James Nelson Kise

James (known as Jim) Nelson Kise (1937-2015) studied architecture and city planning at the University of Pennsylvania. After he graduated, Edmund Bacon offered Jim a job at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, where Bacon was executive director. In that position, Jim worked on the plans for Independence Mall, Society Hill, and other areas of Center City.

By around 1962-63, his education and his job experiences gave him an unparalleled perspective on what Society Hill was about to become. He and his wife, Rachel, went looking for a house to buy and chose one of the newly built Pei houses on S. Third Street, at a time when most of the properties in the neighborhood were "just ramshackle."

Jim speaks about watching Society Hill revive, the early arrivals who felt like pioneers, the many vacant lots and derelict houses, the animosity between Charles Peterson (the preservationist) and Ed Bacon (the modernist) and how their differences ultimately benefitted the neighborhood.

Jim relates how he and his wife bought a double property at 235-237 Delancey Street, where a VFW Post had stood since the early 20th century. Jim designed the house, which was built while the Kises were living in Washington, D.C. His design of the modern facade harmonizes with the old dwellings flanking it, making it one of the most successful contemporary houses in Society Hill.

He notes that the early plans of Society Hill did not contemplate families with young children living there. But people with small children came, and Society Hill provided children with numerous places to play. Parents of young children made it their mission to improve the neighborhood elementary school. A talented story-teller, Jim talks about his own children's experiences living there, and describes how his in-laws (both sets) felt about his living in this run-down inner-city neighborhood, and why Jim chose “Society Hill over Chestnut Hill or Ardmore or wherever.” The answer was, “We just were not interested. We just want to help, do something of that nature.”


DS:      This is an interview with James Kise. The date is February 3, 2009. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens, and the location is 116 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA. Jim, just tell me just briefly about yourself.

JK:       Well, I came to Philadelphia to go to the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, and this was after having done two years of college at Lafayette, where I was a Ford Foundation scholar, which meant that I skipped my senior year in high school. And I had always wanted to be an automobile designer. My father, a mechanical engineer, did not think that was a good idea. When I went to Lafayette, I enrolled in a double-degree program: Administrative Engineering, as it was called then, and (1:00) Economics. And it was fine. It was interesting. I loved Lafayette, but after a near-death experience in Chemistry my freshman year –

DS:      Near-death experience [Laughs]?

JK:       [Laughs] I don’t need to go into any more details than that – and an impending disaster in my sophomore year, when I moved from integral to differential calculus, which did not click with me, I decided I needed to move somewhere else in some other field. And I thought, “Gee, I’ve always loved houses.” We used to go around visiting in New Hope and other historic houses and visit my mother’s family in Virginia. We’d stop by Charlottesville and look at Monticello, etc. I said, “I think maybe architecture.” I wound up at Penn. I had wanted to go to Yale, but they didn’t (2:00) accept me.

               I wanted to go to Yale because the building there I thought was the best thing I’d ever been inside. It happened to be a building by Louis Kahn. I did not know that Lou Kahn taught at Penn. Penn accepted me, but of course Kahn was there at Penn. It was a great time to be at Penn. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been so lucky to have gone to that school at that time.

               I graduated in Architecture, and as was the custom, as you know, we tended to be married young in those days, the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and I did. My wife and I, Rachel Bok, went off to Europe for a year and a half, and I studied at the University of Rome in Architecture. And while I was in Europe and traveling, I became very interested in how European cities have grown and how some of them were planned, and I thought, “I think I also want to know something about planning.” I wrote Holmes Perkins [Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania] (3:00) and said I wanted to take an additional degree in City Planning. He wrote back and said he had a better idea, that I should enroll in the Civic Design program, which was a double degree program, a Master’s in Architecture and a Master’s in City Planning in two years. I thought that sounded like a good deal. Besides which, I would have a chance to study with Lou Kahn, whom I had not had in undergraduate school. I did that, and it was a very exciting time in my life.

               I was asked at the end of my first year in the Civic Design program to go off to Venezuela to plan a new town on the staff of the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard, which I did. Willo von Moltke, who then was the chief resident designer at the Philadelphia Planning Commission, asked me to go to Venezuela, and I said I would do that for one year, but I really had to come back to Philadelphia and finish up (4:00) my degree in architecture – rather my Master’s Degree in Architecture and City Planning. Which I did. But what it did was to hook me on design and development of new towns. In my career I’ve had a great good fortune on working on five new towns: one in Egypt, one in Taiwan, and three in the United States. The one in Egypt had me living there for a year and a half, directing a team from England, here, and Egypt.

               After graduating, Ed Bacon asked me to come work at the City Planning Commission. It was a time when the Planning Commission was described as the West Point of city planning in the United States. There was no better place –

DS:      Can you give me a year, the approximate year we’re talking about?

JK:       The year would have been 1962, ‘63. It’s very confusing for me, because I (5:00) know my undergraduate degree was 1959, but between going part-time at Penn and taking a year to go to Venezuela, I was also assistant in teaching urban design. I don’t remember with whom I worked and who the students were. It’s all a blur unless I look at my detailed resume.

               Anyway, Ed asked me to come to work with him at the Planning Commission, and I was really thrilled at that. I was given the chance to work on the development plans for Center City. John Gallery was the other person there. John, as you know, heads the Preservation Alliance. In fact, Ed asked me to interview John, what I thought of hiring him. John was freshly out of Harvard, and I said, “Absolutely, you’ve got to get him.” John and I did downtown together. He focused on Market Street East. I dealt with Independence Mall, Society Hill, the Parkway area, Penn Center, early plans for (6:00) the development of the arts around Academy Center and Schuylkill River Park. It was a great three years. But of course, when I was there, those were the early days of conceptualizing Society Hill. I guess this is a long prologue to talking about Society Hill and how we came to be there. [Laughs]

DS:      It’s an important one.

JK:       But anyway, I knew it from a planner’s perspective. One of the things that afflicts planners is that you’re able to go around in cities and imagine what they could be if they were renewed and restored. When I would walk through Society Hill, I would see these run-down, dilapidated houses in what was then the Bloody Fifth Ward as wonderful Georgian revival architecture combined with fabulous contemporary architecture. When I was there, Pei had won the competition to do Society Hill Towers and the (7:00) Society Hill townhouses, and I was thrilled at the quality of the contemporary design in the context of all these historic buildings.

               My wife and I had been renting on Addison Street in the Rittenhouse Square area, and it was all very convenient, but it sort of came time to look around for a house. We did that, and there were no lots available then. The Redevelopment Authority and the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation were in the early stages of doing the houses that were being acquired at fairly good prices to the original owners and then sold as (8:00) shells to people who promised to invest in, restore, and occupy them. So that at that point really wasn’t an option. But the Society Hill townhouses [by I.M. Pei] were on the market. Rachel and I thought they were just wonderful design. They are – it is an incredibly splendid floor plan. At that point, no houses on Third Street had been sold. I remember going to the model house, which was down across the street from the griffin balcony houses [234 S. Third St.], as we know them today, which is down toward Episcopal Community Services – across the street – white marble bottom with a sort of ornate balcony –

DS:      Where the Burnettes live, Charles and Margo?

JK:       Yes. The model was down toward the end of this row, maybe it was the corner. I really don’t remember. But I was so struck with people who would come in. This was before that whole row of houses north of the Powel House had been restored. The John Penn house was in decent shape, maybe a couple of others. But the rest were (9:00) wrecks. They were just ramshackle. People would look around inside the Pei houses and say, “Gee, these are wonderful.” They’d see the Towers going out back; they were under construction. But then they’d come to the second floor living room and look across Third Street and see these wrecks and say, “Who wants to live in a slum?” And so they’d walk out and not buy.

               Of course, I knew what was happening to all those houses across the street. That they’d been acquired, they were in the process of being sold, transferred to people who would then restore them. But so often, most people know and believe what they see, and they have I think great difficulty in understanding what the future to be, in believing what it could be. I knew enough about redevelopment and the development in the city that I knew this was going to happen. For us it was a predictable future. So [in 1963 or ‘64] we chose 247 S. Third for a very simple (10:00) reason. If you sit where we had our living room sofa placed opposite the fireplace and you look out to your left through the window, the view was framed on the garden and the façade of the Powel House completely. And every owner of the house since, which included the Blums [Bob and Leslie], Lee Copeland, who was the former Dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts [at the University of Pennsylvania], and then the Cooks [Jim and Janet], who were there for a great number of years and who now are living in the Western Union Building where we are, all agreed that the most attractive thing about the house was the view from the sofa in the living room. [Laughs] Or one of the most attractive things about the house, because it really is the best view. It’s not the one that’s opposite the Powel House. It’s the one that looks at the view.

               We were there not a terribly long period of time. I think there were – (11:00) a couple, as it happened, President Kennedy’s assassination – I was working at the Planning Commission then. I recall all the details of the time and what it was like and where I was and what I did afterward, but about a year from then, the [Kennedy] family was looking for an architect to build a Kennedy memorial library, and I know that Lou Kahn was under consideration. I.M. Pei was under consideration, and I don’t know who else. But we had a telephone call asking if we would open the house so that representatives of the Kennedy family could go through the house and see part of this work by I.M. Pei. I assume they were also looking at Society Hill Towers. And (12:00) we said, “Of course.” At that point we had a housekeeper, and she was thrilled beyond words that this was going to happen. And I think, I’m not sure, but I think who came to the house was Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Teddy Kennedy. I’m not positive about that.

DS:      You were there?

JK:       I was there! Oh, I was there. But there are a lot of Kennedys, you know, and this was a long time ago. And what was interesting is with Marshall Meyers, who was a good friend of mine, who was key on Kahn’s staff, was arranging the tour in the city not only of things to see done by Kahn, but also these things done by Pei and, I don’t know. Marshall and his wife, Anne, were good friends of ours, which is the reason why the telephone call came. That was great fun. (13:00)

               The other thing that I remember is that those of us who moved in early really thought of ourselves as pioneers, and we were. You know, there were a lot of [empty] lots. Everything across the street from you was kind of an empty hole in the ground. Things were still being sold. It was all a mess. I had become very fond of the 200 block of Delancey Street, where I ultimately designed and built 235 Delancey Street. But there were purchase opportunities at that point.

DS:      And that property was not up for sale at that point?

JK:       Not yet. It was a time in which Charlie Peterson was a great foghorn in the Hill, deeply opposed to Society Hill Towers. You know, tall buildings really irritated him as much as contemporary design. I loved Charlie. He provided my first summer job. (14:00) I was an inchworm, as we were called in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and my first summer in architecture school. And he was a great guy. But he was irascible, and in many ways the tension between him and Ed Bacon, I think, was to the benefit of the end result of Society Hill. Because even though Ed believed firmly in the preservation of the historic houses, he was not averse to tearing them down, and of course, Charlie wanted to know, well, why. And I think it was out of that conflict came some of the excellence of the decisions that were made in Society Hill.

               It was a time in which there were a lot of fund-raisers. I remember, Rachel coming from a very prominent Philadelphia family, there were house tours. And here was the photograph of Rachel holding this child, sort of standing on the circular staircase inside one of these houses – you know, a Ruth Seltzer column. And that to raise money on behalf of the Civic Association or whatever (15:00) it was. I don’t know. But it was a time when people would sort of compare notes about paint colors and how to strip paint, and if you were using one of those paint burner things, you didn’t put your house up in flames. It was incredible. And who was – I’ve forgotten his name – we used to refer to him as Bird Man. It was the “Hail Columbia” house on Spruce Street?

DS:      Gus Griswold.

JK:       Gus Griswold. He and his wife did this phenomenal job of restoring this magnificent house, but it went on and on and on and on and on. But it was a labor of love for some people.

               We left Society Hill after we had agreed to buy the Veterans of Foreign Wars – what had been the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Delancey Street. It was a double lot; which was very appealing. It was going to be 32 ft. wide and 60 ft. deep, and I (16:00) thought, “Gee, the main houses next door are 30 ft. deep. That leaves a garden 30 ft. deep. That’s nifty. And out the back gate there’s going to be this common parking lot. It sounds like heaven.”

DS:      And this was 235 and 237 [Delancey Street]?

JK:       Yes, well, the Eimans’ number is 239. Yes, indeed. Because the number is on the east side of the house, so that would be 235. And what I loved about the location: it looked across the way to Drinker’s Court. Who was it? The Arnolds who lived on the eastern side? He was an editor of the Saturday Evening Post

DS:      Nicholson.

JK:       Nicholson! Charles Nicholson. Wasn’t it Charlie? Yes. They were wonderful. They were early settlers. (17:00)

DS:      Arnold Nicholson.

JK:       Arnold Nicholson! That’s where the Arnold comes from. Arnold Nicholson. And then across from them came ultimately Bart Lippincott. And so from another publishing house. It was kind of interesting. But what I loved about it was the location. Because here were these very modest-sized houses, two of the lowest on the south side of Delancey, and so the opportunity to design something that had a lot of light coming in on the south façade, and this feature of Drinker’s Court and the walkway that goes back in between the houses was hugely appealing.

               But I had a telephone call that asked me if I would come to Washington, D.C., and head up what was called the Urban Design Center of an organization called Urban America that ultimately founded the Urban Coalition, (18:00) after all the riots. Urban America really created the Urban Coalition _______________. I came back to Philadelphia after three years. I was, frankly, eager to get back to Philadelphia.

DS:      You had bought the property?

JK:       We had bought the property.

DS:      Before you left.

JK:       I think we had agreed to buy it – well – you asked how much did we pay for the Pei house. I think it was about $45,000 [in 1963 or ‘64]. Three years later, when we decided to move to Washington, I think we sold it for $47,500. OK? I don’t know what the Cooks sold it for, but I know it got very pricey. I don’t know if it ever got as high as a million bucks, but I’m sure it went for a pretty penny. Not now! [Laughs] But I think the fact that recently it went for _____________________. (19:00)

               While I was in Washington, I designed 235 Delancey Street. I had the blue prints for Jane and Bill Eiman’s house, because their façade, which is a restoration, and I don’t know what their house looked like before they bought, was taken from – this was originally a row of five houses that were all identical. Here was the house to the east, which was original, and there was a wonderful little old lady who lived there who sold it and went to Nantucket. It was before the Lavinos moved in.

DS:      Maureen Murdock. (20:00)

JK:       Maureen Murdock. The nicest lady in the world. I thought, “Well, here I’m going to create this contemporary design, and I’ve got to – I was doing this in Washington – and I have to create this contemporary design – because we were going to come back to Philadelphia – this contemporary design in the midst of what had once been a row of five houses.

DS:      It would have been the Eimans’, your two lots, Maureen’s – that’s four.

JK:       That’s four. Maybe it was only four.

DS:      Was it the Bullers?

JK:       No, the Bullers’ house is a different design. OK. It once was a row of four. Here was this double lot that was bracketed by an original design. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars, early 20th century, only two stories high, plus a big dormer kind of roof. There was a Georgian Revival Building, but it was very much out of place, and then the Eimans, who had done a façade that replicated Maureen’s. And I said, “I have (21:00) to play on this design.” If you look at the house, I could point out to you on the third floor, the windows’ size and location replicates the position of the third story windows adjacent. They had different space in between them, but they are identical in their size. The big central living room window and the library window had the same proportion as the second story windows of the old houses. They’re larger, but the ratio of width and height is exactly the same. Then the narrow windows are half that, and the three kitchen windows are again half the width of what the first story windows. They have the same sill line. That’s the way in which I kind of played on the historic buildings: (22:00) matched the cornice line, matched the sloped roof in the front, which Arnold Nicholson was particularly complimentary about. [Laughs] They were so worried that they were going to get some flat-roofed house! Because the Pei houses all had these flat roofs. People tend, especially in the northeast, not to like houses with flat roofs. I said, “No, no, it’s very important that we pull all this together.” And then the entrance to the house is located where it is, because we wanted to see from the entrance hall, which is a gallery; it’s like 12 feet wide or something like that that goes all the way to the back garden – the main door to the garden – we wanted to be able to see from the gallery across the street into Drinker’s Court, which is the reason why the house has a mirror glass door (23:00) from the exterior, which, when you’re inside, is transparent, so you’re able to see across the street. But in those light conditions, no one is able to see in. And then it’s recessed to give privacy, and little benches are there to put down your bag of groceries or to sit on your recessed front stoop or whatever.

DS:      Get out of the rain?

JK:       Get out of the rain, always, always, always. [Laughs] Why the house came to be designed as it was. And because we were in Washington (we had by this time bought the lot) and we had the great incentive to get construction under way by a certain time. We were renting our house in Cleveland Park in Washington, and there was a time struggle actually to stay on schedule. At the time, I was really busy doing what I was (24:00) doing for Urban America, traveling all around the country. I turned to Rody Davies, who was doing a lot of houses around Society Hill, and Rody and I had gotten to know each other. I asked Rody if he wouldn’t be architect of record, for preparing the construction documents for the house. I just had no ability to do that while I was in Washington. Rody took all the designs and drew them up and got the permits and all the rest, and he advised us on a contractor, etc., etc., to do that. That’s how that house –

DS:      By this time you had two children? Two sons?

JK:       I had two sons, Curtis, who is the younger, and Jefferson. And [in 1967] (25:00) we moved back from Washington, and one of the amusing things is that, the first day – we moved into the house when it was almost but not quite finished. I think. Well, the kitchen had no cabinets. It had a plywood counter, it had a sink, the refrigerator had been bought. Maybe the dishwasher was there, waiting for its counter, and that was it. Maybe – there were three bathrooms, on the third floor. [Laughs.] I think they were still in the process. We had one to use. The others were still on the way. Other than that, the house really was finished. But the front door wasn’t there. The front door had been specially fabricated, so we had this big plywood thing that clunked shut and then bolts and things to sort of keep it closed. [Laughs] It was ridiculous. Anyway, when we moved in, what was (26:00) really amusing, Jefferson, my oldest, was terribly upset about leaving his best friend, Billy, who lived around the corner from us.

DS:      And how old was he? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Younger?

JK:       Eight.

DS:      And Billy was Billy Newbold.

JK:       No, this was Billy in Washington. And Jefferson was terribly upset about this. We moved in. The day we moved in, at this point, we had two white standard French poodles, one named Chablis and the other named Vodka [Laughs.] I chose those names in the expectation that they would be dry and not make messes inside the house.

DS:      [Laughs]

JK:       [Laughs] And they were both white. The dogs came in and soon after we (27:00) were in the house, this black cat, a south Philadelphia native, indigenous black cat with a very long tail, walked in the front door. And the dogs went like this, and Billy obviously owned this house. He had been the construction cat.

DS:      Billy is the cat?

JK:       Yes. Well, what happened was that the cat needed a name, because this construction cat had lived in the house, had been fed by the workers and the contractor, and so Billy came into this property, and the dogs were upset, and the cat jumped up on the dining room table and just sort of peered down at them. And that cat just took (28:00) command of the whole show. That was it. This cat somehow communicated to these two dogs that the cat ruled.

DS:      And the cat was named Billy after the friend of your son.

JK:       Yes, Jeff named the cat Billy for his great friend that he’d left behind in Washington, D.C. It came to be known as Billy Cat. Billy Cat really ruled the animal kingdom. It was just extraordinary. And he was an amazing cat, because when it came night or rainy times, and we’d take the dogs and walk them down Delancey Street, Billy would come out with us and would walk under Vodka – Vodka was the taller dog – for shelter from the rain. [Laughs] I have to tell you, Dorothy, he was really one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. It was just extraordinary. (29:00)

               There was a time, before moving to Delancey Street, Three Bears Park, then called Delancey Park, had been completed. There were a lot of baby carriages in Society Hill at that time. And I remember, at the time, before Washington and after we got back from Washington, in which the parents – let’s put it this way: I know from Ed Bacon that families with children really were not expected to move into Society Hill. Right? They thought they were all going to be wealthy and retired, like the Ingersolls and the Wattses. But no. Younger people had different ideas. [Laughs] We moved in, and there were children and baby carriages. Three Bears Park was a great place to play. All (30:00) the empty lots were great places to play. When we came back from Washington, I remember, Jefferson and Curtis went over. They would play stickball with the Smith kids. There were five of them or something in that house?

DS:      Yes, up on Third Street?

JK:       Up on Third Street [314-316 S. Third Street]. They had a great time. They played in the lots, in other houses. In fact, one day, our two and some of the Smiths were seen walking on some ridge line of some house. I really don’t want to know where it was. I guess one doesn’t hear these stories until some time after when it occurred. But it was a great environment for kids to grow up in. And young parents really took over the Home and School Association in McCall School and said, “We’re going to make this into a really good public school.” Which it became. And then the St. Peter’s Choir (31:00) School, which had descended into nothingness, also was kind of being taken over by the community, and St. Peter’s Church revived with new and younger members, which became the beginning of St. Peter’s School, which is really an excellent primary elementary school. You know, it’s a feeder school to many private and public upper schools in the whole community. It’s a remarkable education story I thought at the time. And a similar thing happened in Rittenhouse Square with the Greenfield School. I thought it was really quite remarkable. Not part of the plan, but one of those things that happened as sort of a social reality, the demographics of the people who came.

               I think the camaraderie of the early residents in moving in and living in this sort of half-finished environment. Because it was a mess for a long, long time. It sort (32:00) of was a bonding agent for everybody. I remember. Robert Geddes of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, GBQC as it’s known today, he and George Qualls were two very distinguished architecture professors at Penn, and Robert Geddes was my thesis advisor. Bob at that time was chair of the Design Advisory Committee for the Redevelopment Authority, and in that regard he obviously had to approve the design of 235 Delancey Street, but before then there was the question – and you probably remember this – the brick sidewalks were going in, and the issue became, do we have a Franklin-style street light or do we have something very contemporary. Do you remember this?

DS:      Absolutely. (33:00)

JK:       And so we had to have a demonstration, samples were put up. Well, Bob, being a contemporary architect, really wanted this sort of round, globe design, and again, our house on Third Street opposite the Powel House was chosen as the location to put out from the balcony the size of the globe of the contemporary design that was under consideration, to see whether it was the right size or not. Well, all I remember is the hoo ha surrounding bringing it out and putting it up on the street and light from our living room balcony. I guess the demonstration went on, and the contemporary “balloon” kind of lost resoundingly. I must say, for good cause. It was kind of glowy and obtrusive and big-ish, whereas the Franklin lights are discrete and throw the light down on the sidewalk and do a lot to reinforce the historic ambience of the (34:00) neighborhood.

               Now, let me tell you another story that you probably don’t know. After returning from Washington, back in Philadelphia a year, Rachel and I separated and ultimately divorced. Sometime thereafter I met Sallie Smith, who at that point was living in one of the Girard row houses that Charlie Peterson owned and rented out. He had apartments in the house that was a twin to his. And she had the first floor – the first and second floor of the back. I hadn’t known Sallie, but I had known for some time one of her (35:00) older sisters, Meredith Stevenson, and her oldest sister, Eleanor, had been in graduate school in City Planning when I was an undergraduate in architecture. And one of my roommates at that point was one of her boyfriends. I kind of vaguely knew Eleanor Kenner Smith, and I knew quite well Meredith Stevenson. And Sallie’s parents decided to give her a party to introduce her to younger people, some of her friends in Philadelphia, and this list was created. Meredith was making the list for young men, and at that point I was separated. [Laughs] Meredith put my name on the list, Sallie took it (36:00) off. “I don’t want somebody who’s divorced or separated.” And then somehow I went and Sallie and I met. We just hit it off right away.

               But what’s interesting here is that Sallie’s parents, Lawrence M.C. Smith and Eleanor Houston Smith, had worked with Ed Bacon in the very early days, before the plans for Society Hill had been developed, to purchase and hold on to and to stabilize and ultimately sell a number of properties in Society Hill. The Smiths had bought the Girard row. They had bought the Ross House on Second Street. There were a number of houses on Pine that they had bought, all of which Ed Bacon had prevailed upon them to purchase, in order to forestall demolition (37:00) or demolition by neglect, and to maintain them as rental properties in, I must say, a rather low state of affairs, because they were going to have to go through this process with the Redevelopment Authority as it turned out, or come to terms with the Historical Commission. As it turned out, I was absolutely unaware of this when Sallie and I met, that my parents-in-law had been a crucial part of the implementation that Ed Bacon was doing to get (38:00) Society Hill to happen. I just had to tell that story.

DS:      A very interesting story. Tell me, the lot that you bought in the 200 block of Delancey. Who did you buy that from?

JK:       Redevelopment Authority.

DS:      And do you remember the approximate cost of it now?

JK:       Oh, gee. A double lot. Ten thousand? Fifteen thousand? I mean, it was not a lot of money.

DS:      And were they vacant or was there something there?

JK:       When we bought it, the understanding was that whatever was there was going to be demolished. What we were delivered was an empty lot. And I think we signed a purchase agreement while the VFW was still standing. I think it was demolished while we were in Washington, because we started with an empty lot, and then a party wall with Maureen Murdoch and the Eimans.

DS:      And to your back, the parking lot was already there, was it? (39:00)

JK:       No, it was empty land, but it hadn’t been developed. It wasn’t developed until maybe a year – it was developed shortly after we moved in, actually.

DS:      You had access out through the back of your house into the parking lot and had a space in the lot?

JK:       Yes, yes. Where our gate was, there is a corner, planted, so we would go out the gate, past a tree, and right there was our car. It was ideal. It really was. And in the garden, which was designed by Leslie Gallery, who used to own that wonderful garden shop in Old City – I don’t know if you know that – Leslie graduated as a landscape architect, and the design of the garden of Delancey Street, of which some of it is mine, but in the final analysis was Leslie’s, it was her first commission, her first landscape (40:00) commission. [Laughs] But it had this little bicycle shed, tool house, right inside the door when you came in. Then you came down a walk and down some steps to get into the garden area, because the grade of the parking lot behind was higher than the floor level and the garden level of the house on Delancey Street. But it was a wonderfully functional and practical garden.

DS:      Do you get the sense that your children have happy memories of growing up there in that house? Or that neighborhood?

JK:       Oh, yes, yes. I mean, Sallie’s and my two don’t. I mean, Susanna was born shortly before we left Society Hill; she was six months old when we left Society Hill [in 1978] and moved up to Chestnut Hill. And we moved to Chestnut Hill because at this point Jefferson was going to Chestnut Hill Academy, and we felt that being up there (41:00) sort of made sense, and besides, it was sort of awkward Sallie living in this house that had been designed in what she refers to as my previous life. Laughs] we took on a new aspect of the city. But Jefferson – and Curtis does have great memories also – when Jefferson was married, which happened in Old St. Joseph’s Church, because his wife is a Roman Catholic, they left the ceremony in a horse and carriage, and the carriage went from Old St. Joseph’s – and I didn’t know this until later, at the reception – Jefferson had planned a route that took the horse and carriage down Delancey Street, so that (42:00) he and Patrice could look at the house where Jefferson had these happy memories of growing up in his childhood.

DS:      Nice story.

JK:       I’d forgotten about that one! [Laughs] And Jane Eiman saw them. Oh! And also another story about the Eimans. Just last spring, Sallie and I were going through the storage lockers up in the Mr. Airy section of the city and getting stuff out, and I saw this chart case that had belonged to Curtis Bok. And I opened it and said, “Gee, what’s in here? What are these papers in here?” And so I opened it up, and low and behold, what’s in it besides some drawings and things by the kids and me and some architecture drawings, the blueprints for the Eimans’ house, which had been so important (43:00) to me, you know, how many years ago when I was designing the house in Washington, D.C. I said, “Sallie, we’ve got to go down and see Jane. She’s home. We’re going to give her these drawings.!” We drove straight from Mt. Airy down to Delancey Street, and there sitting on the front stoop is Jenny with her baby. And I said, “Jenny, hello.” I introduced myself. I said, “Is your Mom around? I’ve got the blueprints, that we just found this afternoon, of your house.” And she said, “Oh, I don’t believe this. [Laughs] We have been all day hunting in the attic for the blueprints to the house.” Jane comes around the corner with her son-in-law and the oldest of Jenny’s two, and I said, “Jane, here’s the blueprints to the house.” Because they were in the process of Jenny and (44:00) her husband moving to Philadelphia from Manhattan so they would have elbow room [Laughs]. And I’ve forgotten his name –

DS:      Oliver.

JK:       Oliver. He’s now got a reverse commute to New York City. It was just extraordinary. They desperately wanted the plans to that house. And we just appeared like that. Just like that. It was amazing. Serendipity. And it was so wonderful walking down Delancey Street, seeing that house finished and renewed.

DS:      Yes, it’s just about there, just about finished. Going back again, to the house on Delancey Street, you did the drawings –

JK:       I did the design, and Rody did the contract documents.

DS:      What controls did the Redevelopment Authority put on you? Did they put any restrictions on your design?

JK:       Well, it had to be reviewed by the Design Advisory Committee, which Bob (45:00) Geddes chaired. I told you about that. I think all the buildings were encouraged to be of brick, to use materials compatible with the existing houses. There were minimum and maximum conditions concerning cornice height. I don’t recall any control that mandated a sloped roof. If I had my files property organized, I’d be able to tell you where those guidelines are. I bet the Redevelopment Authority could get you a copy.

DS:      But there was a printed –

JK:       Absolutely. There was a printed set of guidelines. I remember them being horizontally formatted, and maybe three pages long. Very clear and very direct. I thought effective. You know, I think, in retrospect, some of the architecture has held up (46:00) pretty well, and others are really kind of monochromatic and not very pleasant. Across the street from you works pretty well.

DS:      Tell me, can you put a figure on how much it cost you, approximately to build that house?

JK:       To build? I think it was about $125,000.

DS:      And this would have been in when?

JK:       Yes, we moved in in June 1967. [Laughs]

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

DS:      What did your family and your wife’s family think of what you were doing? Did they have opinions?

JK:       Yes, my parents were great antique collectors, and my mother especially is one of these people that had an eye. And the fact that when I was growing up and we’d go to the Trent House and go see historic houses in Bucks County, where I grew up, or we’d see Monticello on our way back to where we lived from Virginia, that we’d go by way of Charlottesville and Monticello, gives you some idea of where my mother’s heart was. And my father kind of liked all that stuff, too. He really got into antiques, as well.

DS:      And he was an engineer.

JK:       A mechanical engineer. One of his fondest possessions was a wonderful English barometer, from 1810 or something of that nature, a mechanical clock, you know, or something made in London. But Mom had a really superb eye. I remember her sitting in the corner of the living room looking at something that was troubling her, bothering her, wanting to work it out. She’d just sit and ponder and look and come back and ponder. And then she’d make some kind of decision about what she wanted to do. She had superb instincts for all that stuff.

               My parents-in-law – well, before Sallie – the Boks were very contemporary people. Their house was in Gulph Mill; it was an English Tudor Revival stone house on the hillside in Gulph Mill. It was a wonderful house, but they had had Wharton Esherick completely re-do the entire first floor, the library, the (2:00) book room, which is what the living room was called, the entrance hall, the staircase to the second story, the dining room. [Laughs] The fireplace of the living room is now in the Art Museum [Philadelphia Museum of Art], and when the Art Museum is expanded, the music room, which is a tour de force of Wharton Esherick, is going to be installed in historic rooms. This was very avant garde, if you’re familiar with Wharton Esherick, and this was in the ‘30s. This was a time when I think the Boks had some dinner parties, and traditionalists (I can say stuffy) Main Line would come to (3:00) the dinner parties, and they would just make fun of the whole thing. They thought it was just horrific. Their reaction was, “OK! You don’t like it? We won’t have you back!” [Laughs] It was for a select group of friends, mostly Curtis Bok’s former law partners from the law firm that he started with that became Dechert Price and Rhoads, but at the beginning was Dechert Bok and Clark, or something like that. Yes, I’m sure that’s what it was. But Curtis Bok left it to go off and become a judge, and Joe Clark left it to go off and become Mayor and then Senator. They were very supportive of the purchase of the Pei house and very supportive of renewal and change in the city. And of course (4:00) at that time, the Curtis Publishing Company, which was alive and somewhat kicking, was there on Independence Square. They were very supportive of it all.

DS:      And your parents were, too?

JK:       Absolutely. Needless to say, my second set of in-laws were wildly supportive. They’d helped Ed Bacon do it!

DS:      Right. OK. Any other stories with banks or contractors or neighborhood associations or neighbors?

JK:       Banks. Yes, I have a bank story. Girard Trust Bank gave a mortgage on 247 S. Third, the Pei house. And the person who did it said, “Why are you spending this (5:00) money in Society Hill? Why don’t you go out and buy some wonderful house in Chestnut Hill or Ardmore?” Which, of course, the same amount of money could buy a very nice, center hall Colonial, if that’s what you like. And in Chestnut Hill or Ardmore or wherever [Laughs]. And we just were not interested. We said, “We just don’t want to do that. We just want to help, do something of that nature.” The context of that, Teddy and Deborah Newbold had bought their place on Third Street, and they were there before the addition that they built, which Tom Todd designed, a great friend of mine –

DS:      Before the additions that the Newbolds put on [at 321 S. Third St.]? (6:00)

JK:       Yes, first it was the house next door, and then the addition came later. And Tom Todd designed that addition. But Deborah with Billy Newbold and Rachel with Jefferson in baby carriages on Third Street or Delancey Street were seen by, I don’t know if it was a policeman or some old-timer, but it may well have been a policeman. At this point, Rachel’s family was terribly well known, and Deborah’s father was Mayor. And this policeman says, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when a Bok and a Dilworth would live in Society Hill, the Bloody Fifth Ward.” [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs] Anything else you can think of? (7:00)

JK:       No, I think back on living here with wonderful memories, and walking from both houses, but I think most especially from the Pei house, because I was working at the Planning Commission, how intimate Philadelphia really was, because at that point, I remember and you may too, you could walk – I would often walk through Independence Square. And at that point you could walk through the tower door of Independence Hall, and there was the bell at the bottom of the staircase. And you could walk through and say, “Hello, Bell.” And out the other door onto Chestnut Street and the City Planning Commission. And I remember so well when Jefferson got his first two-wheel bicycle, we went to Gimbels and we got it in the bicycle department up on whatever floor, (8:00) paid for it, took it down, Jefferson riding on it where he could, and we went through the arcade of Independence Hall and across the square and back to the Pei house on Third Street. And now, it’s wonderful that the Hall’s restored and it’s visited and it’s a huge tourism thing that millions of people see all the time, but it’s before it was on the tourism map that it was such an intimate part of the city and the experience of this neighborhood. I miss that.

DS:      Comfortable

JK:       Yes, it was approachable.

DS:      Well, thank you very much, Jim.

JK:       My pleasure. (9:00)

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

DS:      Another story.

JK:       Yes, another story. Before the construction of I-95, Ed Bacon had conceived this idea of a ring of expressways that surrounded Center City. And one, of course, was the Schuylkill, which had already been built. Another was I-95, which was under consideration, Vine was to be completed and ended just beyond Logan Square, and the planned Crosstown Expressway between South and Bainbridge, which in subsequent years I helped kill.

               The big issue was I-95. I was working at the Planning Commission at one point, maybe one of the last years that I was there, and Ed wanted to have a model built, showing the I-95 between the proposed idea of Penn’s Landing and (10:00) Society Hill as it was being built. And he wanted a very public place for display. I had something to do with overseeing that model, which as I recall was put together by someone in Wilmington. Then Ed put it on display in the Men’s Department of Wanamaker’s, on the second floor of the Chestnut Street side of the building. right by where people came in. Well, people came and looked and so on. We’d taken down the Chinese Wall that’s become Penn Center, but here was a new Chinese Wall between Center City and the Delaware River, as people saw it, because [it had] an embankment, and there were these slot-like tunnels for Chestnut Street and Walnut Street and Market Street and Dock Street, you know, all of them. People began to get really agitated (11:00) and upset about this thing that was going to get built between the neighborhood and the river.

               Stan Browne became particularly involved in all this, and in his clever way that Stan had, working levers and his political connections and these other things, was joined with Martha Shobert, who was one of our near neighbors on Third Street. Martha was incredible. Martha had so much to do with organizing the community, while Stan was out there dealing with Congress and Hubert Humphrey and all these people and rallying support in the city to oppose it and get it depressed, etc., etc. Bacon having fits that his ideas were being challenged and not absolutely perfect! Somewhere along the way, Martha said, and I’ll never forget this, “I know what citizen participation is. It’s citizen exhaustion.” (12:00)

               And then there was that great day, which I’ll never forget, when Stanhope did manage to get Hubert Humphrey to come to Philadelphia, and Humphrey promised that I-95 was going to be depressed. Of course, Humphrey didn’t get elected President. Nixon did. But it got depressed anyway, thank God. It should have been even more depressed. And as you know, to this day, the conversation about taking down or burying or making more humane the Delaware Expressway continues, north and south of Center City, as well as in this area. But thank God, we have it depressed where we do.

[End of interview]


© 2009 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
February 3, 2009
Kise, James Nelson
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - New Construction
Oral History Sources