Ellen C. Miller

Ellen Miller (1933-2013) had two good reasons to buy a house in 1965: she couldn’t stand to live in an apartment another minute, and she wanted to get a dog. She had two good reasons to buy the house at 310 Cypress: the house’s condition was “unrestored but livable,” making it possible for her to avoid paying rent and make mortgage payments at the same time. The Cypress Street house, built in 1790, was historic and most of its historic fabric was preserved. This appealed to Ellen considerably.

Ellen was interested in the archaeology of her house – indeed, of the neighborhood. She worked with archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University to excavate the property, retrieve artifacts, and turn them over to Temple for conservation, study, and publication. The block where her house was located was known as the Alms House Block, because it was the site of the city’s first alms house. Excavations in the basement of Ellen’s house revealed the alms house’s privy pit, filled with artifacts dated between 1732 and 1765. Excavations in her back yard focused on the privy pit that belonged to the house. One item that was found there was a complete pipe tamper. Part of a similar object had been found near Carpenter’s Hall; but because it was incomplete, no one knew what it was. Finding the complete item on Ellen’s property solved that mystery.

Ellen also talks about her neighbors, including those who traced their families’ presence in the neighborhood for generations, as well as newcomers like herself. She describes the demolition of Metropolitan Hospital, just across Cypress Street from her house, and the ensuing disputes between neighbors and the city about how the sizeable property should be used. There were also disputes among factions of residents about the use of the property.


DS:      This is an interview with Ellen Miller. The date is October 6, 2009. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens, and the location is 116 Delancey Street in Philadelphia.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Can you tell me your full name, including your maiden name?

EM:     Ellen Lee Cole Miller.

DS:      Cole was your maiden name.

EM:     Maiden name.

DS:      I know you live in the [Society Hill] Towers now, but you owned a house and lived in a house for a long time, and that’s the one we’re going to talk about. Can you give me the address there?

EM:     310 Cypress Street.

DS:      When did you come to Society Hill? What year approximately?

EM:     1965.

DS:      Why?

EM:     I couldn’t stand living in an apartment another minute, and I wanted to get a dog.

DS:      You were working in the city, so you wanted to stay in the city?

EM:     Yes.

DS:      What was the condition of the property when you saw it? How did you come about it?

EM:     Oh, I went to many houses. I looked through the papers every Sunday. (1:00) The condition of the house was unrestored, but livable. That was one of the things that made me decide on it. I could live in it and not pay double rent while it was being fixed up. The second consideration was that it was very historic and had most of its historic fabric.

DS:      Still inside?

EM:     Yes. Still does.

DS:      Wonderful. Had it been lived in – had it ever been empty, in between when you bought it and somebody else sold it.

EM:     No. Well, I have no idea what happened in the far past, but it sounds as though it was very filled up. The family before the man from whom I bought the house was a family of ten. I don’t know where they put everybody, the Kellys. The families (2:00) before that had many children as well. The house was bigger, as a matter of fact, before the man I bought it from, who tore the back part down, which was not historic. He knew what he was doing, because he was an architectural historian who worked for the Park Service, so he knew what he was looking at. He tore it down for yard space.

DS:      Did he live there?

EM:     In the house? Yes. Then he got transferred, so he had to sell it.

DS:      Redevelopment was not involved in this at all.

EM:     No, it was a private sale.

DS:      Had he restored the outside to their specifications?

EM:     No, I don’t think he had very much money. He had restored some of (3:00) the interior. Well, he did replace the windows. The windows had been greatly altered, and he put the right ones on; they are still there. He had started to do the interior, starting from the top, and then he had to leave.

DS:      How many rooms on each floor?

EM:     There are two on the first, three on the second, two on the third, and an attic and a cellar.

DS:      Did you look at any houses through the Redevelopment Authority?

EM:     I did, and they seemed too far gone for me to handle them. As I say, I wanted a place I could live in while it was being restored. The Redevelopment houses were generally multi-family, in terrible condition, so there was really no way I could (4:00) do that. Some of the private houses – there had been people all over the neighborhood who went in and stole plumbing pipes, so they were in terrible condition too. This was practically the only house I could find that was in good condition, all things considered.

DS:      Sounds like you were very lucky.

EM:     Yes, I was. I was. Very.

DS:      How much did you pay for the house? Do you mind telling me?

EM:     No, it’s a matter of public record. Everybody should know that: $18,500.

DS:      Do you have any approximate figure of how much you put into restoring it?

EM:     I haven’t, but it was way more than that. Way more. We used to marvel (5:00) at that, because the stories going around were, “Oh, here’s somebody who bought a house for $5,000 or $10,000 and put $80,000 into it. Of course, that would seem like peanuts today, wouldn’t it?

DS:      Did you do your restoration work yourself? Did you hire that out?

EM:     There were some things I could do myself; for example, paint scraping, which Jo Ann Buller taught me how to do, by the way. Oh, the neighbors were extremely helpful. “Where do I start?” “Well, here’s what you do first.” I had a good architect, who gave me good ideas, practically the only architect who dealt with historic properties and knew what he was looking at.

DS:      What was his name?

EM:     Nelson Anderson.

DS:      All right.

EM:     I got lots of bad advice, mostly from work people, contractors, who didn’t          (6:00) have a clue. They said, “Why bother with repairing the plaster? Why not put up paneling in the living room?” You know what I mean, weld wood. They would have had the whole house covered. “Oh, why bother with the bricks? Put up Permastone.” That sort of thing.

DS:      Your architect guided you.

EM:     Yes, he knew what he was doing. He was a great help.

DS:      Did you have a professional background that helped you make these decisions?

EM:     No, I had to learn everything.

DS:      You did paint scraping…

EM:     And some painting.

DS:      You were your own general contractor?

EM:     Yes.

DS:      Under the guidance of the architect.

EM:     That’s right.

DS:      How long did it take you? (7:00)

EM:     I don’t think you ever finish.

DS:      [Laughs] You have the house up for sale now.

EM:     Forty-three years after I moved in. I would guess – yes, it’s been restored for some years.

DS:      It’s finished.

EM:     Yes, well, people who come in and see it say, “Oh, my God, this place needs work.” What they mean is they don’t like the kitchen and bathrooms. They’re old-fashioned. The whole place is old-fashioned, because it was built in 1790. What do you expect?

DS:      1790. That’s interesting. Do you remember the taxes then?

EM:     No. It was appraised at about $11,000. What would that have been? Whatever the millage was then. (8:00)

DS:      Did you have any dealings with the Redevelopment Authority as far as your restoration work?

EM:     No.

DS:      Any stories that you can tell us about getting money from banks or contractors?

EM:     Well, our neighborhood, as you know, was red-lined. While the government was providing money to fix the cities up, everybody who lent money was red-lining our horrible neighborhood. It was impossible to get a mortgage except at a very (9:00) usurious rate. As I was a free-lance artist, it was really impossible to get a mortgage. I remember calling one man at the First Pennsylvania Bank, and he said, “How old is your house?” and I said, “Oh, around 1790.” I was really proud of that. Then there was this silence and then a crash, and I said, “Oh, my gosh, are you still there? Is everything all right?” It was like – I don’t know if it was an act or if he actually fell and passed out or what.

DS:      This was on the phone.

EM:     On the phone. He said, “Ordinarily, we don’t give mortgages for houses that old.” Well, I said, “Well, how old can the house be?” He said, “Ten or fifteen years.” That left out the entire neighborhood. There was nothing of that age. That was their policy.

DS:      What did you do? (10:00)

EM:     I got it from my family. They gave me a mortgage at 4%. Everybody laughed. “Gee, such a low rate.” I think they’re below that now. They’re around that.

DS:      Interesting. Stories about contractors?

EM:     Well, the contractors were incredibly weird. I don’t even know where to start. I had many of them.

DS:      Did the architect suggest…?

EM:     Some.

DS:      Would these have been contractors who knew anything about historic houses?

EM:     Some were, some weren’t. The ones who said, “Oh, let’s put in paneling.” I worked with all kinds of people, and some were good; some were not; some were in (11:00) the middle. It was like a circus around the house is all I can say. I tried to work at the same time, because that was my studio. That was my office. I had to move from room to room.

DS:      Any trouble with city agencies or permits?

EM:     No, no.

DS:      Tell me, at some point along this way, you got married.

EM:     Yes, indeed. Two years after I bought the house.

DS:      Two years.

EM:     My dear husband [David Miller] assumed many of the responsibilities and learned how to scrape paint and took his vacation days to do that. He picked his favorite paneling to do.

DS:      He was of like mind. (12:00)

EM:     Oh, yes, he loved historic buildings. We agreed; it was a gorgeous house. In fact, I consulted him before I even bought it. We were courting at the time. He said, “Oh, my gosh, what this house could be. Get it.” We already agreed on it before we got married.

DS:      It’s a nice story.

EM:     Yes.

DS:      He also worked in the city?

EM:     Well, he worked at J.B. Lippincott. He was close enough; it’s on the east side of Washington Square. He could come home for lunch. People said, “How do you stand it?” I thought it was wonderful. I, meanwhile, was working on the west    (13:00) side of Washington Square. I had jobs with W.B. Saunders from time to time. The two competitors, it was very funny. We met on neutral ground, in the middle of the square. We could both walk to work and run home for lunch and that’s what we did. It was great.

DS:      Were you involved in the Civic Association?

EM:     Yes, indeed, I joined it. Actually, there were two at the time, HORA and SHARA. I had next-door neighbors who explained the whole thing and eventually, I think, in the second year I was there, they joined forces and became one.

DS:      Were you an officer?

EM:     No.

DS:      Very involved?

EM:     No, I just went to the meetings. The meetings were fun, because people would stand up and say, “Hey, I have an extra mantelpiece, and I’ll trade it for (14:00) floorboards or a front step,” or something.

DS:      You interacted with the neighbors quite a bit.

EM:     Oh, sure. Well, some I did, some not. The older people – some of the older people were very resentful of me.

DS:      Because?

EM:     Because – I don’t know. I was a newcomer. I wasn’t one of them. They didn’t know who or what I was. They were suspicious for some reason. It took a while, but they eventually came around. Others were friendly from the very beginning. It depended. It was a lot of fun back then. I have to say that, because we were in the same situation. We all helped each other out.

DS:      There was a lot of this trading information and commiserating on the restoration process? (15:00)

EM:     Oh, I should say so. Now, I have to tell you a funny story. I think this was somewhere on Spruce Street, and I heard it from a neighbor. Two ladies were out on their back porches talking across the wall to each other, and all of a sudden, one of the ladies began to sink slowly out of sight. The other neighbor looked at her. “What?” Her porch had collapsed. Apparently, there were insects in it. Termites. She thought she had restored her house, and she had a contractor do it, but he had failed to notice that she had termites on this back porch, and the whole thing just gradually collapsed, one day when she was standing on it. (16:00)

DS:      What block was this in?

EM:     I don’t remember. I think the four hundred- or five hundred-block.

DS:      Other stories about your neighbors or neighborhood people? You were very close to Three Bears Park.

EM:     Yes. Well, there wasn’t [one] when I moved in. In fact, I think there was a – they were old garages that people did ironwork in. It was commercial. I regret that nobody did archaeology there, because that’s where the first city alms house was located. They did – Dr. John Cotter did some in the rear yard of the Physick House and didn’t find (17:00) any evidence. It was probably in the park, where the evidence was, but he didn’t get to it in time, or didn’t get permission. The reason I bring this up: that whole block was devoted to the first city alms house. It’s called the Alms House Block. Down in my cellar, when I first saw my house, when the owner at the time I bought it from took me through, I noticed there is an arch under the front wall of the house, down in the cellar. You could just barely see the top of it. Well, many years later, after we had done the rest of the house, we got down to the cellar, which had a dirt floor. Lo and behold, there was an enormous pit under the house, halfway under the sidewalk, halfway into the cellar. The façade had been built over it on an arch, so it would not fall down. (18:00) This pit is the one the archaeologists from Temple dug and found lots of interesting things. It was originally – and the dates of the artifacts they found were between 1732 and 1765, which is approximately when the alms house was there. It was the privy pit for the alms house; institutional-sized privy pit.

DS:      What kinds of things did they find?

EM:     Lots of bedpans. [Laughs]

DS:      Metal.

EM:     No, no, pottery, or pieces of it, and a huge variety of other things. Shoe buckles, pipes, oh, gosh, anything you can think of.

DS:      The alms house took over the whole block?

EM:     The property did, but the house itself, I’m not sure what the footprint was. I have never been able to find anything. It was kind of skinny and long and went (19:00) across the middle, from north to south, with yards in the front and back, towards Third [Street] and Fourth [Street].

DS:      Tell me about the Ph.D. student who is doing the research on this.

EM:     Well, her name is Mara Kaktins and she’s a student at Temple, a doctoral candidate. David Orr is her faculty advisor. She’s doing a super job, just absolutely wonderful, a very conscientious job.

DS:      When you and your husband dug up the privy pit –

EM:     We didn’t, only the one in the back yard.

DS:      You didn’t. You brought Temple in right away?

EM:     No, no. I had students from Penn there in the middle ‘70s, who were fiddling around in it. It turned out what they were digging – we found quite a few artifacts, (20:00) not related to anything, but they were probably fill from other pits that were cleared out, from other sites anyway. Temple has those. We saved everything that was dug and everything that was found in the cellar floor, which was considerable. What part of the cellar floor it was found in, tons of it? Actually, they didn’t start digging the good stuff until two years ago. I knew at that time I would soon have to sell the house, and I didn’t want the new owners to be pot hunters, because I thought that was too important a site. I had already known Dave Orr from the Penn days, and he made the arrangements with the students to do the work. (21:00)

DS:      It’s complete now?

EM:     Yes. Then there was a pit in the back yard that was the privy pit to the house. A man and I – a workman and I – dug ourselves, and analyzed. The students had something to do with that, putting the pieces together.

DS:      So that was saved, too.

EM:     Oh, yes, Temple has all that.

DS:      What a nice job you’ve done.

EM:     It’s been fascinating, and a good way to learn the history, because I had to find out who lived there over the years, so that I could connect the artifacts with the people who actually lived there. Of course, the famous artifact was the pipe tamper, which was found in a blob of ink. I thought it must have been the printer, who was tamping    (22:00) his pipe and heard his wife coming and went, “Woops!” and dropped it into the ink bottle. He didn’t want her to see it; it was obscene. What it did was establish [what was] the top of one found near Carpenter’s Hall of the same design, but without the tamper part. People wondered what it was used for – it was just like a medallion with the bottom broken off of it. When they found the one in my privy pit, they realized it was a pipe tamper.

DS:      What is a pipe tamper? Just to tamp down –

EM:     Yes, when you fill up a pipe with tobacco, it’s too loose. You have to – I don’t know why you couldn’t just poke it with your finger but, apparently, they had – maybe they used it after it was lit. I’m not sure. I didn’t smoke pipes.

DS:      What was obscene? (23:00)

EM:     It showed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, “doing it.”

DS:      On –

EM:     Yes.

DS:      On the tamper itself.

EM:     Yes. There’s a huge picture of it in an archaeology book on Philadelphia, which John Cotter and his associates published a number of years ago, so people can go look at it and see what it looks like.

DS:      Can you go see these pieces?

EM:     They’re in the archaeology lab at Temple, because I think they’re still analyzing them. They have a lot of analysis to do. They finally put everything they can together, I think, but they have a lot of analysis to do. That analysis has (24:00) become more complicated over the years, because it includes bones and seeds and pollen and goodness knows what.

DS:      It’s a good story.

EM:     Oh, it’s a wonderful story. What a privilege to be involved in that.

DS:      Crime. Did you ever feel threatened?

EM:     I was threatened. Absolutely. There were people jumping over my back wall all the time. Men. I chased them out with a broom.

DS:      You were fearless?

EM:     I just had to get rid of them. Yes. People have broken into the house on several occasions. Generally, they have gotten into the cellar, through tiny windows. I don’t know how they did it. Maybe they had children with them, or a trained snake or (25:00) something. Really small, and [they’ve] taken things. Once some people broke in and stole a TV set that I was about to throw away. Thank God, I got the insurance company to pay for it, and that paid for my new one. They like TV sets and chocolate cakes for some reason.

            One time was really too much. I was asleep in bed one night, and somebody shined a flashlight and woke me up. I heard the footsteps slowly going away. I thought it was my mother coming in to see how I was. In my dream, you know. Suddenly I woke up. “Oh, my God, it can’t be!” My mother lives in Chicago, so I called the police. I was scared stiff. They had broken completely through a plate glass window (26:00) in the kitchen. The neighbors heard them do it and went back to bed. I put in a burglar alarm.

DS:      These would have been what years that you had all these break-ins?

EM:     Well, the last one was in the early ‘90s, I think, not long after David died. I sure didn’t need that.

DS:      Even that late?

EM:     Yes, continuously I would say, until I put in a burglar alarm in the ‘90s.

DS:      Then it stopped?

EM:     Yes, they saw the sign and decided – although many houses with burglar alarms were broken into. They just dashed in and out before anybody could do anything.

DS:      I wonder, were there more of these break-ins early on, or was it just sort of a steady –

EM:     You’d have to ask the police. They’re supposed to be keeping records, (27:00) and people in the Civic Association.

DS:      It’s been that many times you were broken into?

EM:     Yes. Well, three or four. There were attempted break-ins that I may not have known about. At that time, the alley was open, the alley that ran along the east side of my house, and people used to get in and hide.

DS:      It went from Cypress to Delancey?

EM:     That’s correct.

DS:      They’d run into the alley and hide there?

EM:     Well, it was hard for them to see, and they would come in the back yards that way. For example, during the day, Dave and I were having lunch, and we saw a man jump into the yard next door at 308 [Cypress]. I called the police, and they caught the man in the house, hiding in a closet.

DS:      Who owns the alley? (28:00)

EM:     I wish I knew. I have no idea. I’ve phoned every city department to find out, and nobody would claim it, so Dave and I went ahead and put up a gate. The police were delighted, because they’ve had nothing but trouble back there, because that’s how people could get in. The people at the other end have put up a gate as well, and nobody has said anything since then. So, the time is up; they can’t object.

DS:      When was the gate put up? What year? Approximately.

EM:     I think ’76. Anyway, it’s been over 21 years.

DS:      That slowed things down?

EM:     If nobody would – we tried – it’s too late.

DS:      That’s an interesting story, too. (29:00)

EM:     People used to walk their dogs back there. People themselves used to get back there.

DS:      I guess there would have been four yards they could have gotten into back there?

EM:     Well, three, because the house behind me doesn’t have a back yard.

DS:      They could climb over walls –

EM:     They could climb over into the next yard from there. For example, before I could put in that gate – Dave and I put in the gate – we wanted to get the permission of everybody whose yard was accessible, and 306 has a small alleyway that goes to it.

DS:      306 –

EM:     Two houses east.

DS:      Cypress?

EM:     Cypress. They wouldn’t give us permission. “No,” they said, “That’s supposed to be Orianna Street.” I don’t know how they knew that, but they were old neighbors, so they’d know. Wouldn’t you know, just about that night, somebody broke into their house, not me, and stole all their purses. There were three ladies living there. Then they agreed. They thought it was a good idea because they could see. They thought they were safe, not being next to the alley. As it turned out, whoever it was climbed over both walls and got into their house, broke in and stole their purses. Then they thought it was a good idea. Everybody is supposed to have a key to both gates.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Ellen, tell me how did your family and friends react to your buying    (31:00) this house on Cypress Street.

EM:     Well, my family was not too happy, because they wanted me to come back to Chicago. My brother’s first comment was, “Oh, you can’t buy a house. You’re not married.” My friends – I don’t know what they thought. Many people in the neighborhood thought I must be extremely rich or a princess with a huge inheritance, or something. It was, apparently, unusual for a woman on her own to buy a house.

DS:      In the ‘60s.

EM:     Yes. They all needed women’s lib, didn’t they?

[Tape is turned off, then on again]    

EM:     There were a large number of commercial buildings along the waterfront, (32:00) which were due to be demolished. Whether it was for I-95, I’m not sure, or for the scenery, to clear the way for a view of the river, whatever. We, in the neighborhood, had a lot of fun with that, because we used to have demolition parties. Everybody would collect at the place to watch the demolition, and we’d have a party. Some people would bring bottles and some people brought extremely huge bottles, and we all had a good time. This is one way we met our neighbors. I think the most fun demolition parties [sound of clock chiming] – my gosh – were right across the street from me, from Cypress Street, when they demolished the hospital.          (33:00)

DS:      Metropolitan Hospital.

EM:     Metropolitan Hospital, yes. [It was] an old cigar factory, as you could tell from the sign on the side that said La Palina/Made Good. They never could get rid of that sign. Anyway, during this demolition our houses, our little group of five houses, were behind a barricade, because no matter how careful they tried to be, things were flying. In fact, an entire steel structural member – huge thing – beam – came flying down and right smack into the front door of the neighbors at 304 Cypress. These were elderly people, and they were in their living room watching TV when this big steel (34:00) thing came right through their front door and down their hallway. They nearly had heart attacks, as you can imagine. The crane operator was bursting into tears at this point, because he had miscalculated. Practically everyone’s windows were broken in spite of that barrier, except ours, which were new windows – in the old style but new nonetheless. My parents were fascinated. We used to stand there and watch this going on, and all of a sudden something would come flying in our direction, and we’d say, “Incoming!” and run to the back of the house.

DS:      What year was this? Approximately.

EM:     Early ‘70s, because the lot was cleared in time for the Bicentennial. They wanted to pave over the lot and make it into a parking lot for all the visitors (35:00) who were supposed to be coming for the Bicentennial, which we prevented them from doing.

DS:      You prevented them from doing that?

EM:     Yes, from paving over that big lot at Third and Spruce.

DS:      It sat empty for a long time.

EM:     Yes, it did, while numerous designs were proposed for townhouses, which is why they tore the hospital down. They thought it should be a residential neighborhood, and there shouldn’t be an industrial building. I mean, that’s what they were trying to do, is get rid of industrial and commercial buildings and have it residential. Then they decided they would have a parking lot there for the Bicentennial and not do anything. We thought that was a truly awful idea, so we got them to plant trees, instead, and the people who played baseball objected. It was a very (36:00) ugly scene.

DS:      When you say “we”, who is we?

EM:     There were a group of neighbors all living around that empty lot, that huge empty lot. Half of them had kids and wanted to play baseball there, and the lot was too small for that, because baseballs kept hitting people and breaking windows. The other half of the people wanted no playing of children, even though they had children. They still didn’t want that. They wanted trees to block all that. The two [sides] were practically at fisticuffs in the middle of the lot. It was extremely ugly. After all that was over, they all moved away. Interesting. It’s what they should have done in the first place. Well, it was very unfortunate, because you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t. There wasn’t any way really to resolve it. (37:00)

DS:      Until a contractor and a design was chosen, did they plant trees there?

EM:     Yes, they planted trees in the direction of the people who objected to a baseball field, and then we planted sunflowers. People screamed about how horrible that was, and then other people came and stole them all when they bloomed. I’ve never seen anything like it.

DS:      You were living in the house before Metropolitan Hospital was torn down –

EM:     Oh, yes.

DS:      – and while it was still in operation.

EM:     Yes, we were opposite the driveway. They used to call it Emergency Street, because people kept stealing the Cypress Street sign, for some reason. I don’t know why. We all had to tell people we lived on Emergency Street, because that’s where the hospital emergency sign was. (38:00)

DS:      The entrance to the Emergency Ward was on your street?

EM:     Yes. I think one of the awful things was, the city—prior to the time I moved there—the City Planning Commission wanted to tear our houses down, so that the hospital could expand. They thought this would really put the neighborhood on the map, to have the hospital bigger than it already was, and it was [already] several buildings bigger than just the cigar factory. I mean there was a morgue. There was a laundry. The morgue wasn’t any too wonderful, because if somebody died on a weekend, they used to leave him out in the parking lot on a gurney. Yes, indeed. The city was trying to improve the (39:00) neighborhood at the same time it was trying to tear our historic houses down and expand the hospital. Go figure.

DS:      How did it not happen?

EM:     The neighbors objected. They went to City Council and told about how they had lived there far longer than the hospital had been established, and they felt they had a right to keep their homes and keep the neighborhood the way they wanted it, because they had been there. Oh, well, I had some neighbors whose ancestors had been there before the Civil War.

DS:      Can you give me some names?

EM:     Hanley. The Hanleys. Dougherty.

DS:      Alan Chapman?

EM:     Well, he lived up the street. I don’t think he had been there that long. He was there before I was, definitely, but I’m not sure when he moved. I think he came from New York, so it couldn’t have been a Civil War family like the Hanleys. (40:00) One thing they loved carefully saving was a commendation from the government for heroism for some of their ancestors in the Civil War, which I thought was fascinating, what battles they had fought in.

DS:      They saved the houses. That’s wonderful.

EM:     Yes, they did.

DS:      What a switch around, for them to tear it down.

EM:     Well, either that, if they couldn’t expand, they built a new hospital, which is across from the Round House [Police Administration Building]. Of course, that isn’t a hospital any more either. It’s apartments. The whole thing would have been a big empty shell. I have (41:00) to say something funny. My mother came to visit one time, when the hospital had been vacated and had moved to their new location, and they were preparing to tear [the old building] down. She said, “You know, something I’ve always wanted to do is throw a brick through a window.” And she did. [Laughs] A policeman came along and said, “Gee, I just heard glass breaking. What was that?” He looked at us and thought we couldn’t possibly be – this nice old lady? It was certainly not us. So, she got away with it.

DS:      Before the cigar factory, do you know anything else about that corner, at Third and Spruce?

EM:     Oh, there were lots of residences, and there was a Scots Presbyterian Church there, which later merged with the Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church.           (42:00)

DS:      It was where? Where was this old Presbyterian Church?

EM:     In the middle of that empty lot. It was a very contentious church.

DS:      At Third and Spruce?

EM:     It wasn’t at the corner. It was up the street a little bit, on Spruce.

DS:      On Spruce. When did that disappear?

EM:     I’m not sure.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

EM:     Charlie Peterson was [coughs] now that’s going to be on the tape. Turn it off.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

EM:     Charlie Peterson was the neighborhood curmudgeon, but he was a delightful person when he wanted to be. He could really be prickly, which wasn’t too fun. One thing I had a lot of fun with him was – Oh, a number of years ago I took a trip to Midway Atoll, in the Hawaiian Islands, way out at the end. It’s now a national park, but at the time I went there it was being converted from a Navy base. I was doing research on spinner dolphins, and we got into a conversation about the Gooney Birds who lived there, millions of them. I never would have thought that Charlie Peterson was interested in Gooney Birds, but he was, because he was stationed during the Second World War in Honolulu and traveled all over the islands. We had that in common. I have a tape I showed him about the Gooney Birds, and that was a lot of fun. He had a carving he had gotten there, which was given to him, and shortly before he died, he gave me the carving of his (44:00) Gooney bird. I still have the carving of this ridiculous-looking thing.

DS:      Now, he lived on –

EM:     Spruce Street, in the 300 block; I think it was 332. His secretary, Hilda Sanchez, was a charming and capable person who stuck with him until the very end. We dealt with her frequently. He one time told me – us, Dave and me – that we really should join the Athenaeum, because it was a wonderful facility. Dave said, “Well, I don’t want to join myself, but I’ll join because you’re reading so many architecture books.” (45:00) So Charlie proposed Dave for membership. Never mind, but I was the one reading. I said, “No, you can go in and read those without joining; that’s open to the public.” “Oh, well, I’ll join anyway.” I’m glad he did, because I’ve enjoyed it ever since. They were nice enough to make me the member after Dave died.

            As for Charlie, he was, of course, the backbone of the neighborhood. He was the one who kept people going to restore, and in fact he was awfully particular. I’m glad he was, because we would have lost any number of valuable buildings, were it not for him.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

EM:     Charlie moved here a long time ago, long before anybody else and lived (46:00) in one of the Girard houses, and came to the idea that this neighborhood should be – instead of the Bloody Fifth or whatever it was called in the day – should be called Society Hill, because a name like that would encourage people to move here. Of course, they thought high society, and in fact, society in the eighteenth-century or seventeenth-century meant a business, [such as] the Society of Free Traders. In fact, that was its original name [the Society’s Hill]. He thought that was just good enough that it would encourage people to come.

[End of interview]

Ellen Miller added the following information in writing:

            We had two dogs, standard poodles, and walking them was a great way to meet our neighbors – for good or ill, depending on how our animals got along with theirs. There were many empty lots, left from the demolition of commercial buildings, and some were large enough for baseball games. The problem was, dogs’ brains are programmed to chase grounders, so we regrettably left many children in tears when our poodles ran off with their baseballs.

            Our neighbors on Pine Street, the Nicholsons, had a teenage son who went to the YMCA that used to be in the 1400 block of Arch Street. While there, he made friends with some African-American kids from North Philadelphia. One evening they offered him a ride home, but when they learned where he lived, they withdrew their offer, saying their parents wouldn’t let them go to the Society Hill neighborhood. It wasn’t called “the Bloody Fifth” for nothing.


©2009 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
October 6, 2009
Miller, Ellen C.
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources