Charles Burnette

Charles (Chuck) and Margo Burnette bought 234 S. Third Street from the Redevelopment Authority in 1964. Designed by Thomas U. Walter, it was one of two remaining of three original houses built in 1842. Although it was much too big (3,700 sq. ft.) for their needs and was in derelict condition, Chuck was an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania and welcomed the space. They managed to scrape together the money to buy the house and pay for the initial round of renovations. They cleaned up the interior themselves, and Chuck did a lot of renovations himself with help from contractors. They renovated floor by floor, creating or expanding the living space needed for their growing family; two daughters were born in the mid ‘60s. Eventually they put an apartment on the first and second floors and their own residence on the third and fourth floors; they altered their residence when their daughters moved away from home.

He describes the various renovations they undertook, some of the subcontractors they used, and some experiences they had with break-ins to the house.

Chuck describes in detail the most exceptional feature of the house: the iron balcony railing on the second floor of the façade. There were originally three houses; each had a cast iron balcony railing on the second floor of the façade. When the Burnettes bought the house, it had no balcony railing, and Chuck tells the tale—involving an old man in Bucks County, his heirs, a fence, an iron-worker from A&E Hoffman, the iron works on S. Third Street, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—of how they found the missing rail and waited until they had the chance to buy it and restore it to the house.


DS:      This is an interview with Charles Burnette. The date is October 7, 2008. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens, and the location is 116 Delancey Street in Philadelphia. Chuck, can I call you Chuck?

CB:      Sure.

DS:      Everybody does. Tell me, when did you first move to Society Hill?

CB:      We actually came in 1964. The reason for coming was that Margo [Burnette, his wife] was pregnant, and we needed a new house. We were living in a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which was 12 by 12 and three stories, up on Iseminger and Panama Streets, and we just needed a bigger place. We were walking one day in Society Hill, and Margo looked over at this house on Third Street and said, “Oh, that’s a great house. I’d like to live there.” It had no railing and it was fairly derelict and a Federal Revival (1:00) house with Victorian doors on the front. An amazing house. It had been the Mercantile Club of Philadelphia before it became a warehouse. We looked at it, and I arranged with the Redevelopment Authority to go in it. We went immediately up to the second floor, which was just one, huge space, 50 ft. by 14 ft. 6 high by about 20 ft. wide. Margo immediately got cold feet, and I said, “Ah! Space!” Being an architect, that was all I cared about. We were totally foolish, because it was way too big a house for us to take on, especially since I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. (2:00)

DS:      And you were in the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania at that time?

CB:      That’s right. I was just about to enter the Ph.D. program. I’d been at school for ten years. There was no savings or anything like that. To make a long story short, and with a new baby coming, you don’t really take them into a derelict house. [Laughs] But young people are rather foolish, and once inspired you do what you do. We went to the Redevelopment Authority. No one wanted the house, because it was too big and even though the Society Hill Towers and the Pei houses were already built across the street, this house was one of the last to sell. It was kind of amazing, because it had a (3:00) wonderful location and was a wonderful building. We just got more and more excited. We had no money. Margo’s mother brought a little bit down in her bodice, I guess you would say, and I still have a picture of her waving this money in the little house on Panama and Iseminger Streets.

            The most amazing part of it was that we actually got enough money to buy it from the Redevelopment Authority, through the help of a very good friend, Ray Denworth. Back in those days, savings and loan associations were run by local people, and they had a lot of authority to give on the basis of who they (4:00) thought were reliable clients. Ray knew this one wonderful guy who accepted my architectural drawings as collateral for the loan for the house.

DS:      And he was in the savings and loan?

CB:      He was in the savings and loan business and was the director of that office, and Ray through old family connections connected us up.

DS:      And which savings and loan?

CB:      Oh, boy, Margo will have to tell you that. I’ve forgotten. At any rate, he accepted my architectural drawings for the house as collateral. We put very little money down. We had very little to put down. Then, of course, at the time, the Redevelopment (5:00) Authority allowed you to borrow at a very reduced rate. You could only get $13,000. So we borrowed that, too. We went about building the house. There were just really funny stories. Just the two of us trying to clean up this mess. People coming by, Teddy Newbold being one of them, poking his nose in the window and looking at us with brooms trying to clean up the basic residue of a house unoccupied for so long.

DS:      But it had been unoccupied for quite some time, had it?

CB:      Yes, it had. I really don’t have the dates, but Redevelopment Authority had (6:00) taken it over, was the owner of it for all intents and purposes.

DS:      Before that it was a club?

CB:      It was a warehouse, and then before that it was a club. When the Redevelopment Authority got the house, they tore down the back wing and shortened the lot, to make way for Bingham Court and those houses. They basically chopped off quite a bit of the building. Fortunately, they chopped off all the bathrooms and kitchens and things; so we didn’t have to contend with that problem, a lot of construction debris. I would go off to school every morning and come back every afternoon and work on the house. It was just an ideal way for me to live. It was intellectual activity and physical activity. I (7:00) could take out any frustrations I wanted on the house. We did have a contractor for the first floor only and a little framing on the second floor. We worked very hard to get that first-floor apartment done, so that there would be some place to bring the baby, Arianne. We did just barely get it done in time.

DS:      What time of year was this?

CB:      Let’s see, October was when Arianne was born. So we were doing some (8:00) things that no-one should do with a little child in the apartment. We were pulling plaster off the walls upstairs and dropping it down a dumbwaiter in the back, and trying to keep the dust from coming into the apartment through the doors of the dumbwaiter, which had become closet doors by that time.

            At any rate, all of that debris from up above became the basis for the garden room in the back. We didn’t haul that away. We just built a slate floor on top of it. The slate came from the sidewalk in front of the house, because Redevelopment Authority was paving the walks in brick, making them more (9:00) Colonial, and taking up the slate. We just brought the slate in the house and made this garden room down a half level with slate steps down into the basement. At any rate, you could see that it was a work in progress for a long time. Arianne was born when we lived on the first floor, Allegra on the second floor –

DS:      How many years between the girls?

CB:      Year, year and a half. I don’t know. Gosh.

DS:      I was just trying to see how long it took you to get to the next level up.

CB:      Margo is the one for dates. I’m just terrible about dates. I have no idea about the passing of time, as you know. [laughs]

            At any rate, we survived that first year. I was trying to design the perfect (10:00) crib for Arianne. It was to be the perfect crib and play pen and changing place and all of that. So it became the size of a king-size bed and to be built in a bed frame. I had this great idea that later it became the model for playgrounds up at Penn and daycare spaces at the Durham School. She never really experienced it. She lived in a refrigerator box on a table for the first year. It was really pretty amazing that we lived through it.

            I did keep plowing ahead until I got my Ph.D., doing this work off and on with contractors and a lot of it by myself. The house progressed from wallboard downstairs to plaster upstairs. I was making money by the time we got to the plastering stage (11:00) on the upper floors. Much of the framing I did either by myself or with a hired carpenter who was a very good guy. And then I’d hire the plastering guy. I’d set all the beads myself and he’d come along and plaster and tell me wild stories about riding the moon and everything. Working with these people was just a kick in itself.

            The biggest story about the house has to do, of course, with the restoration of the railing. There are two wonderful railings. There were actually three houses that were the same –

DS:      Outside.

CB:      Outside. They had cast iron railings which are quite famous and in most (12:00) of the history books.

DS:      On the second floor.

CB:      On the second floor, yes. The house has a marble first floor – the second floor has this wonderful cast iron balcony in front of it, and then there are three more floors and an attic floor above that. The Athenaeum has given it credit as being designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capitol dome.

DS:      Say the name again?

CB:      Thomas U. Walter. A very famous architect, by that time he was famous enough to do the dome of the Capitol. Our house was even on the tours when the Thomas U. Walter Symposium was held at the Athenaeum.

            The railings are quite remarkable (13:00) [sound of telephone ringing] and they’re on all of the carriage tours of the city. As you probably know, all of the drivers of those carriages concoct the wildest histories for this community that you could possibly imagine. They tell the tourists in the back of their carriages, “These railings were taken down and they were going to be melted to make shot for the Revolutionary War.” Of course, the house wasn’t built until 1842. So they just have no concept. They say, “These are very famous wrought iron balconies.” Well, they’re cast iron. At any rate, the story about the balconies is a pretty interesting (14:00) one. The Philadelphia Museum of Art owned one balcony. There were three houses, and all the balconies were different. The railing that the museum owned were whippets, and the railing that we have now on the house were griffins, and you can see from the early photographs that they were switched: the dogs were supposed to be on our house and the griffins on the middle house. Perhaps the third one was dogs again; I’m not sure.

DS:      The third one was where the walkway, Bingham Court, is now?

CB:      That’s right.

DS:      It was torn down after you moved in?

CB:      No, it was gone before, and in fact, I think B&O or some railroad company (15:00) had an office building there, and they were the ones that tore the third house down originally. You can see the saw cut down the middle of the marble pilaster at the front door of 232 S. Third Street to where the third building was taken off. There is a picture that shows all three of them. It’s not very good.

DS:      Do you have that?

CB:      Yes, I think we do, but also the Historical Commission has it, and it’s been published in books. The story keeps on going. We tried to live up to the responsibility of restoring the balcony to this wonderful house. We tracked it to a fence in Bucks County, and found out that what had happened was that Chris Hoffman, at A&E Hoffman, had apparently taken down the railings at some point when the houses were in decay and that (16:00) the employee who took them down was actually the iron worker we hired to put it back up. He told us the story about the man from Bucks County coming to buy the railing from Chris Hoffman at A&E Hoffman. Hoffman was a reputable iron worker. There were several iron working shops down on Third Street. You could walk down the street to an iron worker in those days.

            At any rate, this is what happened. We tried to buy the railing from the fellow in Bucks County and couldn’t arrange to do it. I think (17:00) that the offspring were the reason. They wanted to inherit the railings. He was very frail, and he ultimately died. We tried to cast the railing in place, pouring plaster around it to get an impression. The loads were just too great for anything we could build around the railing to hold the plaster. So that was a failure. We resorted to a George Segal kind of plaster/gauze impression of it. And we were going to cast the railing from those impressions. These moulds are still up in our attic, believe it or not. They’re a little crumpled, and you couldn’t really cast from them without a lot of work. What happened was, we put the metal decking up on the supports and waited it out. Ultimately bought the railing from the descendants after the owner’s death and had it put back up. (18:00) As I said, the iron worker who put it back up had taken it down originally.

DS:      How did the other railing end up at the Art Museum?

CB:      Margo is better at this than I. I think one of the women associated with the Powel House saw it and got it for the museum. It was [sound of a telephone ringing] a very interesting problem, because there was a missing piece [an urn] in the railing that we have. So we had to re-cast that urn from another urn that we had. The museum had it and would not give it up. It used to be down on the wall at the end of the hallway near (19:00) the restaurant in the museum. They wouldn’t sell it to us, but they did either give it to or sell it to the Episcopal Community Services, which occupied the next-door building, because it was a nonprofit organization. They said to us they wouldn’t sell it to a private owner. But they did give it, I think, to Episcopal Community Services, which mounted it on their building. Then when the building was sold, it stayed on the building. So that’s how the railings got switched. That’s how the whippets from our building ended up on that building, and how we had to struggle to get the griffins up on ours. We like (20:00) the griffins better than the dogs; so we’re quite happy.

DS:      Tell me, what happened to the next house, the one that was torn down, to the railings that would have been there?

CB:      That’s a very interesting question. They must be around somewhere, because no one would melt them down. They were just beautiful railings. That’s a great mystery. I’d really like to find out. There’s one piece at the end of our railing that we did not replace because we thought we were going to be able to convince the museum to give it to us. But they kept that one, too. They have two pieces of our iron work, and actually it would be to the greater good of everyone to see it on the house where it was (21:00) supposed to be.

            These houses are wonderfully proportioned, really nice façades, and big, big, as we found out. I didn’t have enough sense to realize that the bigger the house the more material we’d have to put into it. Even to re-plaster a wall took just tons of material. It took us 13 years, basically, to finish the house up to a point that we could rent it.

            I became Dean of the University of Texas, the School of Architecture there, and we went down there in the ‘70s and rented the place to Laura D’Andrea Tyson and her (22:00) husband, who you may know is an economic advisor to presidents and the Dean of the London School of Economics. Anyway, Laura and her husband lived in this barn and the Smiths, who had a house down on Third Street, the double house – [314-316 South Third Street]

DS:      Bob and Gerry?

DB:     Bob and Gerry rented it from us after the Tysons left while we were in Texas. But it was never intended for a family, especially a family of teenagers, who we had thought would not be there. When you said something on one floor you heard it on the other floor, because there’s a big, open atrium space between the third and fourth (23:00) floors. On the upper floor you can talk to people on the lower floor. Well, that was a little difficult for the Smiths. Ray Denworth got Rody Davies, an architect friend in the neighborhood whom everybody knows, I think, to put a floor in over the hallway to try to buffer the sound between the upper room where the kids were sleeping and the lower room where the parents were. That was just a terrible mess. We were traveling with our children in Europe that year and we were pretty much out of commission to deal with it and hadn’t expected that many people to be living in the house. It was an (24:00) interesting moment and not one that the Smiths probably enjoyed or that we even knew was going on, because Ray pretty well covered for us.

DS:      Did you switch it back?

CB:      Oh, we just tore that down and glassed in a portion of the bedroom that we had planned to glass in that we hadn’t gotten to yet. We’ve done all kinds of things little by little. When [our] kids left for their various careers, one in England, one in New York, I remember knocking around in this huge house. We always rented the first floor, and that was a Godsend, because it basically paid for the mortgage. But then we decided (25:00) we didn’t need all that space. We had 3,700 square feet, 1,000 square feet on each upper floor. So we had 2,000 square feet up above, not counting stairways, that we could be quite comfortable in. We are living in the two top floors now and renting the second floor.

DS:      Second floor?

CB:      Yes, that’s what passes as the piano nobile in architectural terms. It was the important floor. Whereas it had been the ballroom originally, we made it into the living room, library, dining room, kitchen, and powder room, while the kids were in the house and all the bedrooms and studies were on the two floors above. But when they left, then we converted that to an apartment. So it’s a very elegant 14-ft.-high apartment, (26:00) because we put the lavatory in in a way that could handle a shower, we didn’t have to do anything. It’s as it was.

            When we did start living on the third and fourth floors, we changed the master bedroom to the living room and changed the master bath to the kitchen and changed this big atrium space from the laundry to the dining room and built another bath above. There’s still two baths up there. Our bedroom now is where our office used to be, and our offices are where the kids used to be. And we still have a guest bedroom. We basically have a two-bedroom house with two studies with (27:00) all the appurtenances on those two floors. We are quite comfortable there.

DS:      Did you put in an elevator?

CB:      Not yet, and we will keep running up and down as long as we can, because it’s good for us. We worry that we’ll have to put in an elevator in order to stay in the house or move downstairs. I can see us moving as we get further and further incapacitated. [Sound of telephone ringing.] We’ll just drop down a floor each time. We added a terrace up on the third floor, right off our bedroom. We changed what was the porch arrangement to a garden room; Margo has a garden outside the bedroom. We just kept adding things, a gazebo. We have a really lovely garden; it’s 20 by 50 ft. for us in the back, and we also have one that’s 9 by 20 ft. for the ground floor apartment. We installed a nice (28:00) French door to connect it. We’ve done the usual things of putting in new equipment, air conditioners, and furnaces. A friend of mine and I originally replaced the first furnace with a boiler we built from a kit. That worked for a good long while, maybe 30 years. Then we substituted a more modern, efficient one than the one we built. We’ve done the new roof, the kind of things you have to do to keep an old house perky. It’s a (29:00) marvelous house. When we moved to Texas we didn’t sell it, and we’re so glad we didn’t. In a way, it’s been the best investment we ever made. It’s on a wonderful street, Third Street, “Mansion Row.” We’re one of the mansions. [Laughs]

DS:      It’s a gorgeous house. And I don’t think I mentioned that this is 234 South Third Street, Tell me, how much did you pay the Redevelopment Authority in the beginning? Can you tell me that?

CB:      Well, there was a maximum including – let’s see – I’ll have to look it up. It was very little. It was $10,000 or $15,000. And then we were able to add the $13,000 loan from the Redevelopment Authority. You couldn’t be indebted more than $35,000. (30:00)

DS:      Who said that?

CB:      The Redevelopment Authority at that time, when they gave us the $13,000. So I know it wasn’t over $35,000 total for the house. We’ve been in the house over 43 years, so we continue to put money into it, just to survive. It’s a remarkable return on investment, if you look at it in those terms.

DS:      Right. Absolutely. Let’s see. Where are we here? We’ve really zipped (31:00) along here. Did you hear anything about this area being redeveloped in your young life, among architects and so forth?

CB:      Oh yes, sure. Being at Penn, you couldn’t miss Society Hill. Ed Bacon was a presence who made it well known. I’m trying to figure out what the timing was. Margo can give it to you. She’s good at this. We wandered down here and saw what was going on. So we didn’t really look anywhere else when we wanted to get a bigger place. We just moved right in, in ’64 when we could get it. It was very fortunate for us, (32:00) the whole redevelopment effort, because of the initial cost and financing and being able to buy it – I mean, they were just looking for someone to take this on and restore it. So why not an architect?

DS:      And young.

CB:      [Laughs] Full of energy. No longer the case. It really was pretty good. But, you know, Margo – we raised both girls here, and then Margo began to volunteer at the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and the Hill Keith Physick House and all of that, and then of course became the director. So she had responsibility for the (33:00) Powel House and the Hill Keith Physick House or whatever. So there was a time we’d have to run down the street to answer the fire alarm and all the things she was responsible for at those houses. So it was nice that we lived close.

DS:      Did you get involved in any other way in the neighborhood? The civic association?

CB:      No, surprisingly we did not.

DS:      You were busy.

CB:      We were very busy, and we tend to be fairly private people. I forget exactly (34:00) how it went, but I became director of the American Institute of Architects, and I was busy with that, and Margo was busy with the Landmarks Society. So, I think that, although we were members of the Civic Association, we weren’t really that involved. I can remember, though, many such events as those in the block across the street from your house, when there was nothing but a few bricks. Fireworks and everything that we used to have there. So we were in the neighborhood, and of course our kids went to St. Peter’s School and all of that. So we participated but not in terms of leadership positions in the Civic Association.

DS:      But you were members, and you did know what was going on.

CB:      Oh, yes, yes. But we were on our separate paths. (35:00)

DS:      Tell me, what restrictions did the Redevelopment Authority put on you in restoring this building? Did they have pictures and they wanted you to restore it exactly to the way it was?

CB:      Oh, yes. Of course. If you look at the way those deeds of sales were written, back in those days, you’ll see that they had clauses of what you had to do. And I could pull that out, actually, and it probably would be good, before you talk to Margo. I’ll see if we can find it, so you could see how much we actually paid for it and what those [restrictions] were.

DS:      That would be good.

CB:      But we obviously had to restore it, and the biggest restoration challenge was that we had to restore, of course, the balcony. And that was the toughest one to do. (36:00) There wasn’t a lot that we had to do to really improve the exterior of the house, except to do the things that were quite obvious, such as the shutters.

DS:      So the brickwork was in good shape, and the roof was in good shape?

CB:      Well, we put a roof on it, but it must have been about the fourth or fifth roof. You know, I’m sure it was three roofs, four roofs, back when we got the house. Because there were shingles, with a metal roof on that, then an asphalt roof on that, then the new roof that we put on top of that. So this last round, what we did, we tore all of them off.

DS:      And this was what? A year ago?

CB:      Yes.

DS:      You tore everything off?

CB:      We tore off everything down to the beams and then put a better roof surface. (37:00) But at the time we were first doing it, we just simply couldn’t afford to do that. So we just added roofing that lasted for 40 years and got through. But Redevelopment Authority requirements were not too demanding. As I said, they tore down the back wing in the back and the whole back yard was nothing but brick, bats and debris. There was no access by car; so we couldn’t have parking back there, which I would have loved to have. We put in the wall and built the garden and sunk the terrace in the back and did all the things you have to do to get a really nice garden. Margo just loves it. (38:00)

DS:      The interior of the house: did it have pigeons or rats? Was it open to the elements?

CB:      Oh, yes, there were rats. It had a dirt floor in the basement and this huge furnace that was bigger than this table, I mean, a really monstrous thing and right in the middle of the basement. So that had to go. Oh, I forgot to mention that for a long time I had an architectural office in the basement. We completely re-did the basement, nice cabinets, lighting and carpeting and the whole bit, and I ran my architecture office for the few years that I chose to do that back in the ‘80s. So it gave us a 1,000 square foot office. Throw in the long hall that goes back to the garden room, which became the reception room. Where were we? (39:00)

DS:      I was just asking about the condition of the inside of the house. It hadn’t been open to pigeons or anything, but you did have rats.

CB:      Oh, yes. Well, there were pigeons in the attic, and there were the normal kinds of awful smells associated with that. Cleaning that up was a big job. We did have a lot of moisture problems with the roof. Water was coming in quite a bit, and plaster on the walls was not in great shape. We chipped a lot of it off, as I mentioned, (40:00) to make the garden. We had a kind of what might be called a ‘60s brick wall. But we had a lot of fun doing it. We put big circular openings in some walls. We were sitting in the dining room in the first floor apartment and thought there wasn’t enough light. So I got a saw and went right through the wall [Laughs] and got this circular opening that you can see from the street when you approach the house. You can also see a big, four-foot diameter light on the second floor that repeats the motif. I tried every trick in the book to get light deep into the middle of the house. The walls are canted here and (41:00) there. It’s not Federal style house inside.

DS:      I suspect real estate taxes you don’t have any memory of what you paid back then.

CB:      No, I don’t.

DS:      Scope of work – this all cost you, above and beyond what you paid to the Redevelopment Authority – it just has evolved over the years.

CB:      Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s not more than $150,000, at the most, because I was doing the work myself and using whatever ways I could to keep the prices down. (42:00)

DS:      Tell me, what were the reactions of your parents and Margo’s parents when you told them what you were going to do?

CB:      My mother, because she was a semi-invalid, could only travel to Philadelphia one time, when I was at the university. So she never saw the house. Margo’s mother saw it and could not believe it, especially when we were living in the first floor when she came to visit, and all of this massive house and the baby was more than she could (43:00) imagine. But she was a good-spirited person and got used to the idea and began to realize what a terrific place it really was.

DS:      Did she live long enough to see how wonderfully you fixed it up?

CB:      Oh, yes, she’s 96. She’s not going as strongly as she was, but she saw us all the way to the top of the house, which, as I say, took a long time. I can remember doing things like taking the stair to the attic, which would have been from the fourth floor to the attic, and reversing the stair, pivoting it, all by myself. If it had fallen on me –

DS:      Wood stairs?

CB:      Wood stairs. I was able to put big posts under it and spin it around on the (44:00) posts so that now it goes from the north to the south, where it originally went from the south to the north. And that gave me a way to make the atrium and the hallways. So you took your life in your own hands in that place.

DS:      You didn’t think of that at the time.

CB:      No. And when we built the terrace out back, we were just sitting on the rafters and pulling the old roof off.

DS:      And Margo was helping you do this?

CB:      Oh, no, we had a little farm out in the country. So this fellow from out there came in and helped me. So it was quite an experience. We have some great stories of (45:00) how some of this was done. Some of the people were pretty wild.

DS:      Really? The people who helped you?

CB:      Yes.

DS:      They were not local people?

CB:      They were of a sort. Some passing through. We had one particular one who actually lived in the neighborhood, a wonderful kind of Amazonian woman, the wife of this friend of mine. (We built music festival structures together.) She loved to paint and do very nice woodwork and could draw like an angel. But the way she would paint! She would take a towel and soak it and slap the paint on the wall herself. [Laughs] So she had all kinds of different ways of doing things. There were some wonderful floor finishers (46:00) who had little scrapers that would fit every single curve in any wood. In many of these old houses the floors are not even, or there’s a real bad part of the floor that you have to kind of trench out in order to make the floor even usable. They had these little, usually two-handled drawing knives with which they would even out the wood. So there were a lot of things that I learned as an architect that I would not have possibly known had we not gone about it the way we did. I have been trying to recapture that life, half of it spent in the mind, half of it physically ever since those days. So that’s really part of (47:00) who I am.

DS:      Tell me, your children have grown up healthy. So living in that house with the dust and all didn’t harm them in any way.

CB:      No, not that I know of.

[End of side one. Beginning of side two.]

DS:      … growing up here? Or do they wish that they had lived in Texas or some other place that you’ve been?

CB:      They definitely don’t wish they’d lived in Texas. No, they’re quite happy they’ve grown up here. St. Peter’s is a wonderful school that they really enjoyed, and Arianne went to Shipley; so she would commute from here to there. Allegra ended up in Groton in Massachusetts; so she was away at boarding school. But she came back and rented the second floor from us.

            I have to throw this little anecdote in, because it’s marvelous. She was famous for her parties there. She was back from New York for a year; so she had a New Year’s party, and my associate from the University of the Arts came (1:00) down to the party. He met my eldest daughter Arianne at the party, and unbeknownst to me had got on very well. I was working with this guy every day, and he didn’t mention it. She was living in London at the time and working with a publisher as an editor. They corresponded back and forth, and when they were married, he took all of those emails and bound them into a hand-tooled, leather-bound book, 100,000 Wooing Words, which is a terrific thing. Anyhow, they have fond memories of the house in more ways than one. Not only Arianne growing up in a refrigerator box, but Allegra’s living there (2:00) while she learned about multi-media and all of that. Then she went back to New York and became Creative Director of Digital Media at the Museum of Modern Art. Arianne went back to London, and now Bill and our two grandchildren live in England.

DS:      Bill?

CB:      Bill. He was the one that assembled 100,000 Wooing Words. He left the States.

DS:      Oh, OK.

CB:      They live in England now.

DS:      Tell me, did you ever, over the years, get to meet or interact with the people who were born and raised here and who have stayed?

CB:      No, not really. There was just a knowledge of one or two people. They just had a different lifestyle. They’d sit out front with their chairs, aluminum chairs, and (3:00) it was just so different, and so they brought attention to themselves in that way. No, I have to admit that I never really did get to know any of them.

DS:      That’s OK. I just wondered. Sometimes people have interesting stories connected with them –

CB:      Sure.

DS:      Anything else about contractors, or your neighbor, Episcopal Community Services that was next door. Were they already there?

CB:      Yes, they were.

DS:      That was just occupied during the day, so that –

CB:      Yes. Well, we did discuss combining our yards to make a big garden. So that would have benefited the staff during lunch hours and things like that. But we (4:00) decided not to. The reason there is a gate between the two properties is that whole idea of sharing the garden. We didn’t want to have the responsibility for maintaining their garden, and Margo wanted to have a garden of her own. So we built the wall, but we built it with a door so they could come in and use the garden. They really didn’t use it. The door is there, but it’s locked up. There were really fine relationships with them, and the Sepes moved in next door—

DS:      On the south side. (5:00)

CB:      On the south side. They put in a swimming pool. The house was featured in Life magazine.

DS:      Does that swimming pool cause you any problems?

CB:      Well, early on, before the gates were put in back there, whenever kids passing through the neighborhood would hear all the laughter and the splashing, they would want to see what it was all about. And every now and then they would climb over the wall and go swimming. When they put in the fence, that happily has stopped. In the old days, before we had a wall and before we had improved the back of the house, there would be occasional break-ins. When we first moved in, a guy would be walking down the hall saying it was a derelict house and he felt free to do so. (6:00)

DS:      This was after you owned it and were living there.

CB:      Oh, yes. And then because the back window was just a double hung window and we hadn’t replaced it with French doors, it was very easy to break, to jimmy. It was a little dangerous. We used to have a lot more attempted entries than now.

DS:      In the ‘60s.

CB:      Yes.

DS:      Were you ever harmed by it?

CB:      No. Allegra was really frightened one time, because she was sleeping in her room on the top floor when a guy made it all the way up there at night, to the fourth floor. So it frightened her quite a bit.

DS:      But she wasn’t harmed.

CB:      No, and she screamed, and I came running, and the guy took off. But that (7:00) he could get past us, that high in the house, or even try to do that, is somewhat scary. You know, living in the city you have to be aware of these things. Now it’s much more secure, largely due to closing to that passageway behind the Pei houses and our house. Now they have two fences to negotiate.

DS:      And you haven’t had problems recently.

CB:      No.

DS:      Early on …it didn’t make you feel that you wanted to move out of the city. It wasn’t that bad.

CB:      Oh, no. We just knew we were in the city for good. I mean, we are city (8:00) dwellers. It was part of what we dealt with. We put concrete in the basement and tried to get rid of the rats [Laughs], and you get as many barriers and there’s a security light, and things like that. We haven’t had trouble. Knock on wood.

DS:      Good. Any pictures of the construction, before and after kind of photographs?

CB:      Well, we’ve got a lot of after photographs. We’re pretty good at after photographs, because when we went to Texas and the house was empty, we got Elliott Kaufman, who is a really good architectural photographer to come in and do the house. So we got a really good record of it back in the 70s. But we don’t have any really true before shots that I can recall. (9:00)

DS:      Anything else? Any other stories?

CB:      No, unless there’s something I can’t remember. Margo will try to fill in where I couldn’t – with dates and all that.

DS:      I look forward to it. Thank you, Chuck.

CB:      This is just an afterthought: we saved all of the woodwork that was possible to save. This was almost an Egyptian Revival kind of stuff. It’s not fancy, just plain. But the proportions are really quite good, and they add to the modern interior. So there are a lot of the old woodwork and actually the shutters in the windows that are all original.

DS:      Inside shutters. (10:00)

CB:      Inside shutters. Not all of them, two floors of them are original. We tried to keep what we could that made sense but without living in boxy rooms.

[End of interview]

Transcriber’s Note: The narrator made numerous changes to an early draft of the transcript; so there are inconsistencies between the taped interview and the transcript, and the timing may be slightly off.


© 2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
October 7, 2008
Burnette, Charles
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Related Oral Histories
Oral History Sources