

The Davis-Lenox House is a 3-bay, 3½-story, red brick Georgian row house built on this 21 by 80-foot lot by house carpenter James Davis in 1758. Major David Lenox, a Revolutionary War hero and, later, President of the Bank of the U.S. and U.S. Representative to the Court of St. James, lived there from 1779 to 1810. The original house measured only 30 feet deep, with a separate kitchen building in the back. In 1784, Lenox added a third floor and a garret and constructed a new two-story kitchen building, which was attached to the main house via a “piazza” with a staircase.

Over the course of the next century and three quarters, the house changed ownership nearly 20 times, eventually becoming a rooming house. The 1940 census lists three households residing in the property, plus eight lodgers. These residents hailed from Russia, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and the Eastern United States.

In October 1959, the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks passed a resolution in response to the property’s significant age (it was over two centuries old at the time), prominent location, and the fact that the house had “an unusually large proportion of its fine original paneling and other woodwork left.” Calling the house, at that point, “probably the finest un-restored Colonial city house left in Philadelphia,” the Society “resolved that every effort be made to find a new owner who will restore this house to its former elegance.”

C. Jared Ingersoll and his wife, Agnes, purchased the property the next year. Ingersoll was a successful railroad magnate and banker who was descended from a long line of prominent Philadelphians. He also involved himself in civic affairs, as co-chair of the Greater Philadelphia Movement and an active participant on the City Planning Commission. Along with then Mayor Richardson Dilworth’s move to the area as well, the Ingersolls’ move from the suburbs to Society Hill was a widely touted indicator of the neighborhood’s changing fortunes.

In an essay she wrote in an antique show catalog, Agnes described walking by the building and appreciating the attractive proportions of the “startlingly dilapidated, dreary, and yet, to our eyes, very charming old house.” When she and her husband asked to look inside, they found a scene that was “at once horrifying and challenging. All ten rooms of the house were still inhabited, despite lack of water, electricity and heat, which had been turned off some months before. The lawful tenants had moved away and the Redevelopment Authority was in process of evacuating the squatters… We stumbled about with flashlights, picking our way among indescribable rubbish ankle deep, scattering as we walked roaches and mice and, yes, even rats.” Their explorations also uncovered early paneling on the walls of many rooms, original hinges, fireplaces with breasted closets, and chair rails. The relatively untouched nature of the house, particularly relative to neighboring properties, only increased its appeal. But when they actually acquired the property, vandals and scavengers had already removed some of these details.

Over the course of eight months during 1960-61, architect George Roberts and builder Melvin Grebe restored the property back to its 1784 state. He and his clients drew, in part, upon old fire insurance surveys, from the Philadelphia Contributionship, as the basis for some of the restoration work. Research at the City Archives and Athenaeum of Philadelphia rounded out their historical investigations.

Exterior alterations included: replacing the current platform and railing with marble steps, installing a full set of paneled shutters on the front (and the first floor of the rear), replacing the rear windows, and demolishing a frame building out back. Whenever possible, they accomplished this work by reinstalling original elements, including the marble front steps (which were found in the cellar), as well as recovered window sashes and shutters.

While the Historical Commission only required that the new owners restore the exterior to prescribed conditions, the Ingersolls took this one step further and restored the interior as well. There, they removed extraneous partitions, replaced missing doors and woodwork with antique doors and/or made-to-order replacements that matched 18th century period details, uncovered hearths, and exposed the random width Pennsylvania yellow pine floors that had been hidden under linoleum. When patching was necessary, they found comparable old wood from the sites of demolished food markets on Front Street. Penelope Hartshorne, an architect with the National Parks Service and future resident of a Society Hill row house herself, scraped off layers of paint in each room to uncover the original moulding colors. Her work revealed an array of cream, light green, tan, and red brown shades. For the walls, they also commissioned reproductions of 18th century print wallpaper. Antique furniture completed the look.

Although the Ingersolls had in mind to adjust themselves to the house, rather than the other way around, they still incorporated several modernizing changes. They added three new bathrooms on the first and second stories of the piazza section of the house, updated the kitchen, rebuilt all of the chimneys for safety, and installed a hot air gas-fired heater in the basement.

Once the renovation was complete, stories about the house appeared in publications including the Christian Science Monitor and the Detroit Free Press. The house was also prominently featured on early walking tours in the renewing neighborhood. Agnes Ingersoll also heavily involved herself in restoration work throughout Society Hill by going on to chair the Historic Houses Committee of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, which was tasked with matching available properties with potential buyers.