George Niedermeyer, a physician, is the only narrator who begins his interview with a description of the rats that inundated the western part of Society Hill after the Dock Street Market was closed and the enormous feral cats that came after the rats and decapitated them, thereby solving the rat problem. In 1961, he bought 514 Spruce, which was a shell, and engaged Roland Davies as his architect to design the renovations to the house. The work began while George was away doing his military service and finished in 1968 after he came home. He bought the house because of its proximity to Pennsylvania Hospital and because it had parking and a backyard for a garden.
In 1974, he bought 711 Spruce Street “because it had enough space for my office, its location was good. It was an exciting time, and there were a lot of young people and a lot of children. It was a great spirit of the area and still is, the people who were here.” The only downside to Center City living was the public schools, and George avoided that by sending his children to private schools.
DS: This is an interview with George Niedermeyer. The date is June 3, 2008. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens, and the location is 116 Delancey Street in Philadelphia. George lives at 711 Spruce Street.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
DS: George, tell me, when did you come to this neighborhood?
GN: In 1961. I came here because I came to Philadelphia to train at Pennsylvania Hospital. At that time I lived on Ninth Street and shared an apartment building with deRoy Mark, who was an architect in the area; and a woman named Carolyn Pitts, who was a conservationist with the Park Service, who just recently died; she’s responsible for revitalizing Cape May and turning it into the Victorian charmer [inaudible]; and several others. It was a wonderful place. I stayed there until 1965, when I was drafted (1:00) into the military. While in the military, I bought a house at 514 Spruce Street, from the Redevelopment Authority.
Incidentally, when I lived on Ninth Street, the wholesale food market – the market had closed and was where the Towers are now located, sort of a Distribution Center. Those buildings had been vacated, and the rats moved westward, looking for food. We were inundated with rats for a period, so much so that [when] you went out into the yard, you had to beat a can to get them to jump over the fence and get out of the way. Then after about six months, we began to find decapitated rats, and these cats appeared. They were the biggest cats I ever saw. They were bigger than (2:00) dogs. They absolutely destroyed the rats. That was the end of the rat problem.
DS: They were feral cats?
GN: They were feral cats, huge cats, and they were following the rats. But that was in ’61. In ’65 I bought this house [514 Spruce] from Redevelopment. At that time, you paid by the square foot; my house was 5,000 square feet, and I paid $5,000 for it. Rody Davies, a local architect – I was in the military, stationed in the south (Alabama) – Rody planned it. We rehabbed that house over the next two or three years. It wasn’t quite ready when I came out of the army in ’67, but it was ready in ’68.
DS: Had it been lived in previously, or was it vacant?
GN: It had been an apartment building, and I don’t know how long it had been (3:00) vacant. It had not been immediately occupied before we bought it. It was a total rehab. It was nothing but a shell. Nothing. There was not one element remaining of any value in the house. I lived in that house for half a dozen years or so.
DS: And you bought it from the Redevelopment Authority?
GN: Bought it from the Redevelopment Authority.
DS: You looked at a list?
GN: Oh, yes. There were a bunch of them. They were all over the place. Bought that because it had a yard. It had parking and was a reasonable-sized house and was a pretty good location. That was before the Fifth Street market was built. There were no stores or anything on Fifth Street, the way it is now. But it was a very convenient location, a nice location. I was at the hospital; I was working at the hospital. It was walking distance to the hospital.
DS: Do you have any memory of how much, approximately, you spent to restore this?
GN: Yes, spent about $65,000. (4:00)
DS: In addition to purchasing it.
GN: For five.
DS: And you lived there for how long?
GN: About half a dozen years. Then I bought 711 [Spruce Street] primarily because it was big enough to house my office, and it was very conveniently located to the hospital. My house had been owned by a woman and her lawyer husband. Name was Thill, Carmelita Thill.
GN: Thill. T-H-I-L-L. She’s not alive anymore; you can’t interview her. She apparently had started from scratch, because there were several – apparently it was coming down inside, and she put these huge I-beams, steel supporting structures, (5:00) both in the basement and on the first floor to support the staircase. She had plans for the house that didn’t materialize. Basically, she had a ballroom on the first floor, and her husband had run for a judgeship and they were going to be entertaining in a grand style, but he didn’t make it as a judge. So they didn’t need the ballroom and they decided to sell the house. I turned the ballroom into my office.
DS: They had lived there for a period of time?
GN: They had.
DS: And had restored the house?
GN: They had – I guess you would call it restored. We ended up undoing everything they had done. It was not traditional. They had introduced some contemporary elements. We brought it back as near to its original state as possible. For example, on the (6:00) second floor, there were four rooms, and originally the house was designed with the staircase in the middle and a room on each side, front and back. We restored that and the third floor. We couldn’t restore the first floor, because the staircase had been removed. The house originally had a staircase that went to the basement; the kitchen was in the basement. Then, when indoor plumbing arrived, around 1830, they built three bathrooms on the back of the house and put a staircase to access these bathrooms. And at some point after that, they took the staircase out of the first floor. We’ve been told it was even a garage at one time, that people used to drive their vehicles into the front of the house. I can’t authenticate that version. We do have some documentation of people who lived in the house.
DS: This would have been in what year again, that you moved into that house? (7:00)
DS: Did Redevelopment Authority have any ruling on what you did to the front of the house, or did they –?
GN: Yes, yes. Well, it wasn’t Redevelopment Authority, it was the Historical Commission. The Redevelopment Authority had an ordinance that you could not have a business in your house unless you lived there. But you could, and so I did, and that’s why my office was there. But the Historical Commission had to approve our paint, anything we did to the outside. And we did; we built a deck on the third floor on the back, and they had to approve that, which they did. That was the only restriction.
DS: Tell me about any other stories that you had with banks, loans, (8:00) contractors, neighbors.
GN: Well, contractors, when we did the original house at 514 Spruce, the contractor was also working on – oh, 100 block Spruce Street – Pine Street – she died –
DS: David and Dottie Dodd.
GN: Dodd. He was doing the Dodds’ house and our house simultaneously. And he – I think they were pulling on him, and we were pulling on him, and he went back and forth. But he finally went bankrupt after two jobs. [laughs] Went out of business. But I’ve heard similar stories about contractors in the area at the time. Yes, Dottie Dodd.
DS: Did you have any trouble with banks? Red lining?
DS: Neighbors. Did you get involved with any of the old, original people who (9:00) were born and raised in this neighborhood? Did you interact with them?
GN: Not really. On Delancey Street, behind my house in the 500 block, there were several families that had lived there for many years, but I didn’t really know – My neighbors on the east were English, an English couple that had just bought the house. And my neighbor on the left, on the west, was a guy named Jack Albert. He was running a campaign to sterilize all the cats in the city. He had a real passion about cat reproduction. The Cranes lived a couple of doors away; they had rehabbed their house. But the old neighbors, no. (10:00)
DS: What did your parents think of you doing this – buying this house in this neighborhood.
GN: Thought I was crazy. They lived in the suburbs in Virginia, and imagine having to think of living in town was just unimaginable to them. But I have to quickly say, in a basic sense, my parents supported everything I did. They really were not opposed to it, they just thought it wasn’t a smart move.
DS: [laughs] But you didn’t listen.
GN: No, no.
DS: And your friends, your contemporaries? What did they think?
GN: Well, it was an exciting time. You know, Rody was a neighbor. He was involved. He had rehabbed a house on American Street. A lot of people were doing ( 11:00) the same thing, the Dodds and Pappajohns in the back. It was an exciting time, and there were a lot of young people and a lot of children. I had three children at that time, and they were very small, eight, six, four, something like that. It was a great spirit of the area and still is, the people who were here.
DS: Yes. You knew that you were going to stay at Pennsylvania Hospital, so that was a reason to set down roots here?
GN: Yes, absolutely.
DS: All right. Any other stories you’d like to tell us about the early days, your experience here? Did you ever have any regrets?
GN: Had no regrets. It was a great experience. Never once regretted, even (12:00) with the school situation, which I ended up having to send my children – thought I had to send my children to private schools.
DS: Because of school strikes?
GN: No, I just thought the school system –. But it was shortly after that that some neighbors got involved in McCall’s, and McCall’s, I believe, did get better for a while. But I opted to send my children to a private school, which was a financial stress to do that, but I thought it was very essential to do that. I can’t think of any stories –
DS: Do your children now, in their adult state, think about growing up in the neighborhood fondly or do they think they suffered for it?
GN: It never comes up. I have no idea. (13:00)
DS: Never talk about it.
GN: Never talk about it. I do know that for a period all of my children said under no circumstance would they ever live in the city or raise their children in the city. Of course, my son lives in Manhattan, with three children, too.
DS: [Laughs] There you go.
GN: The suburbs seemed appealing to the kids growing up.
DS: The schools they were going to were in the suburbs?
GN: No, they went to Friends Select.
DS: In town.
GN: In town. I felt they should go to school at least in an area where they lived and where kids were going to school from. Have some neighborhood continuity with the children. And it’s true. That was a good experience. My children still have friends (14:00) from those days, lifelong friends from those days.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
GN: Mr. Lewis lived on the southeast corner of American and Spruce Streets, and I guess he was retired. And he scavenged the neighborhood every day, when these buildings would be worked on or opened, and he would collect mantles and doors and hardware. I never saw it, but apparently he had a basement that was like a warehouse with all these things.
DS: Were these from houses that were going to be torn down, or just any house that was vacant?
GN: No, I think he only took things that were being torn down, thrown (15:00) away. Maybe he even picked them out of dumpsters. But he just realized that a lot of history and good things were being tossed away thoughtlessly and collected them. I don’t know what he ever did with them.
DS: Mr. Lewis was an adult?
GN: He was an adult. Like I said, he must have been retired, because he had a lot of time. He was not a young man at that time. He was a patient of a doctor I shared an office with at the time, so I knew him, his wife. It’s a nice house. Still today, 508 [Spruce Street] is one of the most beautiful houses in the area. It’s a double house, faces Spruce Street. It’s a charming house, and it is full of things he collected from around (16:00) the area.
[Tape is turned off, then on again.]
GN: There was [a man named] John [Burris], whose last name I can’t remember, but he was an architect and lived on American and Spruce Street, on the west side. He cut away the ceiling in the front part – it was a fairly small house – so he kind of had a little – it’s not exactly a balcony, but a little walk space around this two-story room. And in the corner, he had a little module toilet, and the idea was that he could sit on the toilet and see people and talk to people downstairs in the living room. [laughs] He was an odd guy. This was his claim to fame. One of his signature design techniques was to make facilities for multiple uses. (17:00)
DS: And this was not a physical problem that he had that he had to do it this way.
GN: Oh, no, no.
DS: Just his desire.
GN: There was a little door you could pull around and make yourself private if you weren’t comfortable talking to people downstairs.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
GN: When you got to the basement of the house we were redoing on Spruce Street, the flooring didn’t look very solid, so we thought we would take up the flooring and maybe redo the sub-flooring. When we took up the flooring, lo and behold, it was dirt. It was just a wooden floor – it was just a platform built on dirt. That had been an apartment. People had lived down there in this kind of situation.
DS: Which house was this?
GN: This was 514 Spruce Street. This is the one we bought from the Redevelopment [Authority].
DS: But they had an apartment in this basement? (18:00)
GN: Yes. How it ever survived without rotting out from under them, I don’t know.
[End of interview]
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