Duncan Buell (1928-2015) was an architect practicing with Louis Kahn when he and his wife, Sally Lou Buell, known as Sal, were persuaded by Ted Newbold to buy and restore 119 Lombard Street. It was 1963. Built in 1742, the house was one of the oldest in the neighborhood. It was vacant and in dire need of attention. The front wall was bulging outward some six inches and about to fall into the street. Duncan describes how he kept the wall from falling into the street.
Duncan and his family were living in a former kosher meat market at Sixth and Delancey Streets while 119 Lombard Street was being restored. One day early in the process, Duncan arrived at the house and realized it had been vandalized overnight. Someone had removed some of the paneling in an upstairs room. This kind of theft was fairly common in the neighborhood at the time. He describes how he solved the problem, at least for his house.
Duncan restored the house, and he, Sal, and their two young sons lived in it for three or four years, becoming more and more a part of the neighborhood. They then sold 119 Lombard and bought 236 Stamper Street, which Duncan also rehabbed. Duncan observed that, as an architect, he “... was really a modernist if ever there was one.” Yet he was restoring old houses
Duncan talks about raising their sons in the city, the roles that a pet rooster and a dog named Ree played in their lives, and feelings about restoring old houses in Society Hill. While his parents thought they were crazy, Duncan knew they were doing something important. “We knew the area was going to fulfill its promise.”
DS: This is an interview with Duncan Buell. The date is January 5, 2007. The location is 1525 Locust Street, which is his office. The tape begins with him describing the place he lives now in Northern Liberties.
DB: …. But Sal [his wife, Sally Lou Buell] needed a clay studio. She searched around and found that in Northern Liberties there was an old horse barn that was on the market. (1:00) And apparently it was an old place. I could verify that. It’s quite a large building. We bought it. It’s 30 feet by 90 feet, three stories high then, just houses, storage. It’s 12 feet on the first floor and [unintelligible]. It’s a big building.
DS: Sounds good.
DB: We love it. We can park six cars on the ground floor, not all of which are ours, of course. We do have a tenant. And some of our neighbors park there. In a neighborhood that is jam-packed with automobiles, it’s a blessing to have that huge space.
DS: Now, Duncan, where were you born?
DB: Rochester, New York.
DS: And when were you born?
DS: And your first house in Society Hill was 117 Lombard.
DB: One nineteen.
DS: One nineteen. Did you restore it, or had it been restored? (2:00)
DB: We restored it.
DS: What year would this have been?
DB: It was about to fall down into Lombard Street. Literally. It bowed way out, and no correcting work had ever been done on that house.
DS: What years? What year are we talking about?
DB: When did we do it?
DS: What year?
DB: About 1963, ’64. About then.
DS: 1963, ’64. And the house was about to fall down.
DB: It was built in 1742. Old house.
DS: An old house, and you restored it.
DB: Built by Joseph Wharton.
DS: Wharton, like Wharton School.
DB: That Wharton. That family.
DB: I understand that he had quite a lot to do with this marketplace – or the family did. Second and Pine. (3:00)
DS: Produce center.
DS: And did you buy it from the Redevelopment Authority?
DB: Yes, we did. Ted Newbold kind of pushed.
DS: Pushed. [Laughs.]
DB: Because Ted wanted somebody to save the front, and that wasn’t going to be the easiest thing.
DB: We pushed them a little bit – the Redevelopment [indecipherable]. Somebody was supposed to remove the metal and remove the stars and remove the this, that, and the other thing. But I said, “No way.” The stars and the bolts were going to pull this front back in. It was out six inches, hanging out over Lombard Street. It had a pot belly, like mine [sound of him slapping his stomach]. And so we did. We put the star bolts in, and it was amazing. (4:00) Traffic going by would vibrate the buildings. We would turn the winch by hand a little bit every day. And, I don’t know. We spent a couple of weeks pulling it in. But it did come in. And then, of course, we did pointing and all the rest of the stuff you have to do.
DS: Right. Do you remember how much you paid for it back then? Approximately?
DB: [Long pause.] [Indecipherable.] Was it $6,000? Something like that.
DS: It sounds possible.
DB: Just the land down there. I mean, the house value was nothing.
DS: Right. Inside, it was total –
DB: Total wreck. (5:00)
DS: Total wreck.
DB: But there was paneling.
DS: So you say.
DB: But it was pretty well banged up. But it was there. And we no sooner started the work and, I remember, we’d gotten under way, and I walked in there one day, and I walked up to the second floor. And if seemed awfully dark up there on one side. I couldn’t understand quite why but then reality set in. The lighting. And the whole wall of paneling was gone. Johnny Griggs was around in those days. Ever heard of him?
DB: Stealing stuff. And peddling it. I don’t know where he peddled it. I have no idea.
DS: You think he took it.
DB: Oh, I kind of think he did. He had that reputation. He was a kind of thief with an eye for history. Anyway, we were able to restore – I took the paneling out that (6:00) existed, at least in several rooms, because the houses were being broken into regularly. And we had no way of really controlling that. He said he wasn’t [indecipherable] us, but [indecipherable]. So we took some of the paneling out. It was an education. My training was as a real architect. I was really a modernist if there ever was one. I came to Philadelphia to work for Louis Kahn. Here was this piece of construction [referring to paneling]. And I took it to the house we were living in those days. We rented. (7:00) Had a fair amount of space. Stamper and Third. A kosher meat market. And I set up a workshop and stripped it all down and repaired it. [The place where they lived while rehabbing 119 Lombard was a former kosher meat market at Sixth and Delancey Streets, which they rented. After they sold 119 Lombard, they bought 236 Stamper, which they also rehabbed and lived in.]
DS: What was at Stamper and Third?
DB: An old meat market.
DS: A meat market that you bought?
DB: No, we rented.
DS: You rented. OK.
DB: I had a shop in the basement.
DS: Is that the building right next to the Kelloggs’? Where you later lived? On Stamper?
DB: We did live on Stamper Street.
DS: Was it the same building?
DB: No. I don’t think so. I would have certainly been aware of that.
DB: We repaired the paneling and put it back. And I forget how many walls of paneling we eventually had, but there was one wall that I think we did – the one that was (8:00) stolen [indecipherable]. But we did find a wall that was for sale for a reasonable price and bought it and cut it to fit our house. I didn’t really have to do much cutting. And we did that. We put it in. But living in Society Hill in those days was like the Wild West. You had guys with horse and wagons, black people mostly. They’d come around at night, break into houses for the plumbing, or the lead or the copper or the tin or whatever. Bathtubs. Anything like that. Wreck the house sliding the stuff down the stairs. You can imagine a nice, old, 250-year-old stair, what that would be like. Very much out of control. So the control we took on, Sal, I think, would like to tell this story. We had a Doberman Pinscher, a (9:00) no-nonsense, female Doberman. Ree. We moved her into the house every night.
DS: Ree. R-
DB: R-E-E. We moved her into the house every night. She had a fierce bark. Nobody would tamper with her [Laughs]. And that was the end of the problem. We could proceed with work. We could go ahead and put plumbing in and mechanical stuff, and not worry about anything being ripped out at night. It was interesting. The time and everything. (10:00)
DS: Why did you move there?
DB: Well, the houses were handsome. I mean, that was obvious. Somewhere I have a picture here of the front of 119 [Lombard Street]. It was such a handsome house. You could see it. Also, there was a general groundswell. You could see the way people were involved. I trusted Ted [Newbold] and I liked him. And it wasn’t until later that we got to know people like Joanne Denworth. You might interview her. She’s a past president of the Civic Association. As was Ted, a past president. Have you interviewed them?
DS: They’re on our list.
DB: But they’re on your list. (11:00)
DS: Then you sold that property at what time?
DB: We sold it three or four years after we bought it.
DS: You bought it, you fixed it –
DB: We thought about re-buying it, because it was so – really a wonderful old house. And it was – it was a proposition where – whatever it was, we thought it was a fairly decent recompense. And I can’t remember just what it was.
DS: But you sold the house.
DB: Yes, we got a decent price for it, and we bought on Stamper Street. (12:00) A small house, much smaller, much smaller. This house was 17 feet wide, which was very wide, and – gosh, what was the depth? Anyway, that’s what we did. And we restored that house pretty much.
DS: The one on Stamper?
DS: Oh, so you went from Lombard then to the three hundred block of Stamper. Two hundred block of Stamper.
DB: I think that’s right. Yes.
DS: And restored that one too?
DB: Now, pretty much. And the modern – I didn’t restore it in the sense of trying to put it back. We put in another stair [indecipherable] a steel stair, which seemed to work pretty well. We did a fairly modern interior, but we kept the shell, of course. (13:00)
DS: This is the house next to the Kelloggs’, right?
DB: Yes, 236 [Stamper Street].
DS: Two thirty-six? And did you buy this house from the Redevelopment Authority?
DB: Yes, I did.
DS: And was it a wreck inside also?
DS: Yes. [Laughs]
DB: It was awful. I think – we decided it had probably been a house of ill repute at some point, because of the graffiti [indecipherable]. But it had high ceilings and some other interesting items. And very unusual construction. It was very efficient, in a way, the way the frame came together. But the party wall dividing – the houses were done in pairs. The party wall dividing our house from its twin [on Lombard Street], which Tom (14:00) van Arkel restored, not for himself, but he restored it – was only four inches thick. Not an eight-inch wall, not a ten-inch wall. Just four inches across. And we got away with certain things you’d never do today.
DS: You wouldn’t be allowed to.
DB: I’ve always carried on floor joists two houses with two walls and an alley, like that [showing DS]. The floor joists doubled as you came over, but this wall was built on a heavy wooden beam right over the joist. Those joists – the weight of the wall (15:00) provided tremendous stiffness for the floors on both sides, because it provided what we call a negative moment.
DS: Negative what?
DB: Negative moment. In other words, it tended to lift the center of the floor. [Indecipherable] leverage [indecipherable]. But those walls were just [indecipherable] construction which was done in 1742.
DS: That house was 1742.
DS: You had to go with zoning to correct this, right? You couldn’t keep a four-inch wall.
DB: Oh, no, we kept it.
DS: You kept it.
DB: Because the wall was part of history, part of the original house.
DS: And even though fire codes and all those things would have said, “No, no, no, you can’t do that,” they didn’t come after you?
DB: They sort of waived those things.
DS: They did?
DB: Think of all the smart people who were around, like Ted Newbold, (16:00) who said, “Look, you can’t just change history. The house has stood all these years. Then let it alone.” The [indecipherable] at the Historical Commission [indecipherable]. I can’t remember his name. I got to talk to [indecipherable], and a good man, too. And I can’t think of his name now. Anyway, people like that were interesting for me to talk with. And we decided to go ahead.
DS: Did the Redevelopment Authority give you trouble with restoring these two houses in any way?
DB: I only restored one of them. Ted Newbold – I mean, Tom Van Arkel did the other.
DS: Right. On Stamper [Street].
DB: Yes. No. On the 200 block of Lombard Street. 119 Lombard.
DS: 119 Lombard Street you restored. (17:00)
DS: The 236 Stamper you’re saying Tom Van Arkel restored.
DB: No, no, no. We restored that one.
DS: OK, but the twin to 236 Tom Van Arkel restored.
DS: All right. Did you have trouble with the Redevelopment Authority in any way, or were they essentially very helpful to you?
DS: They were helpful.
DB: They knew when to look the other way. And not to hold everybody’s feet to the fire about things like the bearing wall, the party wall between the two houses, would have been very destructive.
DS: Again, do you think the price was similar or less? Since it was a smaller house.
DB: I can’t remember.
DS: Yes, OK. (18:00)
DB: Probably a little more, because it was in much better condition of the house. [Indecipherable] although [indecipherable] smell [indecipherable]. [Indecipherable]. But 119 had 72 feet, which was generous for an old house.
DS: Right. I love the story of the way it was, because I remember it well. What other stories do you have that you could tell us that would be helpful?
DB: About that particular place?
DS: About that particular time in Society Hill and living and working there.
DB: Oh, well, gosh. There was an old lady living down the street [indecipherable]. When Sal and I moved in, she was still there. And she conjured up – Sally McDermott (19:00), still there. And she survived all this craziness that was going on in the neighborhood.
DS: Sally McDermott. Where did she live?
DB: She lived – I forget the number. I tell you, Sal would know.
DS: Your wife, Sally?
DB: Yes. Well, she dreamed up the number. Sally would know.
DS: But she’s still alive.
DB: No, I don’t think so. She had died – in fact, Sal wanted to do something for her about the time that she had died. And across the street was a Mrs. Handfinger, on the (20:00) south side. We lived on the north side of Lombard and Mrs. Handfinger lived on the south side. Also want to say 123 [Lombard Street]. but I can’t really remember. Sally would know. Somebody named Van Dyke also moved in – [Norma Van Dyke bought 121 Lombard Street in 1975 and rehabbed it.]
DS: Not related –
DB: She had bought 123 [Lombard]. Then Mrs. Handfinger’s house across the street.
DS: Not related to Tom?
DS: You’re saying, besides yourself, there were three other houses occupied?
DB: Yes, that’s right. But they didn’t do restoration. People decided to do it died, and Mrs. Handfinger sold her house. Somebody restored it. And, oh, yes, one of the (21:00) characters in the area was a “night watchman”. He had a shotgun in his house. I think it was a shotgun. When the noise of this demolition got too bad at night, [indecipherable]. I’d still be in bed. [Indecipherable] he would lean out of his window and fire a few blasts into the air. That would quiet things down for a while. We used to call him the Mad Russian.
DS: [Laughs] And where was his house?
DB: On Pine Street. (22:00)
DS: Pine Street. This is George. He lived behind us on Pine.
DB: Is that right? George?
DB: Russian name?
DS: He did, and I’m blocking on it right now, but, yes, he was well known in the neighborhood.
DB: So not – my memory is not lying to me.
DS: Oh, no.
DS: Yes, I – so behind your house on Lombard, I remember the Newmarket site, I mean –
DB: Oh, behind our house was a field. Much of it was cleared, there was a field, and the – I don’t know whether you remember – the large restaurant would have been across on the south side of Lombard, called Le Champignon.
DB: You’ve heard of that?
DB: They would play bowls. I forget – it was a European game. But it was (23:00) smooth enough and level enough that they could play bowls. French game. Pétanque. That was some time later. I mean, we’re talking about the ‘70s about.
DS: We taught our sons how to play baseball on that field.
DB: You did?
DB: Oh, that’s a great field. [Indecipherable]. There was a time [indecipherable] they brought in the Glass Palace [indecipherable].
DS: I also heard the story that you used to have a rooster. (24:00)
DB: [Laughs] How did you hear that? Yes, Sal had a little bantam rooster, very feisty little character, and he was kind of house broken. He was a pet. Used to come into the kitchen, wander in out of the – we didn’t have any step from the back yard. The kitchen floor was just level. The rooster would [sound of knocking] land on top of the refrigerator and just kind of sit there and survey the whole scene. I mean, he was the real thing. Funny. We had a woman from the office. This was a lady who would come down and visit us from time to time. [Laughs] And I think she was Chinese. I’ll think of her name. Very nice lady. She said, (25:00) “Visiting the Buells is like visiting a South American – a Latin American country. A chicken walking around the kitchen.” [Laughs]
DS: [Laughs] Some of your neighbors told me about the chicken – or the rooster – early in the morning.
DB: Oh, it would crow! It kind of woke people up.
DS: Well, they look back on it affectionately.
DB: Well, oh, yeah. The sun would come up, and he would get up and spread his wings and do a real crow.
DS: You raised two sons in this neighborhood.
DB: Yes, we did. Gordon and Ely.
DS: Gordon and Ely.
DB: Yes. Gordon is still with us. Ely, unfortunately, died, and Gordon has (26:00) blessed us with two wonderful grandchildren.
DS: Does he live in the city?
DB: Yes, he lives in a brand-new house, a wonderful house, and it’s quite a ways, about 20 miles out. I haven’t learned yet how to drive there. Sal would know. She does most of the driving. That’s why I think she drives, because she’s such a good city driver. I don’t pay much attention to where she’s going. Now I kind of wish, “Oh, God, I should watch!” Anyway, I’ll figure out how to get to Gordon’s house.
DS: Did the boys enjoy growing up in that neighborhood? Did they every complain or –?
DB: No. They enjoyed it.
DS: They felt they had a good life.
DB: Ely went a little while to, uh, – what’s that –?
DS: St. Peter’s? (27:00)
DB: McCall’s School. It was a bad experience. He had a totally blockheaded woman for a teacher, who didn’t realize that this was a very gifted child. [Indecipherable]. He was not being receptive or interested in what she had to say. Anyway, she went by the book, [Indecipherable] and he was not the easiest child to bring along. Very creative.
DS: Didn’t they go to McCall’s – to St. Peter’s?
DB: Yes, they did. And Gordon actually was given a scholarship to (28:00) Deerfield Academy and, of course, took advantage of that.
DS: Sally taught there [St. Peter’s School], didn’t she?
DB: She taught there. Yes. Sal took a job there to support – because Deerfield’s kind of expensive, even with a scholarship [indecipherable]. So that was a great thing for Gordon. [Indecipherable] lots of history and English [indecipherable]. He still has a way of writing, expressing himself that came out of that education.
DS: And what has he done with his education? (29:00)
DB: Not a hell of a lot.
DS: [Laughs] Sorry I asked.
DB: He’s a carpenter.
DB: A darned good carpenter.
DS: There you go. There’s nothing wrong with that.
DB: A very good carpenter. But he was interested in law school. He did study architecture at Drexel. Took all the night courses. In the daytime, he’s a carpenter. He does the most beautiful work you can imagine. Does this beautiful classical, gorgeous, beautiful. [Indecipherable]. And he has all the potential to be a really good designer. And – but, at the same time, they need money, and they’ve got two kids – they have two kids in private school. And so – anyway, in carpentry, you make a lot more money than in architecture, (30:00) until you get to the top of your own company. That’s what he’s doing now.
DS: Other stories from the neighborhood. What would you and Sally do for entertainment? Or were you working all the time?
DB: I worked almost day and night for Louis Kahn, [indecipherable] until one day I just realized, I came home, and Sal was crying. She said, “We never see you.” I just left. For about the third or fourth time. [Indecipherable]. He had a dedicated staff and was such a charismatic guy and the work was so exciting. They were sending me (31:00) all over the country doing stuff, going to Pakistan and India and other jobs. It was exciting. But [indecipherable].
DS: How many years would you say you worked for him?
DB: For Lou?
DS: Um hum.
DB: Oh, [indecipherable].
DS: And any other experiences with neighbors or restoring your houses or any other people, involved with other people restoring their houses?
DS: There was quite a camaraderie there.
DB: There was. There was a good general – they knew they were all on the right track. We knew we were doing something important. We knew the area was going to (32:00) fulfill its promise. And we made some lifetime friends. People like Joanne Denworth. And Sal had a great house in Maine [indecipherable].
DS: Who did?
DS: Your wife.
DB: Yes. She had a great house, which she acquired from her mother, who didn’t want to keep it any longer. And I couldn’t afford to maintain it. Classic stone and wood and shingle style house. And oh, how it rained! And we decided to sell it. Sal never got over it. She still isn’t over it. [Laughs] I just – there was no way. There was blasting up the street. (33:00) I don’t know. what they were doing, but it began vibrating stones. The stones became loose. We had to re-shingle the whole exterior. We decided to sell it, and Joanne [Denworth] took pity on us, because she was just – her family had just negotiated to rent a great old house down in Maryland. And it had an apartment. So she invited us to join their group. Nineteen years we went back and forth to Maryland. Which was much less of a drive than driving up to Bangor, Maine. [Indecipherable] on the bay. So, anyway, [indecipherable]. (34:00)
DS: Tell me, when you decided to restore a house – buy a house in Society Hill – on Lombard, what was the reaction of your family and your relatives?
DB: They thought I was crazy.
DS: Thought you were crazy. They came and looked at the property and – yeah.
DB: My grandmother came down, and she just looked at it before she got out of the car. I can’t remember, but she said, “Your house has no eyes.” [Indecipherable].
DB: “The house has no eyes.” [Indecipherable]very poetic. (35:00)
DS: Yes, very poetic. [Laughs]
DB: And my mother was pretty open, and she did live in an old house, too. But she was getting on with this. I don’t think she thought we were crazy. I think it was more of [indecipherable]. I think my mother loved old houses. She grew up in the family farmhouse. [Indecipherable] I think that she helped us quite a bit financially. The same with Sal’s mother. We had a lot of help from family, doing this [indecipherable] with expenses.
DS: Did you ever get involved in the Civic Association? As it was at that time.
DB: No, I wasn’t a very active person. I attended the meetings but Joanne was (36:00) a past president. Ted was. I never served on any committees. I recognized that it was a very important function and had [indecipherable]. Anyway, the development of our area of course involved the Civic Association, [indecipherable] certain aspects of [indecipherable]. And then there was this terrible fight and problems over Benezet Court, low-cost housing. People like Sam Tanz were so excited about it. They’d lived there for years, and they just thought the area was going to Hell in a hand basket with this low-cost housing. In fact, the housing is still there today. (37:00) [Indecipherable] I couldn’t find it, but I remember where it was. Sal dredged up the name, Benezet. Anyway, there was a big fight over that. But I can’t fill you in on a whole lot of things regarding the – There was a tavern, you know, on the corner of Pine and Second [Streets]. [Indecipherable] store. And things like that first opened up just to get them going, they would sell ice cream out the window. It was a kind of, really folksy, a really nice thing. To get things going.
DS: A close feeling. (38:00)
DB: Do you remember a place called Red’s Garage? Ever hear about it?
DB: Near McCall’s School? On Fifth.
DS: Fifth and Pine? Because McCall’s is on Sixth.
DB: McCall’s School is on Sixth, that’s right.
DS: Red’s Garage was on Fifth?
DB: There were parked cars all over the place, because he was working on them. [Indecipherable]. There was something rough and ready, all the stuff happening in the area –
DS: What, what, what part of Fifth would that have been?
DB: Oh! Let’s see –
DS: Around Pine?
DB: Right next to McCall’s School.
DS: Oh, OK. McCall’s is at Sixth.
DB: At Sixth.
DS: Red’s was right next to McCall’s.
DB: Yes, Red’s was on Sixth Street.
DS: All right. (39:00)
DB: It was probably where the houses are now. New housing.
DS: Any other stories like that?
DB: [background noise] This is mostly from talking to Sal about six o’clock this morning. She [indecipherable] I was ready for coffee [indecipherable]. Do you remember the trucks [indecipherable] around our area. Curtis Publishing Company had electric trucks [indecipherable] electric machine-drive trucks that carried these gigantic rolls of paper. [Indecipherable]. (40:00) [Indecipherable].
DS: They were electric.
DB: From early 1950s, quite historic. And they were well maintained [indecipherable], and they [indecipherable]. It was quite a day when Curtis pulled out of that building. rented the office building. I just can’t think of any other –
DS: OK, well, I think this is good.
DB: Probably my best story you already know about, and that was George. (41:00) I didn’t even know his name was George. But apparently he was [indecipherable] guy. I can remember some of those blasts. They would go off in the night, and things would calm down. When Sal and I moved down there, we were among the first people to live in that area. [Indecipherable].
DS: Neighborhood was in real decline?
DB: Oh, it really was! It had become [indecipherable] industrialized. All these houses were shops or factories or something.
DS: Nobody was living in your Lombard house?
DB: The two people that I mentioned, Sally McDermott and [indecipherable]. (42:00)
DS: OK, but nobody was in your house.
DB: Oh, no.
DS: It had been vacant for some time?
DB: Oh, yes.
DS: And the one on Stamper Street? That had been vacant too?
DB: No, that was in better condition. I can’t verify [indecipherable]. it was just a sorry house There were very used spaces, falling down spiral stairs that had to be replaced. [Indecipherable]. I may not have done that today, but at that time I still had a fire in me to do modern work.
DS: And you enjoyed it?
DB: Oh, yes. And we liked it. Sal always felt it was too small. She wanted (43:00) [Indecipherable]. She found this [indecipherable] up there where we’re still now. [Indecipherable].
DS: Sounds wonderful. Thank you, Duncan.
[Tape is turned off, then on again.]
DS: – a black family named Gilbert.
DB: Sixth Street, and the first name was Gilbert. And Sal always remembers, because the woman was regularly locked out or wanted to get in. And she would stand outside the house and shout [he mimics the accent], “Gilbert, open de door. Gilbert.” He’d throw down a key or he’d come down and he’d finally let her in. [Indecipherable] Gilbert. (44:00) The funny thing is, [indecipherable], ‘cause it came from Gilbertsville. [Indecipherable].
DS: You had just told me a story about the boys on Friday night who would routinely throw brick’s through McCall’s windows. McCall’s School. And it was a time of lawlessness.
DB: Yes, very much so.
[Tape is turned off. End of interview.]
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