What has been most important to Franklin (Frank) Roberts (d. 2019) about living in Society Hill – and this is a point he makes several times in his interview – was the people. This includes those who were living there in 1961, when Frank and his wife Lynne bought their first house at 222 Delancey Street, and also those who came as a result of redevelopment.
Frank talks about exploring available shells in Society Hill, noting that by 1961 most of the larger buildings had been sold. They hired Urban Moss to design what needed to be done to 222 Delancey to make it livable (including removing the fire escapes) and moved in. Franklin quickly became involved with one of the several neighborhood associations that at the time were at loggerheads about who should be admitted to membership and what the groups’ missions should be. Eventually, the two groups merged into what they called Society Hill Civic Association, and Franklin was elected one of the early presidents.
He points to establishing a newsletter for the Association and to forming liaisons with three adjoining neighborhood associations. They dealt with issues as diverse as opposing the Crosstown Expressway, the design of street lights, and the nature of street paving materials. Frank and Lynne were attracted by the history of the area and wanted to learn more about it. “At that time,” he says, “People seemed to be as concerned with people as with properties. That’s changed, understandably, as the cost of these properties has escalated. Some people have come in and they try to top the next one, with a double property or a show of strength. We had interesting people, and that was one of the pleasures of the neighborhood.”
In 1968, Lynne and Franklin began building a larger house on the vacant lots at 228-230 Delancey Street. Their architect was Romaldo Giurgola, a promising young architect who had graduated from Penn.
Frank describes his association with Hobart Cawood, the Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, and how he persuaded Cawood to let him write and produce a number of original, one-act plays to be performed in the Park during the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 and in National Parks around the country during the Constitution’s Bicentennial in 1986.
DS: This is an interview with Franklin Roberts at 228 Delancey [Street], his home. The date is February 6, 2008, and I am Dorothy Stevens, the interviewer.
DS: Franklin, tell me, when did you come to Society Hill?
FR: The first time I came down this street was, I believe, late May or early June of 1961.
DS: Why did you come down here?
FR: I had been the sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania. We had a faculty advisor named Fred “Spike” Stapleford. [1:00] Shortly after Lynne [his wife] and I were married, I bumped into Spike, and he said, “Hey, how would you like to go to the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park?” I said, “Sure, that’s fine. Do you have a car or should we meet there or do you want me to pick you up?” He said, “Pick me up.” I said, “OK. Where should I pick you up?” He said, “Two fourteen – it was either 214 or 216 – Delancey Street” and I kind of looked a little non-plussed, [2:00] because I knew the general area.
We drove to the Delancey Street address. It was a nice summer day and there were urchins playing in the street, and there was a gentleman named Benny Heshkowitz sitting in front of what I believe is now 240 Delancey. It was at that time a wooden structure, at least the façade was, painted a decaying green. Benny was sitting on the stoop playing his banjo. There were other folks [3:00] moving up and down the street. I guess it looked a little decrepit, as you might imagine. Maybe one-third of the structures were vacant, and several had Formstone facades. We went to the Jersey Derby. I don’t remember whether I won or lost; I probably lost. I had asked Fred a few questions about the street and the area, and that piqued my interest.
DS: Were you married at the time?
FR: We were married. We were married in 1959, and this was as best I recall – the Jersey Derby was always Memorial Day. I think it was May 30, 1960.
DS: You and Lynne decided to come back down?
FR: Oh, I wouldn’t quite put it that way. [Laughs]… Lynne had only been to Philadelphia once in her life. She was here with the [Robert A.] Taft group when they went for the Republican nomination in 1948. She had been a kid…. I was born and raised in North Philadelphia, and the family later (late ‘40s) moved to East Oak Lane. I knew the city.
We had a common interest, which was theater, and I said, “You know, where are we going to live when we are married?” We ended up in an apartment, a sublease, [5:00] in the 2000 block of Locust [Street], so Lynne could get the feel of the city. She had to set aside her desire to live on the Main Line and ride horses just like Katherine Hepburn [Laughs] in The Philadelphia Story… After about a year or so, we started to talk about, “You know, maybe Center City is a good place for us.” It had what interested us, and it was convenient to Rittenhouse Square and the theaters.
We started to look around. We looked on Lombard Street, the 2000 block… We looked around Camac Street, which was, I think, the first street really to be gentrified, sometime in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s. I remember we looked at Alfred Bendiner’s house. He had been a very prominent cartoonist, but that didn’t work out. After we had been down in this area, we started – I started – to talk about it. I was familiar with this part of Philadelphia, because my dad used to take our family to Atlantic City on the ferry trains. [7:00] We would walk down the hill on Market Street to the ferries, and then go across [the Delaware River] and take the ferry train from Camden. I remember vividly the delicate aroma of the Delaware [River] in mid- summer.
We also – there were few restaurants around here – used to go out for family dinner on Sunday. One of the restaurants we would go to occasionally was Shoyers, which was on Fourth and Arch [Streets], and Arthur’s Steak House – which later moved uptown – was on the corner of Sydenham and Walnut Streets, opposite where Helen Wilson’s restaurant was. There was a well-known Jewish restaurant, Uhr’s Restaurant, which was on Fifth Street, [8:00] south of Lombard or south of South.
I had a general familiarity with the area and in talking with friends – one friend was in commercial real estate – I mentioned the visit to Delancey Street and wondered what was going on. “Oh, there’s a competition to build towers and some townhouses down there. I’m kind of involved in it. He joked about it, and I began to think about the possibility that maybe there was something to it. We came down a couple of weekends, and one weekend we ran into two other young couples…. [9:00] One couple was Peggy and Rody Davies, and one couple was Mike and Ann Erdman. We would talk about the shells [of houses] down here. The area had been fairly well picked over – the larger houses. Rody would say, “Well, we were in 239 Delancey [Street]. That looked like it might be interesting. We went through there, and we looked at maybe a couple of other places.”
There was one little grocery on Fourth Street where you could buy a can of tuna and a roll or sliced bread and a pickle, and on occasion we had a sumptuous feast sitting on one of the stoops eating a tuna fish sandwich [10:00] and talking about these properties. Gradually we developed an interest in 222 Delancey Street, which was one of three houses owned by a speculator. Two of the houses, 222 and 224, were twins with fire escapes across the front of these three-and-a-half-, four-story properties. I went into one. I don’t know whether Lynne ever got above the first floor. The aroma there was reminiscent of the Delaware River on a muggy summer night. Six families had been living there. Both properties were vacant and, ultimately, we purchased the shell, 222 Delancey Street. [11:00]
DS: Do you remember how much you paid for it?
FR: Yes, it was $8,000…. Since 222 and 224 [Delancey] were the same properties, the same design, the same spaces, I talked to a number of people, saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about this. If we bought both of them we’d save $1,000.” I couldn’t interest anyone in my circle – advertising, broadcasting and public relations. They didn’t think it made any sense…. At [12:00] Locust Street, Twentieth and Locust [Streets], where we were living in the apartment, we belonged to the Rittenhouse Swim Club, and we’d met a number of people. One couple was Tom Van Arkel of Van Arkel & Moss. They had done some rehabbing in Tryon Court, which was on the west side of Broad [Street]. We started to talk about our plans, and he said, “You know, that’s what I do.” We ended up retaining Tom and Urban Moss, his partner, to do a very basic clean-up of the property, remove the fire escapes, and make it livable, or at least what we considered livable, and in either late ’61 or early ’62, we became residents of Society Hill. [13:00]
DS: You bought it from this man who owned these three –
FR: He owned three properties, yes.
DS: You didn’t have to go through the Redevelopment Authority?
FR: We had to go through OPDC [Old Philadelphia Development Corporation]. OPDC had to approve the façade, and we had some contact with Redevelopment Authority. Basically it was a matter of cleaning up the front.
DS: How long – you then hired an architect and he laid out the plans?
FR: Well, I don’t remember whether either Tom or Urban were architects by [14:00] license. Urban – I think Urban probably was. What we did was very simple in terms of cleaning the place up, including removing the fire escapes. We lowered the dormer to conform with the adjoining properties.
DS: Do you remember the price of redoing this in a very basic way?
FR: As best I remember, it would be somewhere around $25,000.
DS: Now, you did more in there. It took you six months? A year?
FR: To do the property?
DS: Yes, to do the property.
FR: It was not a year. No, it was done in pretty quick order…. I occasionally wrote articles for Philadelphia [15:00] magazine. Alan Halpern, the editor, was interested in what was going on, and he asked me to write an article about coming in and converting the property, complete with photographs of what it looked like on the interior. [Laughs] Instead of Italian marble, there was a lot of cinder block, and I have pictures of Lynne and me sitting on the cinder block piled in what became the living room. They probably paid me $25 or $50 for the article, [Laughs] so I got an immediate return on the property. [16:00]
DS: Do you have the article still?
FR: I think I do. I know I have the photographs.
DS: I’d love to see it.
FR: If not, it would be in Philadelphia magazine’s morgue.
DS: That would be in what year?
FR: Well, it’s either the end of ’61 or the beginning of ’62. I’ll look for the issue. I may have it around here.
DS: You moved in and lived there –
FR: We lived there [Laughs] – we joined one of the two civic associations…. That was [17:00] bitter battles, bitter battles. The SHARA group, the Society Hill Area Residents’ Association, was very concerned with details, exactitudes. Again, I’m sure it’s been covered. Fortunately, no blows were struck, no blows that I know of, but we had pretty animated civic association meetings. Actually, we had AHO, which was, I think, the Associated Home Owners.
DS: In addition to SHARA?
FR: Yes. I think they were the originals, and we were the Society Hill Area Residents Association, because not all of us were home owners; most of us were. They – AHO – wanted home owners only, and [18:00] they wanted everything restored either to its original if it were Colonial or Federal if not. That’s what they wanted.
DS: They wanted you to imitate it?
FR: Everything alike.
DS: SHARA did not necessarily?
FR: No, not necessarily.
DS: The arguments would be about what people were doing with their houses?
FR: Yes, whether they were violating the sanctity of the area, or whether they were conforming. I’ve never been a good conformist. We didn’t set out [Laughs] to flaunt what we were doing, and the property was restored with the dormer roof line, in character with the neighborhood.
DS: They had no issue with you?
FR: No, except that I was one of the newbies.
DS: Right. [19:00].
FR: I was one of the young smart-asses.
DS: How did the [Society Hill] Civic Association develop?
FR: Well, eventually cooler heads prevailed. Peggy Walsh, Margaret Walsh, was one of the people who was here already, and she was a reasonable and sensible person. After a while it became obvious that two civic associations wouldn’t work. We didn’t have that many people here. There was a merger, and I think I was second or third president. I don’t remember exactly – somewhere around ’64.
DS: Was Bill Eiman the first one?
FR: Bill – I followed Bill, I believe.
DS: Peggy –
FR: Yes, well, Peggy – [20:00]
DS: – was the first.
FR: Peggy Walsh was the first of the merged group, and Bill may very well have been the second.
DS: Peggy restored a house on Spruce Street.
FR: Well, Peggy Walsh, her family business, Walsh Real Estate, had its offices at –
DS: Fifth and Walnut [Streets].
FR: The corner of Fifth and Walnut [Streets], so it made sense for her to live here. She had done a pretty fair job with the property she had, which was in the middle – the north side of Spruce.
DS: In the 400 block?
DS: When you became president, what issues did you tackle?
FR: Well, I remember having the members of the board over one evening [21:00] early on, at 222 [Delancey], which was quite small, sitting around a card table, because we never had any furniture there. I suggested two things: one, that we should have a newsletter, which became the Society Hill Resident, and two, that the indigenous population on all sides of us had concerns about this new crowd coming in and that we should develop liaisons with the adjoining civic associations to the west, to the south and to the north, because they existed. I asked Paul Putney to [22:00] take that on. Paul, who was a very superior fellow, grabbed it and ran with it. That was the very first time we established association – a liaison with our fellow associations and tried to beef up the area’s political muscle….
I also had the pleasure of presiding over the Civic Association when we had two rapes, one following the other in fair order. I got word of one of them as [23:00] I was walking home, around Eighth or Ninth and Locust [Streets]. It began to sound to me very much like it was pretty near to 222 Delancey. Thank goodness, it wasn’t, and we lived through that one.
Generally, we didn’t have many problems – crime problems. [Our] block and the immediate blocks were distinguished by vacant property, derelict property. Most of that changed over the period of the next five, ten, fifteen years. [24:00] The kids, lot of kids, as you know, grew up on the street. That’s how I grew up in North Philadelphia. We had interest in people. One of the attractions to me of the area obviously was the background of history, and learning more about it, but also the diversity of the people who landed there. In those days, we seemed to be as concerned with people as with properties. That’s changed, understandably, as the cost of these properties has escalated. Some people have come in and they try to top the next one, with a double property or a show of strength. We had interesting people, and that was one of the pleasures of the neighborhood. [25:00]
DS: Did these people from the other two civic associations join the Society Hill Civic Association or did they –
FR: No, it was not a matter of joining. It was a matter of opening up lines of communication with them, discussing through our representative – Paul, I think, handled it for a year or two – discussing common problems. We had the issue of the [Crosstown] Expressway, which came up within a matter of a few years. We had the question of what kind of [street] lights, paving –
DS: Crosstown Expressway?
DS: Did you, back when you were living in 222 Delancey, interact with the people who were living here originally? Or was it mostly with the people who [came] into the neighborhood when you [came] into the neighborhood? [26:00]
FR: It was mostly the people who came in with the exception that one of the people – as I understand it – who had an awful lot to do with the neighborhood coming to life, or regeneration, was a man named Harry Batten, the president of N. W. Ayer, the national advertising agency.
Now I don’t know whether Harry Batten’s name has come up in any of your conversations. Harry Batten was president of N.W. Ayer advertising, which was the first advertising agency in the United States, which grew out of a fellow named N.W. Ayer, who bought space from the newspapers and sold it and earned a commission. Over [27:00] a period of time, N.W. Ayer became one of the country’s – perhaps the world’s – five leading ad agencies…. The [N. W.] Ayer building, which is now being converted into very luxurious condos, is on [west] Washington Square. Batten was one of a group of movers and shakers – I don’t know when it started, in the ‘20s and ‘30s and into the ‘40s – arguing and trying to generate the rebirth of the entire area, which would have benefited him and also the city. He was a very strong-minded man…. He was hard-headed and [28:00] very energetic, and he obviously influenced what happened. What also happened was that some of the first people who came into this neighborhood to buy property, improve it and live here, were people who worked with or for N.W. Ayer., so that we had, oh, maybe a half dozen or so folks. Maureen Murdock worked for N.W. Ayer, and she lived on the north side of 200 Delancey. There was [29:00] …. Let’s see, who else? In this block on the south side, we had Leo and Kate Reardon.
DS: Georganne Mears?
FR: They came in a little later. The Mearses came in the 100 block [of Delancey] I can’t remember exactly, but I’ll guess ’64 or ’65, somewhere in there. Fred [30:00] Stapleford worked at the Inquirer, and I guess his being down here was generated by some of those other folks who were here. I think Bill Surasky, who lived around Seventh or Eighth [Street], the photographer, I think he was involved. And maybe there were a couple of other folks who were in the ad business or newspaper business and had glommed onto this idea that it was convenient to live here and that something historic was happening or going to happen.
DS: What did Mr. Batten do to promote the area?
FR: As I understand it, after World War I, some of the leading citizens of Philadelphia got together and started to talk up the idea of regenerating, renewing the [31:00] Independence Hall area. One of whom is legendary – and of course I’ve forgotten his name. Judge – the fountain’s named after him. [It was Judge Edwin O. Lewis.]
FR: No, not Judge Williams. The fountain’s named after him at Market Street…. He was a force, and a member of this group [along with] Charlie Peterson, who was sent in the late ‘30s by the National Park Service to determine whether taking over Independence Hall and the area was practical. [32:00].… He had an apartment in the Girard houses on –
DS: Spruce [Street].
FR: Spruce Street.
DS: The 300 block.
FR: So, we had a smattering of people, and then, of course, you had [Richardson] Dilworth, who, I think it was in ’56, came to Washington Square and had his home built. I remember fondly going out the front door on a Saturday or Sunday in the early ‘60s and walking down the street – in the middle of the street, because there [33:00] wasn’t that much traffic – was our mayor or our former mayor, as the case may be, walking his two white poodles down the middle of the street, wearing a Hawaiian flowered shirt, looking at what he had created or instituted with pleasure and pride. It was a great sight.
DS: It was. I remember it, too. Now, you eventually sold 222 [Delancey]?
FR: Well, we’d come here because I liked the sense of the neighborhood and the people and what was going on. Lynne [34:00] liked the idea, too, and she started working at the Theater of the Living Arts on South Street, when it was established, I believe, in ’63. She was coming home about 2 o’clock in the morning which, when I would mention this to people I knew, family or otherwise, there was a gasp. Walking, from South Street, here, middle of the night? We survived it and we thrived on it. I don’t know that we had any idea of permanently staying in the area. But gradually, the thought of a four-story house…. [35:00]
[Sound of a telephone ringing. the tape is turned off, then on again.]
FR: First of all, I was embarrassed by the folks moving in at the same time or shortly thereafter, because there was Rody Davies on a scaffold, putting two little houses on American Street together, doing every kind of work known to man or architect and establishing his house. People like Bill and Jane Eiman, doing floors, painting the house, and doing other manual labor. And that’s not my thing. [Laughs] After a while I said to Lynne, “You know, this is embarrassing. We’re in here, and it’s pretty simple, and here are all these people around us doing this work with their own hands. I don’t work with my hands. I play sports with my hands, but I [36:00] don’t wanna work with my hands.” At one point, I said, “Let’s paint the second-floor bedroom,” which needed a paint job. And we painted the second-floor bedroom, the master bedroom. I remember it was yellow paint, a light-yellow paint. We also bricked our back yard at 222 when one of the warehouses came down on Front Street. We went over there and did battle with the indigenous peoples for the [37:00] bricks, and got enough bricks to have most of the back yard paved. It wasn’t a very big back yard.
I was saying that I’d never given thought to whether this was going to be a permanent home [but when] we started thinking of children [we began] thinking of a [larger] house. …. I looked in the Sunday paper one day. It was early ’65 and I saw an ad for a double lot in the 200 block of Delancey Street, and I said, “There is no such [38:00] thing. I know every property here; there is no double lot.” We had regretted the fact that [when] the first people who came here in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, there were some rather nice, large shells, some of them in decent repair, handled by OPDC, Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, and we were too late for that. I said, “Double lot?” I called the fellow and I met him. He was an assistant or an associate professor at Drexel [University], and the double lot was one vacant lot and one junker. [39:00] He had put a deposit down on the junker and he had gotten approval [to purchase] the lot through OPDC. [That’s how] he had a double site. He said, “I love the idea of building a house down there, but my wife has changed her mind. She doesn’t want to live here.” I said, “What do you want for it?” He told me, and I said, “You’ve got a deal.”
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