Deborah Latta

Deborah Latta (1912-2014) and her husband, Cuthbert (Bert), bought 425 Spruce Street from the Redevelopment Authority in 1963. Their two daughters were no longer living at home, Bert was tired of mowing the lawn at their place in Bryn Mawr, and Deborah thought it would be fun to live in a part of the city where an ancestor had owned property. Bert could walk or take the bus to his office at Broad and Chestnut.

The house, built in 1792, had last been used by merchant marines as a rooming house and had 22 rooms. The Lattas tore down the back of the house and put in a small but efficient kitchen, a curved stairway, a garage, and a garden. The original fireplaces and mantels had been replaced in the Victorian era, and the Lattas replaced them with colonial-era mantels that they found at antiques stores on Pine Street.

Deborah talks about some experiences they had while living in the house: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter visited the house in the 1960s; and Bert was held up at gunpoint by two men who took only the cash he had on him. She tells stories about some of the people they got to know in Society Hill: the Nicholsons, the Brackens, Nancy Grace, the Ingersolls, the Wattses, the Haases, the Amesburys and others. Deborah also talks about the Landmarks Society’s two houses in Society Hill: the Powel House and the Physick House.


DS:      The date is April 20, 2005. Interview with Deborah Latta, who used to live at 425 Spruce Street. [The women are looking at a book about redevelopment in Society Hill, probably Elizabeth B. McCall, Old Philadelphia Houses on Society Hill, 1750-1840, Architectural Book Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1966.]

DL:      I just loved that house.

JB:       It was really a wonderful house. And, of course, to see how far you’ve come – I forget what page we’re on now. What page are we on?

DL:      I’m not sure. I haven’t looked at it for a while.

JB:       Page 66. … Look at this condition of the building on either side.

DL:      I know, I know.

JB:       Gosh, how did you ever have the wisdom to look at that and say, “That’s going to be a wonderful house?”

DL:      We never did develop it. With those two, two Jewish women, we got to be very friendly and one of them …. They did try to fix it up. They painted it. They did away (1:00) with these things. It had different, they had proper windows put in.

DS:      What year would that be?

DL:      Well, it must have been the ‘60s, ‘cause this looks –.

JB:       Early.

DL:      Yes.

JB:       Early ‘60s, ‘cause you were well established by the time we [came to Society Hill], which was ’65.

DL:      Yes. What’s happened to this house now?

DS:      It’s been restored.

DL:      It’s been restored. The Bangerts [Charles and Lucy Ann (Lu), the people who bought 425 Spruce Street from the Lattas] invited me and my sister, who lived – she didn’t live – well, she ended up living in Society Hill. We went, of course they showed me all that they had done to the house – really – our house.

DS:      The Bangerts.

DL:      Yes. We looked over into the garden [next door]. What were their names? They were so (2:00) peculiar and really kind of not very pleasant people.

JB:       Don’t you remember she started to say she was a Polish princess? Do you remember that?

DL:      I think she had a mental problem. [Laughs] Now definitely.

DS:      Deborah, why did you move to Society Hill?

DL:      Why did I move to Society Hill? We were living in Bryn Mawr, and we had – I think we had a property where Bert [her husband, Cuthbert H. Latta] was tired of cutting grass. I kept reading about Society Hill, and I said to him, “You know, we ought to go … there and look at it.” Hopey was married then, and Mary was in college. [Hope and Mary were the Lattas’ daughters.] She went to Penn. I said, “You know, it’s just the two of          (3:00) us just rattling around.” Bert, he got kind of enthusiastic about it, so we did, we went … and walked around Society Hill. I said, “You know, this might be kind of fun.” Well, anyway, we did get into really thinking about it.

DS:      So how did you hear about it? Newspapers or friends or…?

DL:      Well, sure, we probably read about it. I can remember walking around Society Hill, and it looked like London because they tore down so many houses. I began to think [it] would be kind of interesting to live … there. Besides, I had an ancestor who actually had bought the property that the – the Christ Church burial ground – that was the property that they [the church] had bought from my ancestor, James Steel. He also owned the property where the big insurance company [Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company] is. You know that’s where the – the Philadelphia gaol, prison.

JB:       The jail.

DL:      Yes, the goal, all right. (4:00)

DS:      [The] Penn Mutual [building].

DL:      Yes. [He] sold that to the city, I guess. I can’t remember. I’m not sure I ever knew where he lived. He must have lived down there somewhere. Those two properties have been – I mean, we’ve known about them in our family. I think that’s really why I thought it would be kind of fun to live … there, to walk around on the streets and sidewalks where he had gone.

JB:       Yes, of course. Brilliant, brilliant idea.

DL:      Well, of course, I loved our house in Bryn Mawr and I loved being out in the country. But, I lived in – I grew up in the city.

DS:      Did you?

DL:      Yes, … my father had as a side business, a farm, out in Huntington Valley. I love to tell this, because Huntington Valley, at that time (00:05) Huntington Valley was rural, rural, then. Abington Friends School was in existence, and my older sister and I went to school in a horse and buggy. All the roads were all dirt roads, and of course in the wintertime were all ruts and things. We went in a horse and buggy, and I can remember mother coming and picking us up in a horse and buggy. The kids [unintelligible] [Laughs]. Well anyway, the war came, and of course the farmer – he and his wife, they were too old to go to war, at least the husband, so he stayed on, but the few other people – it was hard to get people to come and work. Mother decided that my older sister and I were not getting the proper education, so we sold the farm. We sold it, it was (6:00) in March. We went to Nantucket. My older sister and I, we went to school in Nantucket for two months.

DS:      How nice.

DL:      Well, I tell you, my mother [unintelligible]. We made friends with the children who were in our class. We didn’t have anything to do with the summer people. We didn’t like them. [Laughs] I can remember, because we had such fun. But anyway, we lived in the city, and I really liked the city. When I got married, we went out and lived on the Main Line.

DS:      Where did you live in the city?

DL:      We lived on Delancey Place.

JB:       Oh, did you? Oh, did you really?

DL:      1822 was where we lived.

JB:       How interesting. Oh, that’s wonderful.

DL:      Yes. [The Agnes] Irwin School was two blocks away. We went to Irwin’s.

JB:       [unintelligible] Keep talking. Don’t say too much until I get back. (7:00)

DS:      Was [Richardson] Dilworth and his movement also affecting you in any way? I mean, was there a group of friends who were sort of all deciding that it would be fun to move into the city together?

DL:      No. No.

DS:      It was not part of your thinking at all.

DL:      No. It wasn’t.

DS:      Interesting.

DL:      Bert was a lawyer. He had the problems.

DS:      He could walk to work?

DL:      Well, he did, or he took the bus. He was at Drinker Biddle & Reath, I think, when we moved in, and that was at Broad Street. It was on the corner of Broad and Chestnut. The office was there.

DS:      How did you pick the house?

DL:      We looked at several houses, and [sound of bird] – That little bird is lovely.

DS:      Lovely sound.

DL:      Thank you. All these trees have just come out in the last two weeks. (8:00)

DS:      Driving out here [to Cathedral Village] today was just gorgeous.

DL:      It is lovely, it really is lovely.

DS:      How did you pick the house?

DL:      We just kind of liked the house. We looked at the house that the Taylors [Frank and Eve] have and didn’t like that house.

DS:      Third and Spruce Street?

DL:      Yes. I don’t know why. Anyway, we looked at several houses and liked this one the best.

DS:      Was it a real estate person, was it [the] Redevelopment [Authority]? Who was showing you?

DL:      It was a real estate person. I think it was Jackson Cross.

DS:      They owned the house?

DL:      No, they didn’t own the house. The house belonged to – in fact I was never quite sure who bought the house. The Redevelopment Authority, I guess; you know they were buying up houses. They bought up our house. It had 22 rooms in it. The merchant marine came into where is now Penn’s Landing, around there. They came in on these ships, and then the sailors, they had to live somewhere. (9:00)

DS:      Right.

DL:      Anyway, we tore down the back of the house, because we thought we could have a garden, which we did.

DS:      The sailors had lived in your house?

DL:      They had lived there. There were 22 rooms in the house, and we tore the back down, and we tore down the back of the original house. Then –

DS:      Let me get this straight. You did buy it from –

DL:      We bought it from the Redevelopment Authority. I think we bought it for $5,000. [Laughs]

DS:      Weren’t the prices just incredible?

DL:      Well, the Bangerts [later] sold it for practically nothing. Was it a million? (10:00) A million something?

DS:      I don’t know. I remember what they were asking, but I don’t remember that they got it.

DL:      I’m sorry. I kind of let our friendship go with the Bangerts. They were so nice letting me come see the house. Of course, they did some things which I – but that was all right, it was their house.

DS:      Not to the outside?

DL:      No, well, actually the inside. It was mostly the color of paint and so for that–

DS:      They changed.

DL:      Well, after [unintelligible]. You own a house you paint it the way you want to paint it.

DS:      You tore off the back section of the house?

DL:      We tore off the back section of the house and there was enough for us to build a garage there, which we did, and we had a small garden there, enough where we could sit around a table. Well, Bert loved to garden, so he had all these pots. We did pot gardening. But, I’m (11:00) kind of still hazy. I know that we had fun fixing it up. My mother was an avid antique hunter at the time. Of course, we got the – there really wasn’t anything in the house at all. We had to get mantle pieces and –

DS:      Where did you get them from?

DL:      You know there is antiques row [on Pine Street]. We went … there and searched around. We found a number of mantle pieces which we took. Ones that we didn’t use, we just stored in our garage. Some friends see them. (12:00)

DS:      They used them.

DL:      Actually, I think when we sold the house to the Bangerts there was a mantel piece in the garage that nobody used or wanted. The garage was wonderful.

DS:      The Bangerts are still around, so you can still renew your friendship.

DL:      Yes, I know. The Bangerts.

DL:      They’re, I guess, in the Hopkinson House.

DS:      No, they’re in the big place. Independence Place. It’s right across the street from the Hopkinson House.

JB:       It looks from the east –.

DL:      Oh, really? Now that’s something I don’t know about.

JB:       It must be something new then.

DL:      Yes. ,,, Now I keep reading about the Dilworth House. I hope you’re not going to let that happen.

JB:       There’s a strong, strong movement to preserve it.

DL:      Preserve it. Well, I strongly – You know it’s next to the Athenaeum, and I think it would hurt the Athenaeum really.

JB:       They have worked out a way to deal with it. We keep hoping we can stop it and maintain the house.

DS:      When you came [to Society Hill], did you know the Ingersolls? Did you know the Wattses? Anybody else that you knew in the neighborhood? (14:00)

DL:      Yes, well, we didn’t – we got to know them, and we got to know them really well. No, we didn’t know anybody really who lived … there. We just moved in –

DS:      And you got to know them. Was there interaction with the people who were already there? Clearly you talk about your neighbors.

DL:      Yes, there was. We got to know – They’re so friendly …there, particularly when you’re doing your house. People would wander in to see what you were doing. You’d wander in and out, so you got to know these people, and there was the Civic Association.

DS:      Do you remember who was President [of the Society Hill Civic Association] when you moved in?

DL:      I’m not sure there was a Civic Association when we moved in. I think that developed [later].

DS:      This is really the early ‘60s, you’re talking?            (15:00)

DL:      It was. I have no records. I don’t know why I don’t have more records. When I moved here, I think I just threw [out] everything. You should make note of what you do, because you wonder what happened to that – where did it go?

DS:      Would you have any idea of what you paid in taxes for that house? If you bought it for $5,000.

DL:      [unintelligible]

JB:       You could actually probably figure it out. If you bought it for $5,000 what the tax rate was at that point and then go from there.

DL:      I have no idea. My husband took care of those chores. The house was really – We put a new stairway in.

DS:      [to JB] They tore off the back of the house. The sailors had lived there….

DL:      When we – we tore it down to where the original house was, and we found the hearth, which was where the kitchen was –

DS:      On the first floor?

DL:      Yes. Then we didn’t add anything more than that. Our bedroom was on the second floor, and we had a fire place in it, which we didn’t use because nobody wanted to haul the wood up there. It was just for atmosphere. We had – and then the third floor, we didn’t do anything very much. I don’t know, the Bangerts – Charlie had a studio up there and they [had] a lovely guest room and a bath up there. We just went to really the second floor. (17:00) I had a sewing room up there. We fixed up this one room. We didn’t really restore it or anything. It was a fascinating house. Under the roof where the dormers [were] it was wide, it was really –. If we’d wanted to, we could have done something really nice.

DS:      It’s still there.

DL:      Oh, I’m sure so.

DS:      Did you re-do floors?

DL:      We tore up the linoleum and hardwood floor they had. Linoleum, it was hardwood floor underneath it; it wasn’t very good, cheapy stuff. The original floor we used it, but            (18:00) it was kind of – it was not, it was old. We put rugs down, of course, on top. We didn’t try to restore it. We just used it the way it was. I just loved it that way.

JB:       Oh, good.

DL:      Beautiful house. It really was a lovely house.

JB:       Nice proportions and [unintelligible].

DL:      Let me see, it was built in 1798, I guess, or ‘6.

DS:      1798.

DL:      1798, I think. [Unintelligible]. Chalmers Clodden. He was Quaker. Yes, I think they built it. [It was built in 1792 by William Williams. It was first occupied by Chalmers Moore Wharton.]

DS:      Say it again?

DL:      Chalmers.

DS:      Chalmers was the last?

DL:      Chalmers [unintelligible]

DS:      He was Quaker? (19:00)

DL:      Yes, he was a Quaker.

DS:      He was there in?

DL:      I’ve forgotten then what happened to Chalmers and his wife. It wasn’t too long. It seemed to me they didn’t live in it too long. The Victorian age came, and they took the fireplaces out; this is what we were told. They put in Victorian things. I think that probably happened to a lot of houses … there.

DS:      Lots of people living in them in different periods.

DL:      That’s right.

DS:      Different social levels, I mean, financial – some people with money, some people with no money, you know.

DL:      That’s right. The Bangerts did it. They did a lot towards restoring. I couldn’t get over it. Charlie [was] an engineer. What they did to that tiny little kitchen. I was afraid nobody would ever buy it because the kitchen was so small. I could use it perfectly. Really, I (20:00) was absolutely astounded at how they had really made it into a very efficient kitchen.

DS:      Was that your kitchen?

DL:      Yes.

DS:      That was your kitchen.

DL:      Yes.

DS:      Then the dining room was –

DL:      Yes. I loved the dining room. We had big – we had windows down to the floor in the dining room.

DS:      They were still there when the Bangerts were there?

DL:      I guess so.

DS:      I haven’t been in it since the Bangerts sold it.

DL:      No.

JB:       They were very pleased with the people they sold it to, but I don’t know who they are. The house still looks very good from the outside. They keep it very nice and clean. I know before the Bangerts left they replaced all the windows in the front with brand (21:00) new windows. You know with thermal panes and everything else like that. Very much more fuel efficient, and they look just beautiful.

DL:      Yes, I think that was a good idea.

DS:      Did the Redevelopment Authority have any restrictions on you or any rules that you had to follow that –?

DL:      Well, you know, there was something to do about the stairway that we put in. We had an architect. Urban Moss. Urban?

DS:      Urban Moss.

DL:      Who was the other guy?

DS:      Oh, [Tom] Van Arkel & Moss.

DL:      But Urban, he was – he helped us design the house. I really think he was the artistic one. There was something about the stairway. I can’t remember. Anyway, we didn’t change anything. I thought [it was] a pretty stairway, curved. (22:00)

DS:      Then Urban would have known –. He … restored several houses, so he would have known what the outside would have to be according to Redevelopment Authority ruling?

JB:       Do you remember what the front of your house looked like?

DL:      Well, it was [unintelligible].

JB:       Just like in the book?

DL:      It had these ugly windows with it.

JB:       Four and four. New grouping and new windows. (23:00)

JB:       Were the windows in the same location?

DL:      Yes, they were. I don’t think it had any shutters. I think we put the shutters on. I wish I could remember more. We did a little research on what kind of paint to put on.

DS:      Good.

DL:      Yes, the house, actually, structurally the house was good.

DS:      That’s important.

DL:      Some of the houses weren’t so –

DS:      Did you have to replace the utilities, I mean, like the heating?

DL:      Oh, heavens. Yes.

JB:       Put in electricity.

DL:      Yes, we had to do that. We rented an apartment in West Philadelphia. It took about a half a year.    (24:00)

DS:      How long?

DL:      Half a year.

DS:      What did your children think about what you were doing?

DL:      They thought it was great

DS:      They didn’t mind you selling their childhood home?

DL:      Well, Bert and I, we moved a lot. …

DS:      What stories can you remember from living [in Society Hill]? Funny things that (25:00) happened. Interesting. Doesn’t have to be funny. Interesting people or events.

DL:      You know – in – the Bar Association had a tour down there. Actually, the Carters [Jimmy and Rosalynn] went through our house. Unfortunately, Rosalynn … wrote a thank you letter to me, and you know, I’ve lost it. I can’t find it anywhere.

JB:       Oh, my goodness.

DL:      Yes, and it was such a nice letter, too, thanking us and saying how nice it was… in Society Hill.

DS:      Would this have been early on, in the 60s? (26:00)

DL:      Yes. They were not in the White House then, but I kept that letter, because it was so nice; they were just people then. But, she wrote such a nice letter, I thought, “Well, I’ll keep this.”

DS:      When did you sell the house?

DL:      Let’s see. I guess you don’t know. Bert and I separated. We had a friendly separation. He lived there a couple of years. … Oh, gosh, I can’t remember when it was. I lived there 12 years.

DS:      Twelve years. That’s good. A good amount of time in that neighborhood. Did you get involved in the Civic Association in the neighborhood? (27:00)

DL:      No, but Bert did. He loved it. He loved to fight. He was pretty good at those things. [Laughs] I can remember going up a couple of times to City Hall. I can’t remember now – something was going on. What was the name of the man, he was a native. [Laughs] He had houses there. He always had a fight with somebody.

DS:      Ottaviano.

JB:       Ottaviano.

DS:      Was that him?

DL:      We’d go [to City Hall]. Bert would love to fight.

DS:      Was Bert ever President of the Civic Association? (28:00)

DL:      No, he wasn’t President, but he loved telling people what to do. The only thing I got involved in, which I was really on the sidelines, was Stanhope Browne, you know, putting the what was it, the cover on the – [the I-95 expressway].

JB:       You were heavily in Landmarks [the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks]. Heavily involved in Landmarks. I came onto Landmarks because of you.

DL:      I guess because I was involved in the Physick House [the Hill-Physick-Keith House]. That’s right. Actually, it was, I think it was Mrs. Watts. Anna Watts. Was it she? She asked if I would come on the Board. Which I did, and I must say, I rather enjoyed that. (29:00)

DS:      A good place to meet people in the neighborhood.

DL:      [laughs] David Robb. Do you remember David Robb? Were you on the Landmarks? You were on the Landmarks.

JB:       I joined because of you. You were chairman, I think, in ‘72 or ’71, ‘72. You were chairman of Physick House [a Landmarks Committee] at that time. I followed you, and I was ’73 – ’74. I followed you in that job. (30:00)

DL:      The thing that I used to – we’d hear about some wonderful piece of furniture. I would drive David Robb and we’d go look at this piece of furniture. We’d always end up saying, “Well, we can’t afford it. Why are we looking at it?” [Laughs] So anyway, there were really funny people on that board. I loved Anna Watts. She was a lovely person. …

DS:      Where would you do your grocery shopping?

DL:      There was a nice little store on, was it Fifth Street, Sixth Street? There were several little stores together. There was a grocery store there. [Unintelligible] vegetables.

DS:      Was it a sort of mom-and-pop store? A neighborhood store? A Superfresh     (35:00) or an Acme?

DL:      Well, there was a Superfresh there, but it was across the street. Anyway, there were wonderful string beans. I’d pick ‘em out string bean by string bean, and the guy would be so annoyed at me.

JB:       I remember that green grocery shop. You’ve jogged my memory. On Fifth Street about where the cleaners are now. I remember going in there with Valerie on the way to school, and she touched an orange, and –

DL:      He didn’t like it.

JB:       He didn’t like it. There were two brothers, you’re absolutely right. He came running over to me, “Don’t touch that orange!” I never went back. I never went back. (36:00)

DL:      Well, I certainly don’t – I wouldn’t either. He’d get very annoyed at me ‘cause I’d pick out the string beans and put ‘em in a bag.

JB:       That’s right. I forgot all about those people.

DS:      What else would you need? You’d need groceries. You’d go downtown to shop, or go to the suburbs to shop for clothes? Did you go to a lot of things in town?

DL:      The Academy of Music was our biggest thing. You could go there almost every night and find wonderful entertainment. There’s something going on there all the time. We did (37:00) that quite a lot, and we went to theater quite a lot, and we went to Christ Church. Let’s see, what else did we do? …

DS:      Can you think of a story that goes with them?

DL:      The Greek restaurant. Do you remember that? A bunch us of got involved in a Greek restaurant.

DS:      It was on the corner of South Street, I think, either South or Lombard Street. [It was Konstantino’s, at the southwest corner of Second and South Streets.]

DS:      Right.

DL:      I can’t even remember the name, but it involved a lot of people. Funny. As I say, I can picture them but I can’t think of their names. (41:00)

JB:       It will probably come to you in the middle of the night, and you can just write that down.

DL:      Thanks for the idea.

JB:       You’ve done very well. You’ve remembered a lot.

DL:      I’d like to remember. Of course, we lived right across the street from the [Society Hill] Synagogue. That used to interest me. I loved to see people going in and people going out, and people greeting people going in and out. You know, the Jewish religion is much more friendly than the Episcopalians. (42:00)

DS:      It was a lively church with lots of people? I mean synagogue.

DL:      Oh, lots of people going in and out, all dressed up to the nines. They have Rosh Hashanah and all these holidays.

DS:      In the ‘60s. Was Lawrence Court there at that time? You know, there’s that little, beside to the east of the synagogue, there’s that walkway.

DL:      Walkway. Yes, that was there. You know, it was interesting. One night [there was] a lot of racket. I guess Mary was in the city. We went and looked out the (00:43) window. They were making a movie. They didn’t see [unintelligible] little tower watching them. Finally, the police came along. I guess you have to have some kind of a license or something to do that. They [the police] talked to these [the movie] people for a long time.

DS:      It’s very regulated now, but I guess back in those – in the ‘60s they probably got away with whatever they wanted.

DL:      Oh, Nancy Grace, I do remember her. Nancy Grace and her swimming pool. She’d go swimming in the nude in the swimming pool early (45:00) in the morning. There was one workman who’d arrive ahead of time. …

JB:       Mr. Byrnes [a neighbor] used to spy on –

DL:      No, not Mr. Byrnes. It was a workman. There was something going on in the Physick House that needed workmen there. They’d come in the morning early. They were painting the house or doing something. Mrs. Byrnes said she couldn’t understand why he came so early, so she went and looked. (48:00)

DS:      With binoculars.

DL:      There was Nancy. I guess, when she got out of the water she’d be completely naked.

JB:       In those days that was pretty interesting.

DL:      Yes.

DS:      Did you ever go down to the river?

DL:      Oh, often. I could stand on the step when it was snowing, I could stand on front doorstep and I could see the river and hear the boats going HMMMMMMM.

DS:      Could you really?

DL:      Yes.

DS:      No trees and no blocking of the view. (49:00)

DL:      Yes.

            Bert was held up by gunpoint. We were having a family Thanksgiving dinner. He went out to get wine or something, and he didn’t come back and he didn’t come back. The telephone rang and this voice said, “Is this Mrs. Latta?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “I found your husband’s credit cards.” I said, “You did what?” He said, “I found them. They were in the gutter in the street, and I picked them up.” When I was on the phone, (50:00) Bert and a policeman walked in the door. He had purchased this bottle of wine, and he was walking home, and this car came along, and two people jumped out of it. One of them put a pistol in his stomach and said, “Give me your wallet.” Well, Bert was [holding] the bag and said, “It’s in my hip pocket.” Anyway, they took his wallet and then jumped back into this car. Oh, I guess – oh, a police car came along shortly after that. Bert told them what happened, so they (51:00) drove Bert back. I said, “Bert, somebody called about your credit cards. I thought maybe you’d been murdered.” The man who had found the credit cards came around about half an hour later and gave them back to Bert.

DS:      Wow.

DL:      He knew Arlen Specter very well. They were partners in the law firm at the time. Anyway, Bert said, – see he told Arlen what had happened – let’s see. Right. (52:00) The car had Connecticut license plates on it. Bert noticed that. He couldn’t remember the number. Anyway, it was a great big kind of touring car and it was parked over on Lombard Street. Anyway, Bert talked to Arlen Specter about it, and they kind of got on the stick. I guess it was maybe two or three days later, they arrested somebody. They weren’t sure they had anything to do with it, but anyway, he said to Bert they [were] going (53:00) to have a police lineup. “Can you come down and identify these people?” It was about 3 o’clock in the morning; he got dressed. He said he couldn’t identify anybody. He says he watched them. They made them all look alike. They were all tall and they [unintelligible], so they said, “Well, pick out someone,” which he did, and it was a policeman.

JB:       I was going to say, they probably put a policeman in the lineup.

DL:      That’s right, they do that. They never did catch the people. (54:00)

DS:      What did they take?

DL:      They took his wallet, that was all.

DS:      They left the credit cards?

DL:      No. Well, they threw the credit cards away. It was the money they wanted. Arnold and Elizabeth – now what was their last name?

JB:       Nicholson.

DL:      Nicholson. I remember them. He was a nice, friendly guy. (55:00) They bought that –

JB:       Drinker’s Court.

DL:      Drinker’s Court. Then the friends of ours, Elizabeth and John, Libby and John –

JB:       Lippincott?

DL:      No, that’s not their name.

JB:       Someone else on that block? (56:00)

[End of first side of tape. Beginning of second side of tape]

DL:      She was Libby Perot. And I’ve known her for ages and ages. They live in the Poconos now.

JB:       Bracken.

DL:      Bracken, You’re right. What was [my] story? [Friends of ours] Libby and Jack Bracken moved … to Society Hill. Jack was very outgoing, a talker. They got to know some of the neighbors pretty well, and Libby was invited by them to have dinner. [Libby] said the first thing they saw [when entering their hosts’ house] was [a] portrait over the fireplace. Libby kind of gulped, and Jack said, “Where did you get that?” They said, “Oh, we bought it at an antique store or something or other” and went on talking about it. Finally, Libby couldn’t stand it anymore and said, “That was my great-great-grandfather.” It was a copy of a [Charles Wilson] Peale portrait – it was a real shock – [of] Anthony Morris [Quaker, revolutionary leader and mayor of Philadelphia) or (2:00) someone like that.

JB:       Really.

DS:      She was quite a kidder, wasn’t she?

DL:      Yes, she was a marvelous person.

JB:       Did you know the Haases at all, Dotie and Otto.

DL:      Just vaguely.

JB:       They seemed to be out in the countryside more than they were in town. …

DL:      Yes. She died. Otto remarried. He was awfully nice, and that lovely house.

JB:       Barclay [House].

DL:      Yes, that’s right. I think they used it to entertain. He was Rohm and Haas. To entertain some of their business people. (03:00)

JB:       Gerry Ford stayed there. Remember when he was in town for the debate? He stayed there. It was a very interesting time. It’s now owned by a new owner, and he unfortunately built a very undistinguished building on the Japanese garden.

DL:      Oh, no. What a shame. Why do people do things like that?

DS:      Money? Did people talk about how they were restoring? Did they talk about politics?

DL:      Tell jokes. Do you remember Gretchen Becker?

JB:       Of course. (00:04)

DL:      We became very, very close friends. She was the manager of Drinker Biddle & Reath, so I saw a lot of her. … I had more fun with her, because you know she really restored that house, a lot of it, herself. She got up on scaffolding and scraped paint. There was Dwight Ashby; remember him?

JB:       Do you remember Mae O’Neill in the 100 block? She did the same thing.

DL:      Who’s that?

DS:      Mae O’Neill. She was a good friend of Gretchen.

DL:      Yes, right, I do sort of vaguely remember.

DS:      There was a whole group that did a lot of their own restoring. I remember going to cocktail parties when we first moved in, which would have been ’64 or ’65. That’s what people talked about: the problems they were having with the fireplace and the carpenter.

JB:       And I’m sure you were good friends with Elva Garret? (6:00)

DL:      Oh, yes.

DS:      Elva and George.

DL:      Elva and George. You know that house they had, it took so long to kind of get it settled. They wanted to buy it, but the rain just seemed to come into the house. I thought it was going to fall down one Sunday, but they did restore it. I spent many a night in that [house] when Elva was there, after George had died.

            Peggy Watson. Peggy Watson Kelly?

DS:      She was president of the Civic Association, right.

DL:      That’s right.

JB:       Was she a door away…?

DL:      Two doors. She was next door.

DS:      To the left.

DL:      Yes, they were. No, she wasn’t. That’s wrong. There was a house. The French Embassy. That house and then Peggy’s house. (7:00) It was terrible. That house [the French Embassy] went to rack and ruin. Amesburys.

JB:       Amesburys.

DS:      You two are amazing.

DL:      Amesburys. They really were a bunch of … kooky people. She was, they were interested in the house. In the first place, when we bought our house, there was a young couple that was interested in the French Embassy, and they were going to fix it up. They were going to fix it up at the same time we were fixing up our house. I don’t know what happened, but they withdrew, and that’s when the Amesburys became interested in it. You know it was awful, because we could hear things crashing in that house and things falling down. It had – I was (8:00) never in it, but I was told they had the original staircase in it and wonderful paneling and so forth.

JB:       We kept hearing the same thing, but I don’t think anyone’s ever seen it.

DL:      Probably not. Of course, fix it up and live in it. The Amesburys.

JB:       But, they won’t open their doors.

DL:      They were very, very odd people. She had her hair done by the same man that did mine, at Elizabeth Arden. He used to tell me that she would [unintelligible] Polish Princess.

JB:       Oh, that’s the Polish Princess. Oh, now it comes home.

DL:      Right.

JB:       I never knew that about her.

DL:      Nobody else did, either. The only person that knew it was he. He used to tell me these things … (9:00)

JB:       They were very reclusive. They were outspoken but reclusive at the same time.

DL:      She would call people up. I remember she called me up and she was talking about various people in the neighborhood, whom I knew she didn’t know, and they did this and they did that. She called up one time and got Bert on the phone and he said, “Don’t call us anymore. We don’t want to hear any more about these people. If they’re your friends that’s fine, but we don’t want to hear any more about them.”

JB:       She was complaining?

DL:      She was talking about things that people did, and we were sure that she was making it up.

JB:       I think I remember something about that. I think you were one of one or two others that she called and would complain. She loved to complain. (10:00)

DL:      I guess she called because I was her neighbor. I guess Peggy wouldn’t talk to her.

JB:       Peggy had already had the conversation.

DL:      That’s right. I really enjoyed Peggy. She really was good fun.

DS:      Do you have any pictures at all?

DL:      I probably have, but they’re probably stuck away somewhere. I’m going to have to start going through things and getting rid of things. I’ve been here, as I say, ten years now. You know I’m ninety-three years old now.

JB:       Ninety-three? Really?

DL:      How much longer can I …I hope I’m here for the long haul. (11:00) [Mrs. Latta celebrated her one hundredth birthday at Cathedral Village with a large party; she died the following year.]

DS:      You’re ninety-three [with] your mind is as sharp as it is; you’re doing really fine.

DL:      I don’t think it’s particularly sharp, but thank you anyway.

JB:       Two against one.

DS:      You remember names…

DL:      You talk to somebody like me, because you …. like the Brackens….

DS:      Which house on the 300 block were they in?

JB:       It’s the first one. You know the house at the corner that was a store. The southwest (12:00) corner. There’s a house that fronts on Delancey and also on Third. It’s the house right next to that. No, on Delancey. The address was 300 Delancey.

DL:      No.

DS:      That house was sort of vacant. I know it’s owned. I’ve seen a man going in and out of it periodically… some time…

JB:       I haven’t seen much activity for some time.

DL:      You’re talking about the tiny house? You know, she said to me that she and the vacuum sweeper couldn’t go up the stairs together.

JB:       Oh, that’s wonderful.  (13:00)

DL:      It really was that small…

JB:       That’s very funny. That’s very good.

DL:      It really was a unique place to live. You still love living [in Society Hill], do you?

JB:       Absolutely.

DL:      It’s not changing too much, is it?

JB:       It’s changing a bit…

[Machine is turned off, then on again.]

DL:      … One of the first … the very first …            (15:00)

JB:       … Charles Peterson … Charles Peterson was there about the same time… ’54, ’56.

DS:      … From talking to the women who were born and raised there [Society Hill], they were immigrant families … and to save their money, you didn’t put it in a bank. You put it into real estate. What you did, you refurbished the house and turned it into a boarding house. The workers were coming into Philadelphia at that time for the jobs, and they were overloading the houses with people, renting rooms. It got kind of wild out there. But, they say, it was not a slum. They take great offense when anybody publishes … it a slum. (16:00)

DL:      I’m sure it was not a slum.

DS:      You didn’t hear it was a slum.

DL:      Absolutely not.

DS:      More like a war zone. Bombing …

DL:      Yes.

JB:       Pockets with no houses.

DL:      That is an interesting way. Of course, you know, that’s where Philadelphia, the United States, was really started …. I had a big argument with one of my friends. What did she say about that? The Society Hill. I said it was really the Quakers. The Society of Quakers came in, and it was…. Now how did that name come?

DS:      Society of Free Traders.

DL:      Free Traders. (17:00 )

DS:      Free Traders.

JB:       Free Traders. Penn came up with the idea and sold property in the area to the Traders and it was like a deal. If you bought a property in town, he would give you a certain acreage outside of town….

DL:      I never heard of that.

JB:       It was the Society of Free Traders that really controlled that hill, and it became known as the Society’s Hill. Of course, that was around for a long time, and it got to be sort of a misnomer, and then it died out. Charlie Peterson takes responsibility for reviving Society Hill, the name Society Hill. It was somewhat laughable at the time, in the ‘50s, but he persisted.

DL:      The Free Traders, were they Quakers?

JB:       Not necessarily.

DL:      Not necessarily.

JB:       It was a combination; it was probably a combination. Anyway, I think we’ve probably taken up enough time. Can we come back and see you again? (18:00)

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DL:      [What] really intrigued me about Society Hill was the fact that my ancestor, James Steele, came over on the second trip with William Penn. He was one of these, oh, what …

JB:       Was he a Quaker?

DL:      Yes, indeed, he was a Quaker. The property that … Well anyway, James Steel worked for – was one of his proprietors, I guess you’d say. He owned (19:00) property there, and he owned property that was Christ Church cemetery. As a fact, Christ Church bought that property from my ancestor James Steel.

DS:      This is the property at Fourth and …

DL:      I don’t know how properties must have been, probably owned by maybe the city. Well, anyway, he owned that, and he also owned property where that big insurance company is, what’s that called?

DS:      Penn Mutual?

DL:      Yes, he owned that. It was his property too. He sold that to the city of Philadelphia for the gaol. The reason I particularly loved our house is because I was walking the (20:00) same streets as James Steel … But you know, when you asked me how I happened to go down there, I’ve forgotten what I said, but …

DL:      Oh.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DL:      Remember, we’d pick out string beans one at a time? He didn’t like that at all.

JB:       If you had to – I should let Dorothy do the questioning, because she’s experienced at this. If you had some experiences as to what you thought once you got there …What was … going through your mind? A really nice house, you were walking the streets ... in your ancestor’s footsteps. (21:00)

DL:      I had a little dachshund, a miniature dachshund. Of course, I walked a lot because I exercised. I loved the city. When we were married, because we lived on the Main Line, until we moved into Society Hill, I was afraid … we’d move back to the country… his [Bert’s] Mennonite farm and horses and all that kind of stuff … He loved getting into those fights. He loved doing that kind of thing. He always loved a good tug of war. Literally … (22:00) No, I think it was a … and the great thing was, you could go every single night if you wanted to … music and be entertained by something. I guess you still can. So close, you can walk up there. The Walnut Street Theater was … What was that movie house on South Street?

JB:       TLA. (24.00)

DS:      Some more stories. Tell me, were you ever fearful? You walked your dog …

DL:      I never really walked the dog at night. We had a tree at our front door … Maybe the tree is still there. He [the dog] would wake me up in the middle of the night. I could never get Bert to do it. I would paddle down the stairs, and the dog would go out the front door, and she would go out to the tree, and do her business, and then fly into the house, and jump into her bed. (25:00)

            I never was afraid. The only time Bert … something really kind of bad, which didn’t turn out, fortunately … Out for a walk, and when he came back he came in the front door and he noticed there were people in our yard; I looked around and saw three black boys, big boys. I banged on the window, and they were scared and left.

DS:      Had they gotten into the house?

DL:      No, they hadn’t. We had those locks where you could lock the door high up and … broken them. I guess, yes, they broke the window pane by the door, by the handle. Of course, they couldn’t get in because of the locks, they couldn’t even reach the locks. (26:00) They made short work. They just fled. But, that was the only time.

DS:      When you were walking during the day you never had … The other ladies were telling me, you know, they lived here all their lives, but they weren’t afraid. Perhaps those people didn’t have cars; they walked or took public transportation.

DL:      Bert from time to time would be away for two or three days, and I’d be by myself, and it never occurred me to be afraid.

DS:      OK.

DL:      I think that’s important.

DS:      Who lived alongside of you?

DL:      The Amesburys lived on one side.

DS:      Princess Somebody? Or she called herself Princess Somebody? (27:00)

DL:      … Princess. On the other side was Mrs. Schwartz and her husband. Her husband, I think, died while we were living there. … her sister, who was a real character. I enjoyed them because they were characters.

DS:      You belonged to the Board of the Physick House?

DL:      Yes, the Physick House.

DS:      What else did you like to do?

DL:      I was Chairman. I was the first Chair. Jo Ann was the second. That was …… (28:00)

DS:      You established a Board for the Physick House?

DL:      No, that was Libby Bracken. … She’d been to some kind of a meeting and said … were so interested in the house. They wanted to find somebody who would be willing to be chairman if they could get hold, you know, create a committee, which they did, and I said I would do it. I did form the committee.

JB:       Now that’s not a story that I knew before. That’s interesting. (29:00)

DL:      You didn’t know about that before? … the Angels – we actually bought most of the furnishings. There was nothing there, you see.

DS:      Was the house renovated at that time?

DL:      Oh, yes.

DS:      What was the house used for?

DL:      The house was bought. Who did that? … At one point they thought they could turn the house into a house for the mayor of Philadelphia. I’ve forgotten who it was who said, (30:00) “If my mother and father lived downtown, I’d never visit them,” or something or other, so they [weren’t] interested in that. They had to really redo that house, fix it up. I think it was … I don’t know who … I think the Redevelopment Authority first …. Fix it up. Somebody gave money for it. I think the somebody was the Annenbergs, and it was like the Powel House, a museum. [The Annenbergs bought the house from the Redevelopment Authority, paid to restore it, and then donated it to the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. It opened as a museum in 1965.]

DL:      I think whoever it was … Anyway, there was a committee and I was chairman of that committee, and I think I probably added more people …I think Patsy (33:00) Randolph, who was a direct descendant from Dr. Physick, she was very much interested in that house. She was here, too.

DS:      This is now run by the Landmarks Society, the Powel House. Was it then?

JB:       Yes, I think it was turned over almost immediately to Landmarks.

DL:      It was because of Landmarks. You’re absolutely right. Because of Powel. It was probably the committee. It was probably because of Anna Watts. She was chair of the Powel House [Committee].

 [End of interview]


©2005 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
Cathedral Village, 600 E. Cathedral Road
Interview Date
April 20, 2005
Latta, Deborah
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources