Carter (1934-2014) and Jo Ann Buller, newlyweds, bought 241 Delancey Street in 1965. The house had been owned for many years by a large Italian-American family, and it showed a good deal of wear and tear. One of the sons had begun to renovate it as apartments.
Carter and Jo Ann did a good bit of the renovation work themselves, but they also used an architect, Nelson Anderson, and a general contractor. Some of the sub-contractors proved to be inexperienced and had to do some of their work more than once. The Bullers undertook the renovations in stages, starting with the first two floors and working their way up.
Carter became active in the Civic Association and dealt with three challenging issues when he was the president: the scale of Philadelphia’s role in the nation’s observation of the Bicentennial in 1976, whether or not to build the Crosstown Expressway somewhere between Lombard and Bainbridge, and whether and where to build low-income housing in Society Hill to accommodate people who had lost their homes to redevelopment.
Carter says, “The neighborhood has remained a neighborhood.” He notes that large numbers of young families continue to make their homes in Society Hill, rather than letting it become a neighborhood of senior citizens, as he had feared.
This transcript begins with an oral history interview with Carter. Immediately following is his own written addendum, by way of clarifying some points in the interview. Lastly, Carter and Jo Ann jointly authored a Q&A-formatted written history to further recount the physical and social aspects of their experiences in Society Hill. This written history has been edited to avoid duplication of information. Overall, this multi-part account supplements a separate oral history by Pierce Buller, the couple’s son.
DS: This is an interview with Carter Buller, who lives at 241 Delancey Street. The date is 9/19/07, and the interview is taking place at 116 Delancey Street. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens.
Carter, when did you come to Society Hill?
CB: The summer of 1965.
DS: And why did you come to Society Hill?
CB: Jo Ann and I were married in March of ’65, and we were living in a house that I had bought in the early ‘60s in the 1700 block of Addison Street. It had a kitchen in the basement, and even though it was a charming house, that certainly was a (1:00) distraction, particularly given the fact that we did a fair amount of entertaining. It was a difficult situation.
Another time I came home from work, swung into Delancey Street, and immediately stopped. Something was different. It took me a while, but I finally realized I was seeing a ship moving up the Delaware River. The warehouse at the end of the street had come down, allowing a view of the river traffic.
We started to look in the early summer of 1965, with the idea of moving. And we started to – and we looked solely in Center City, having decided that that’s where we wanted to reside, but having no views in terms of what part of Center City. And my recollection is that a good part of our examination, at least in the early stages, was west of Broad Street. We looked at very few if any properties east of Broad Street, until we found the property that ultimately we loved, which is 241 Delancey. And I believe we came upon that property some time in the late summer of 1965, (2:00) probably sometime in August.
[The tape is turned off, then on again]
DS: Carter, what was the condition of the property at the time that you purchased it?
CB: It was a very interesting condition, in that it was not being lived in. All of the furniture had been cleared out. The first floor had some work on it, because one of the sons of the owner, who was an elderly person at the time this took place, was a paper hanger by trade, and he had started to put up very fine wallpaper, not (3:00) decorative wallpaper but in effect construction wallpaper on the walls. We learned later that they were in the process of converting the house into apartments when the paper hanger, who was in charge of the project, died, which is why the property was put on the market. No one else in the family wanted to take on the responsibility.
Pursuant to their efforts to turn it into apartments, they had added on the first floor, at the rear of the first floor, a small, one-story addition, one half of which was a – what they thought was a modern but was a quite inadequate – kitchen. And the second half was a small bathroom, consistent with the idea that there would be a first-floor (4:00) apartment. They were also in the process of – in fact, had cut a hole through the front parlor in order to again utilize the downstairs as an apartment and give people private access through the stairway to the second floor.
The second floor, which consisted really of two big rooms, a front room and a rear room, to my recollection had been cleared out and was awaiting further work. But nothing had been done other than to clear it out. The third floor was theoretically two large rooms, but it reflected the days when the house had been cut into smaller units, presumably to accommodate a very large family. I’m not sure they were rental units, but there was a very large family that was raised there, (5:00) and so on the third floor there were very, very cheap partitions. Evidence of that is the fact, in the restoration process, I was able to remove most of that cheap partition.
And the fourth floor, which we would call the attic, nothing had been done. It was cleared out. There was a basement. In the rear of the basement a new heater that had been put in; you could tell that the rear of the basement was the original kitchen, because, among other things, it had built into the wall the original kitchen cupboard, which we still have. We relocated it. Underneath the addition, which they added to the (6:00) first floor, was what we would call the cold cellar, the original cold cellar, a brick cave area, which must have been extremely attractive. We have been able to retain that.
DS: You have not?
CB: We have been able to retain that.
DS: You have. Did you do the restoration yourself? Did you have someone else restore it?
CB: It was a 50-50 undertaking. We did a fair amount of the work. My contribution was really the scut work, which, as I indicated, was taking down the partitions. Another thing I did was – there were five fireplaces in the house, which was one of the reasons we were attracted to it. Each one of them had been closed off in order to make (7:00) the property warmer on the inside. My recollection is I opened up about three of those fireplaces. I cleaned up the patio, which had a lot of old bricks but was not in very good condition. The patio was very much overgrown.
My wife, Jo Ann, did a great deal of work and the more sophisticated work. She undertook to remove the paint not only from the moldings, wonderful moldings, that existed in the house, which was one of the reasons that attracted us to the house, but more significantly, we had, as it turns out, on the first floor, both the front room and the large second room, two fireplace (8:00) mantles which were done by an artisan by the name of Wellford back in the early 1800s. And they had many, many coats of paint on them. And Jo Ann over the course of many years lovingly restored those fireplaces.
There was a great deal of work that had to be done in terms of putting in a modern electrical system, air conditioning, a bathroom. And so we had both an architect and a general contractor.
DS: These contractors – was there any problem with them? Did they know what they were doing? What they were getting into? (9:00)
CB: That’s a very good question. The short answer is they didn’t know what they were getting into. For background, we had an architect, Nelson Anderson, who had done a number of properties in the area. The one that attracted us the most is a name well known to the so-called old-timers here, namely Peggy Walsh, who had a lovely property in the 400 block of Spruce Street, a historic property that Nelson had been responsible for its restoration. So we engaged Nelson, who approached our house in terms of preservation and restoration.
Then, with his drawings, we put it out for bids, and the successful contractor was someone that had had limited experience in the area. We (10:00) thought for a variety of reasons that his was the most responsible bid. And his name as I recall was Cutler. And we engaged him. As it turns out, he did have some very good artisans, particularly a carpenter, but a number of other trades were in over their heads. The most dramatic example of that was the electrician, who claimed that he could put the intercom system throughout the house – could do that in one day, and he ended up taking two weeks. Lost his shirt as a result.
There were a number of cases where, on the first go-around and in some cases on the second go-around, the contractor did not (11:00) do the work in accordance with the drawings. The most notable example was the bathrooms, where the floor tiling was set down three times in order to get it right. And the most humorous part of this was the dormer up in the front of the house, which was very visible from the street. And when they were in the process of doing that, Jo Ann would come home from work in the evenings and look up and see that the dormer had been done wrong. It took three efforts to get the dormer to comport with the style in the neighborhood.
DS: Did you buy your property – your house – from the Redevelopment Authority or from someone else?
CB: We bought it from the family that owned it. But the sale had to be approved by the Redevelopment Authority. And we signed the standard Redevelopment (12:00) Authority contract.
DS: But you paid the family directly.
CB: We paid the family directly. And the relevant footnote to that is the title was held by the surviving mother in the family. She did not speak or write English, and so we have the distinction of having a deed signed by an X, which is under certain circumstances including these legal in Pennsylvania.
DS: Do you remember the price of the house?
CB: Yes, $25,000.
DS: Do you remember the real estate taxes on it at that time?
CB: No, we were very conscious of every dollar. We (13:00) certainly figured it in the way we handled the contractor’s bid, the way we handled our architect. But there was nothing – I was used to real estate taxes, because I had a property Addison Street. My recollection is that these taxes were considerably lower than what we were paying on Addison Street. But I can’t remember the number.
DS: Do you remember the cost of the first contract? The first renovation?
CB: Not precisely. Approximately $10,000. We were a young couple; I was still an associate with the law firm, and Jo Ann had a job with Scott Paper. But we had to be very conscious of the dollars. And so we made a very conscious decision in terms of the renovations and restoration of the house, just to do the first two floors. (14:00) So, for example, we did nothing in the basement other than to add air conditioning. And it had a dirt floor in one portion and a wooden floor in another portion. We left that undisturbed. We did nothing on the third floor, other than to take out the partitions and rough in a bathroom. But we really did no other work. So, as I say, my recollection is that we probably paid no more than $50,000.
DS: What restrictions or specifications did the Redevelopment Authority put upon you? (15:00)
CB: I know there were restrictions, but nothing that really impeded us, because I should have mentioned that prior to our purchase of the house, some work had been done on it with the view to turning it into apartments. That work included, pursuant to an agreement with the Redevelopment Authority, bringing the façade of the house into line with the Redevelopment Authority’s requirements. The original front of the house, in the late 1920s, early 1930s, was covered over with a perma-concrete and the windows relocated. And all of that was – the perma-concrete – the windows were changed. The perma-concrete remained in certain areas, and they put a (16:00) whole new brick front on the house, probably in conjunction with the work that was being done at the same time at the adjacent property, 239 Delancey.
So when we got the property, the property in terms of its exterior was in accord with the Redevelopment Authority’s requirements. And they had no requirements that I recall relative to what we did on the interior. I think there was a requirement, which we met, that we had to complete the work in the described period of time. But interestingly enough, once we signed the agreement, we really heard nothing from the Redevelopment Authority.
DS: What stories other than what you’ve told me can you relate to restoring (17:00) the building, or Redevelopment Authority or contractors, suppliers, banks, lenders, neighbors?
CB: Well, I have a clear recollection that we were conscious – that we were well received in the neighborhood by people who had already moved in, our neighbors to the east, the Eimans [Bill and Jane], who, as I recall, were very friendly. The Newbolds [Deborah and Ted] lived around the corner on Third Street; we met them early on. But the neighbors who had the most influence on us and whom we really came to appreciate greatly were Arnold and Elizabeth Nicholson, who lived in Drinker’s Court, which is on the south side of Delancey Street. Indeed, one of the benefits that we had (18:00) for a good part of the restoration process was that we were renting one of the houses in Drinker’s Court. And so we got to know the Nicholsons quite well. The people who know and remember the Nicholsons know that they were very forthright in their views about the way houses should be restored, particularly Elizabeth, who had a sharper tongue than Arnold did. They were quite kind to comment on some aspects of our plans that they thought were inappropriate. Indeed, we changed our plans as we followed their suggestions and are very pleased that we did.
DS: Wonderful. Neighborhood associations?
CB: We were conscious of – not right off the bat – we were conscious of the (19:00) existence of the [Society Hill] Civic Association. We did not get immediately involved. My first recollection of people in the neighborhood who were involved was Dave Stevens as president. But I think before him or right after him – I’m not sure of the sequence – our neighbor Frank Roberts was president. But it wasn’t until we were here a number of years that through Arnold Nicholson, I got involved and became a member of the board. And ultimately I served two years as president.
DS: Do you remember any of the issues during your presidency? (20:00)
CB: I remember – no presidency is benign when it comes to the civic association. The biggest ongoing issue was – well, there were three issues going on at the time. The ongoing issue was the situs for the 1976 bicentennial. And in the early planning it was contemplated that Philadelphia would have a major role, and we would have something akin to a world fair site. There was a great deal of interest in locating that in and around Society Hill. And I believe our neighbor Jack Bracken was head of the (21:00) local committee charged with finding the site. I had a good relationship with Jack, and as a result, arranged for a number of presentations before the membership of the civic association, keeping them posted about the planning.
The most interesting of those was – there was a young planner in the area, somewhat of a lone wolf who recently passed away, who developed an idea to use Petty Island as the site for the 1976 bicentennial. His idea was not catching fire with the powers to be, but he did make a very interesting presentation to the membership of the civic association. In any event, President Nixon ultimately decided not to focus the bicentennial on any given geographic (22:00) location; the issue became somewhat moot in Society Hill.
The second issue which I believe was just getting under way – well, it was ongoing during my tenure and beyond my tenure – was the question of the Crosstown Expressway. One of Ed Bacon’s plans was to convert South Street into an expressway, in effect linking the Schuylkill Expressway with, ultimately, I-95. And there was a great deal of local opposition to that. And that started forming during my tenure.
The most contentious issue developed near the end of my tenure as President of SHCA when a group of citizens – residents – became very interested in providing for some low-cost housing (23:00) in Society Hill. They tried to, without any real notice, to take over one of our membership meetings. I deflected the contentiousness at the time by appointing a committee to study it and make recommendations. I asked Phil Price, who at the time lived in the neighborhood, who is well known in civic circles, to head that committee. He made his recommendations after I had left office, and they became the responsibility of my successor, Joanne Denworth. The recommendations of his committee turned out to be extremely controversial and resulted in a fair amount of turmoil in the neighborhood for a number of years. (24:00)
DS: Tell me, what did your family and friends think of you moving into this neighborhood, this house?
CB: Well, my family ultimately – my parents ultimately came to love it, and the same was true of Jo Ann’s folks.
DS: In the beginning?
CB: In the beginning – our most vivid memory is that, because of my background, coming from Allentown, the farm outside of Macungie PA, which my parents had restored in the late 1930s and 40s, I thought they would be thrilled with the idea that we would be taking on a restoration in the historic area of Philadelphia. Before we started any work, we brought them down and walked them through the property, from the basement (25:00) all the way up to the fourth floor. And after they left we commented that we thought their reaction was somewhat flat. No sooner had we made that observation than the phone rang, and it was my mother, explaining that it wasn’t that they didn’t love the property. But just the idea of all the work to be done made them tired. And indeed, I’ve now come to understand that observation.
Jo Ann’s parents were quite interested in what we were doing. I’m sure they thought but never expressed the reaction that we were a bit daffy moving into such an undeveloped area. Our friends, particularly our friends in Allentown, where we did have many, many friends, thought the whole idea of living in downtown Philadelphia was nuts. And our friends in Philadelphia who lived in the suburban areas of Philadelphia were equally skeptical of what we undertook (26:00) to do. It took about 15 years before they came around, to realize that we had made a very sound decision.
DS: That’s wonderful, Carter. Anything else that you would like to contribute?
CB: Well, I think one of the things that is a great comfort and delight as we observe things today is that in many respects the neighborhood has remained a neighborhood. We’re very pleased to see that so many young families have moved in, as evidenced by the activity in Three Bears Park. I think we were concerned as we matured in the area that it would simply become a community of maturing adults. But it remains a very vibrant neighborhood with all kinds of interests represented by all kinds of age groups. (27:00) So that would be my observation for the day.
DS: Thank you very much, Carter.
CB: Thank you.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CB: I’ve been asked to comment further on my understanding of the controversy involving proposed low-cost housing in sections of Society Hill. And this must have been in the early ‘70s, when I was president. In any event, I was president for a two-year period of time. I had some general awareness that a certain individual who lived, I believe, on Pine Street, the 500 block of Pine Street, was getting some press – some play in the press – to the effect that she was an African American who acted as a crossing (28:00) guard for McCall’s School. But she and her friends couldn’t afford to live in Society Hill then. She said if they were living here they would be treated as second-class citizens.
In any event, at about the same time, I was home preparing for a meeting of the civic association, which I would be conducting in the auditorium of the McCall’s School, when I got a phone call. The meeting started at 8 and I got a phone call at about a quarter to 8, from somebody whom I didn’t know, saying, “You should be aware that there’s going to be a group that’s going to appear at the civic association meeting protesting in a very vocal manner the lack of low-income housing in Society Hill.” And I thanked (29:00) them.
And, indeed, during the course of the meeting someone did get up and started to raise the issue, who had never attended a meeting before, to my knowledge, started to act up in a very vocal and boisterous fashion, which was kind of unheard of, at least during the period when I was involved with the civic association. So I in effect ruled them out of order on the basis that their issue was not on the agenda and therefore it was inappropriate and unfair to have any discussion of the merits at that time.
Either at that meeting or shortly thereafter I did agree that the matter should be studied and we ought to have a thoughtful report to the directors of the civic association (30:00) on the issue. I appointed a committee which was to be chaired by our neighbor and a member, Philip Price. I knew Phil on a personal basis and I had some knowledge of his general interest in this subject. I’m not sure whether at that point in time he had started doing work specifically, but I knew that he really had an interest and some knowledge. And I can’t frankly remember the other members of the committee.
In any event, the way it turned out was that the committee did not – it’s my recollection that the committee did not issue its report until right at the end of my tenure, at which time it was (31:00) known that Joanne Denworth was going to be my successor. The report came out, and it in fact recommended low-cost housing [sound of a telephone ringing]. It was to be government-subsidized housing and it was to be located in certain sections of Pine Street and in one of the cross streets.
The report generated a tremendous amount of controversy. We had various groups formed within Society Hill pro and con. I remember feeling so sorry for Joanne [Buller], who was such a capable person, having to chair meetings in which there [were] just terrible goings on. The opponents of this proposal were particularly (32:00) vocal and did not comport themselves in a very fine fashion. Ultimately, they were led by someone who became famous if not infamous in the neighborhood – a gentleman by the name of Centofanti. End of comment.
[End of interview]
[Transcriber’s Note: Mr. Buller reviewed the transcript and wanted to clarify some points. He recorded his additional comments, which follow.]
DS: This is an addition to Carter Buller’s interview of 9/19/07. The date today is 6/11/08, and I am Dorothy Stevens
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CB: This is to supplement my remarks concerning the condition of the interior of the house as we found back in the summer of 1965.
In my original statement starting at approximately page 2. [Note that the pagination has changed. In this version, he begins his description in minute 2. His description of the third floor occurs in minutes 3 and 4.] I start to describe what we found. As I re-read that and compared my earlier statement against the photographs that we took at the time, I realize that I gave a wrong impression about the amount of work that is required in some of the houses that are rehabbed and restored (1:00) in Society Hill, during that period of the 1960s.
In the case of 241 Delancey, my description of the first floor and basement is essentially correct. However, when we get to the second floor and third floor, we are dealing with what appeared to be very cheap plasterboard apartments that were on both floors. To be a little bit more specific, on the second-floor front, it was one large room, and it was empty as I described. However, of significance as it turns out, was the fact that we found lying on the floor a box lock which appeared to us to be quite old. (2:00) When we had it restored at Ball and Ball, we were told it was a very significant lock of about the 1780s era, which raises an interesting question as to what a 1780 lock was doing in a house which was probably built somewhere 1800 to 1810.
In any event, on the second floor, in the rear, which at one point probably was just one large room, it had been divided into two smaller rooms, and one of those was a kitchen with a sink and a stove, a very cheap sink and stove probably from the 1920s. In the far corner, which would be the northeastern corner, in what is now a book shelf and what had been a very (3:00) small closet, that had been expanded by batten board into a toilet. And there was a hopper there in the corner, which is consistent with the fact that the soil pipe ran down through the northeast corner of the house.
We got to the third floor; again, our recollection is that the third-floor front was essentially empty. But there were the plasterboard apartments in the third-floor rear. Again, there was an interesting enough fireplace, which was on the eastern side, a very nice, small fireplace. There was a cast iron bathtub sitting in front of it with (4:00) the claw and ball feet. And tacked into the fireplace mantle was a very cheap and inexpensive towel holder. There was also a hopper in the same corner as was the case on the second floor, namely on the northeast corner. We also think that there, where we currently have a put in a bathroom, there was a refrigerator and stove. There is clearly evidence that the house was used for apartments and probably by the family that we bought the house from.
I trust that that clarifies the situation. And I guess just to summarize, I think in my earlier statement I did indicate that we did a great deal of the gut work, (5:00) and particularly the clearing out of the house. The removal of the partitions and the removal of the things that were found there we did ourselves or had someone help. I guess the most dramatic aspect of that was that one very strong young person put the cast iron bathtub which was on the third-floor rear – hoisted it on his back and marched it down all three flights of steps out onto Delancey Street into a waiting trash truck.
[End of supplement]
[Beginning of Written History by Carter Buller and Jo Ann Buller]
When did you come to Society Hill?
We purchased this house in September 1965. We had married in March of that year and lived in Carter’s restored house at 1731 Addison Street, a wonderful home, but small. We wanted to live in Center City because of proximity to business and city life. From March to August we spent many weekends looking at houses in the city. We had no specific area in mind so we looked everywhere, river to river. We examined finished and unfinished houses.
One day we spotted a small newspaper listing of 241 Delancey. Sounded good so we made an appointment. No one showed up, but we walked in the neighborhood. A few days later we returned to walk the area, and the door to this house was open with a realtor showing it. Carter and I walked in and went to different directions in the house, came back together, and each said, “We’ve found our house.” We purchased it in ten days.
We were so excited that we asked Carter’s parents to come see it right away. They had restored an early farmhouse near Macungie, PA, and we were sure they would congratulate us. Happily, we showed them all five floors of this wonderful house and didn’t really notice their silence until they left. Two hours after they had gone, there was a telephone call. They said they were sorry not to have been more enthusiastic but, frankly, it made them tired. (Now we know what they meant!) Friends also questioned our wisdom at every possible event, including parties. We spent many hours defending our move to our friends for about ten years. Quietly, gradually, the questioning became, “What was the selling price of that house on your street?”
Condition of the house:
A structural study indicated that the house was sound. A start had been made on modernization of the three apartments. A new coat of paint had been applied on the first floor (added to the fifteen or so coats already there) as well as a small kitchen and bath in an attached rear structure, as part of Apartment 1. No work done on the second-floor apartment with kitchen and bath in the rear, or on the small, third-floor apartment with kitchen and bath in the rear, or on the fourth floor, or the basement. Conditions on the second, third and fourth floors and the basement were from a much earlier time; newspaper under the kitchen linoleum on the second and third floors was from the late ‘40s. Basement front had dirt floor, middle room was partially cemented for the placement of a large, new furnace with some deteriorated original floorboards still there, and rear had a brick floor leading to a cold cellar which had been outside the house originally. Original basement kitchen door led to cellar and was the entry to the garden. Now the cellar was underneath the new kitchen attachment.
Who restored 241 Delancey?
We restored the home. For the initial partial restoration (1965-67) we used Nelson Anderson, who had done Margaret Walsh’s showplace house on Spruce Street, as our architect. The contractor was Harold Cutler.
Purchase price and assessment:
Purchase price from Jennie Ionavale (Ordile) was $25,000. Assessment: $13,100. Real estate taxes: $524.
This first contract ($10,000) called for totally new plumbing, e.g., relocating the sewer pipe and installing totally new copper piping throughout; totally new electric wiring; installation of a kitchen; installation of two bathrooms; tearing down added interior walls; repairing original interior walls; fitting in closets, because the original house had very small ones; heating and cooling elements; removing built-in basement kitchen cupboard; and some excavation of the basement and pouring new cement floors there. This took us two years to accomplish.
The second construction contract was in 1969, when we did floors three and four and basement, adding a half bath in basement, which became a playroom/family room. The third construction, in 1980, added the sun room off the kitchen and made a garden.
Redevelopment Authority Specifications:
RA assigned to us the March 1960 agreement with family mentioned above on September 23, 1965. It stated that in a six-month startup, completed in two years, and according to the Urban Renewal Plan of June 5, 1959, the owners would repair front dormer and, in the rear, repair the dormer, cornice, window frame and sash, and clean and repoint brick on upper stories.
The bones of the house were certainly there and both pleasing and excellent. The interior was, except for the first floor, in quite dilapidated condition: full kitchen equipment and bathroom articles on the second and third floors, weeds in garden up to the top of a six-foot wall, basement in poor condition, 1927 electric wiring and early sewer pipe and plumbing. No furniture in the house.
The previous family was Italian, and we were told that Jennie had delivered twenty-one single- birth children, of whom seventeen survived. Only the last four or five lived in our house. One of the sons was a paperhanger who had started the renovation work. He had died after just completing the first floor and none of the other children wanted the house.
From the realtor, we learned that the original parchment deed for the house existed in one of the families. We called Jennie’s daughter, a Mrs. Dabbundo, and went to South Philadelphia to see her. She was willing to sell the deeds for a lot of money. We thought we would try again when the house was in better condition, they could see how good it looked and would reduce the price on the deeds. So, when we moved in two years later, 1967, and had the grandfather clock in the corner, the copper pots at the fireplaces, the brocaded Chippendale chair appealingly angled, the oriental rugs scattered over the floors, the mahogany dining table and the walnut corner cupboard installed, we invited them to see the house. Mrs. Dabbundo came and instantly pronounced that it looked “just as we remembered it.” No dice on the deeds passing with the house. We do not know where they are now.
Fifteen or so years afterward as I was sweeping the sidewalk, a car drove down the street and stopped at 241. “Take good care of that house,” the driver called. “I will,” said I. He repeated the command and I the answer, adding “Why?” He was one of the original family; so I asked about their experiences, and we had a pleasant conversation. When asked about the one missing wooden mantel on the third-floor front, he said it was cold one winter and they had run out of fuel so chopped up the fireplace.
The other mantels were intact, including the Wellford mantels on the first floor. These had lovely decoration, which was hard to see because of the many, many coats of paint on them. This was the case with every other piece of original wood, of which there was a lot. The interior trim on the newly moved windows (which did match the original trim found there) had only one coat of paint. However, the front hall paneling, arch, chair rails, doors, baseboard, shoe trim, rear windows, stairway balusters, etc., had tons of paint.
Someone had recommended the use of an electric paint burner, which I used every possible moment for three years. I was able to remove most of the paint, including the covering on our dining room mantel: swags, garlands and gouge work and a center panel with a reclining woman and a dog or a goat. When, finally, I arrived at bare wood, I saw in pencil above the scene “Diana giving command to her hound.” It was a Wellford mantel. Because of this work, a friend called me Mickey Mantle for years.
Over the years I continued to work on the paint removal project. Periodically I had strange symptoms: blacking out and being unable to vocalize my thoughts or express names, even Carter’s. I was hospitalized twice, once before the children were born and again when they were about four. I was examined many times and finally dismissed by my doctor as some kind of hypochondriac. Around that time, I saw a newspaper article, written by a doctor rehabbing a house and removing paint, reporting that these were indications of lead poisoning. Further tests revealed that I did have lead poisoning but have suffered no ill effects. I finished the paint removal on the Wellford mantel in 1987, the year the children left for college, twenty-two years after we purchased the house.
Another paint removal experience involved taking all the balusters out of the stairway to the second floor to remove the paint from their delicate fluting. We did this on a weekend when the contractors were not there. This left a free-standing banister between the first and second floors. After the paint was removed, we started to return the balusters to their positions so that the contractor could use the stairway without breaking the banister. There were forty balusters, and we had not numbered them. Each one fit in only one location. We worked until 1:00 a.m. to finish the job. It was a real lesson.
Once I came home from work and ran across the street (we were living at 238A Delancey Street at the time) to see the new heating flues installed in the middle room. I was very upset when I saw the flue: it was terribly crooked. When the contractor arrived the next morning, I complained bitterly about the crooked flue. “Lady,” he said, “that’s the only straight plumb line in the house!”
Another time I came home from work, swung into Delancey Street, and immediately stopped. Something was different. It took me a while, but I finally realized I was seeing a ship moving up the Delaware River. The warehouse at the end of the street had come down, allowing a view of the river traffic.
[End of written account]
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