Norma Van Dyke

Reading Norma Van Dyke’s interview might be enough to discourage anyone from buying and restoring a house that dates to the early 19th century – particularly one that is located on a very busy city street and adjacent to a development filled with restaurants, bars, and shops. She does not hold back in describing difficult, time-consuming, complex, worrisome, and expensive problems she faced. These include delays her architect created in showing her available properties; the complexity of dealing with private owners and city agencies (some of whose officials expected to have their palms greased to do their jobs) when she was buying the shell at 121 Lombard Street; obtaining a mortgage from a lender who did not give mortgages for shells; learning that Newmarket was going to be built next door and then living with the noisy, intrusive consequences; living with two restaurants across Lombard Street; using an architect who drew few plans and provided few specifications; hiring as general contractor a violin maker who had never before built a house; and inhabiting an area that had been cleared of many buildings to make way for the Crosstown Expressway, which was never built. She concludes her interview with accounts of three major repairs: one to deal with the problem of the dishes on her kitchen shelf that were rattling; a second to address the bricks falling out of the walls of her house that her next-door neighbor tried to prevent her from addressing; and a third to install rods and stars to prevent the front wall from falling into the street – the same problem that the Buells had with the house next door to Norma’s.


DS: ‍This is an interview with Norma Van Dyke. The date is September 15, 2009. The address of the interview is 116 Delancey Street in Philadelphia, PA. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens.

Norma, tell me, when did you come into the neighborhood?

NV: ‍I moved into my house, and that’s when I came into the neighborhood, on September 13, 1975.

DS: ‍And what’s the address of your house?

NV: ‍121 Lombard Street.

DS: ‍And why did you come here?

NV: ‍Well, I decided that I was ready to have a house, and I had always thought that I wanted to live in this neighborhood.

DS: ‍So it was ….

NV: ‍And plus, I think an added reason why I actually landed up here – well, a couple of reasons – deRoy Mark, I knew deRoy Mark, and he suggested to me at a (1:00 ) timely moment, that, “Why don’t I do a shell for you?” And he was looking and looking and looking for many months, and I think his search included Queen Village, too. He never showed me anything, but one day a friend took me to lunch across the street at Le Champignon, when it was open by the Frenchman. And when we came out, I saw that house. It didn’t say “For Sale.” You couldn’t tell whether it was inhabited or not, but I said to the friend who took me to lunch, “You know, this is the kind of house I’m looking for.”

More months went by, and then one day I was talking to deRoy and he wasn’t coming up with anything, and I don’t know why I happened to say to him, “You know, I saw a really nice house across the street from Le Champignon.” And he said, “Oh, why didn’t I think of it?” And it turns out he had done plans for that house a couple (2:00) of years before for someone else that had fallen through. He told me another architect to contact who was handling it for the Redevelopment Authority. Sometimes I remember the architect’s name and sometimes I don’t. Today I don’t. He showed me the house, and when I called him up, he said, “Oh, I had a friend coming down from New York next week to look at that place.” One more week I would have lost it. And I think he was very ethical to show it to me and not say, “Well, it’s gone, etc.” I walked in. I said, “I’ll take it.”

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: ‍Go ahead.

NV: ‍It was a very complex arrangement between the Historical Commission – or is it the Historical Society? – and the City of Philadelphia and Kravco developers. (3:00) I guess Kravco was developing Newmarket. Well, anyway, so I really never understood who I was buying the house from. But my lawyer, who was just a general lawyer said the gods were with me, because I just happened to find this.

Then, when I wanted to get a mortgage, my lawyer said, “Don’t tell them it’s a shell.” So I went. We took the plans, such as they were. DeRoy Mark never really made very many plans. We went into PSFS and unrolled the plans, and they said, “Oh, if we had known this was a shell, we would have told you we don’t give mortgages to shells.” And also, just as that very time, it was January, that I was ready to get a mortgage, the mortgage situation opened up. Mortgages had been on hold because of the very high interest rates. Just until that moment (4:00) they opened up again. It was just like somebody was helping me [Laughs]. It was just a series of good luck. So, but they said, when they said, “We don’t give mortgages to shells,” they said, “You must practically have the table set by September 15, or we take the money back.”

DS: ‍This was –

NV: ‍This was in 1970 – it would have been 1975. I found it in August, but it took that long to get there, whatever you do. Get the deed? I don’t know. Official signings and things like that. They said, “You must – this house must be ready by September 15 or we take this mortgage back.” And I had to put $30,000, which was the sum (5:00) of my mortgage, in escrow. So then when I moved in, I guess it was released. I guess that’s how it’s done. So that’s the short of it, how I got there.

DS: ‍And you did have the table set by September?

NV: ‍You know, I moved in on September 13, and the gas was not on. Up on the third floor, there had been a boarded-up window, and they took the boarding out, so there was just air coming in. In fact, that year it turned winter in August. It was so cold I couldn’t – I stayed there a few nights. I didn’t have any gas to cook with, and it was freezing (6:00) cold. I mean, really cold. So then, a couple of days later it was my birthday, and I had a row of boxes, you know, you have these boxes when you moved in, and I had just picked up a bag, upside down, that was in these boxes, it was dried soybeans that was in these boxes. And my mother called to say, “Happy birthday.” And I said, “Oh, what have I done?” [Laughs] Nothing was going right at that moment.

DS: ‍How much did you pay totally for the house?

NV: ‍$21,000 for the shell.

DS: ‍And do you have any clue how much money you put into it to make it livable, the way you wanted it?

NV: ‍It never stops. It never stops. I’m quite sure that I put $200,000 into it. I (7:00) think about that a lot. But I would imagine that I put in $200,000. Originally, something I should also tell you about when I met with this architect who took me in to see the house. He said they were not promoting the sale of the house because at that time, Duncan Buell was suing them because they were against the Newmarket situation, because Newmarket was on the drawing board, and it was going to change the neighborhood. And had I really – so they said, “We want you to know, this is going to happen.” You know? And I don’t remember that I signed anything. But the moment he took me in the house that Newmarket was going to happen, had I understood what that would mean, I would not have bought the house.

DS: ‍Do you think this architect was working for the Newmarket group?

NV: ‍I think he was working for the Redevelopment Authority, but I’m not (8:00) certain of that.

DS: ‍You say, if you had known what that really meant, you would not have bought the house.

NV: ‍No. Because we arrived simultaneously. Newmarket opened and I arrived just about at the same moment. It was hell. It was hell. Because first of all, on my street, there was just those series – you probably know why those empty – why there were foundations dug where there now the condominiums are on my side, north side. Why the condominiums are there, I mean, there were just empty foundations for the row of condominiums. And they stayed there for years. And they were there before I came, I think. And then these houses then where the Khans [Deborah and Nasir] are now, that was just an empty shell for years after I moved in.

DS: ‍What address is that?

NV: ‍That would be 117 [Lombard]. All that was salvageable of that place was (9:00) the façade. And that stayed empty for years. And I guess the Khans were the people who moved into it. I mean, I guess it was empty when the Khans moved in, if I remember correctly. Then 119 [Lombard], which is next to me, had a series of owners. Duncan Buell was living there when I moved. And it’s had many owners since then. Then on the other side the place was rented, and then the renters moved out. I don’t remember how long it had been there. Then that house has been owned by a series of people, too. Both of the houses on both sides of me have changed hands many times. And 117 is quite a bit older than mine. It was built in 1700s. (10:00)

DS: ‍Do you know anything about when yours was built?

NV: ‍Well, I know – that’s what I was doing before I came here. I was trying to find the deed, and I think I have found the deed. OK. My house was built – let’s see, here in pencil they say 1811, and then something, “a frame house.” It was a frame house in 1811 and then in 1830 it was built for Adam Sheitzline. And that’s what the Civic Association gives you. That’s what I have in my window. I don’t know, maybe you understand this better than I. I’ve never had the time or taken the time to research these things. I don’t know. Maybe you understand what this means. Do I have the same foundation from 1811? Or what does that really mean? (11:00)

DS: ‍The same place, I guess.

NV: ‍The same walls? The same walls?

DS: ‍But it became brick.

NV: ‍So they kept, they kept. It’s not the same walls.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: ‍So, then, from May of 1961 this house that belonged to Lewis Plumer was sold to the Redevelopment Authority, the City of Philadelphia. That’s the last recorded. It was empty until you came.

NV: ‍Right. Correct.

DS: ‍What was the condition? You say it was a shell.

NV: ‍Well, it had the original floors and doors and walls. There are latches on (12:00) my old doors, and one of them was missing on one of the doors. At that time, there was that kind of crafts sale at Newmarket. And there was a blacksmith; I said, “I need a new latch.” He came over, and he looked at my latches. We looked at one specifically, but they are all the same. It must be generally true. He said, “That latch is pre-1640 England.” Now, I can’t imagine why in 1830, even, they were using latches from pre-1640 England. But throughout the house that’s what I have.

But there were no utilities in it. None. Up on the third floor, in the ribbing of the plaster, there was some little wiring, I guess, just sort of there. There were no utilities. I had to put all the utilities in. The roof was cedar shakes, I guess. The back of the house ended where the garden (13:00) now is, and that was, I guess, a garden. I mean, it had never been developed as a garden. There were floorboards to an outhouse there, and earth.

The basement is truly cobblestone, not Belgian block. I mean, people call Belgian block cobblestone, but it’s a mixture of cobblestone and brick and earth. I mean it was. First I had it just cemented and then about six years ago, I had it tiled. It became domesticated about six years ago. So in the back of the house then, which was going out to the garden, there was just (14:00) also a boarded-up window. The place where I have my kitchen – have you ever been in my house?

DS: ‍Once.

NV: ‍So the only new construction in my house is from the kitchen into the garden. And so, DeRoy Mark designed – well, first he wanted to leave the house ending where it was going to end, and have a breakfast nook there. I said, “No, I don’t like that.” So then he conceived putting the – I don’t know what it should be called; some people call it a greenhouse – it’s a glass roof and sliding glass doors – and so the requirement of these historically certified houses is that you keep x number of feet of garden space or outdoor space. And also, I have two masonry walls and this (15:00) wall here, which is my party wall with my next door neighbor, was latticed. So I was required to put in another masonry wall.

Then I had to go get the permit to do the work, and DeRoy Mark said to me – the permit was going to be $40 – he said, “Give me $200. I’ll get you the permit.” I said, “It’s $40.” He said, “Well….” I said, “No, I don’t have that kind of money to waste.” I went there about three times and showed them the drawings and so forth. Well, “How high is up? How far is down?” Blah blah blah. I mean, I went there three times. And all these fat guys walking around smoking cigars, not doing any work. So finally I said to Dee, “I’m not getting anywhere with this.” He said, “Call [inaudible]” No, he told me to call a man at the Historical Commission. No, that’s not the same thing. Anyway, I guess at the licensing office; he told me to call (16:00) this guy. And he said, “OK.” And he called this woman, and he said, “Would you write this up?” And she said, “I will,” but she was really angry, because, apparently, she was the only one there who did any work. The other ones were just waiting for me to grease their palms. So, anyway, I paid the appropriate amount and got my – got my –

DS: ‍You paid the $40.

NV: ‍The $40. Not $240.

DS: ‍Good job.

NV: ‍I don’t know where we were. I originally did the first two floors, the first and second floors.

DS: ‍And this entailed all the plumbing, all the heating, all the electrical.

NV: ‍Correct, correct. Making a kitchen, bathrooms. All that stuff. And gradually (17:00) doing the garden, which I have done over several times.

DS: ‍And now you have the house as a B&B, a Bed and Breakfast, right?

NV: ‍For 30 years.

DS: ‍For 30 years. Did you intend that when you started?

NV: ‍No. I had no intention of doing that. It happened in July, 30 years ago, that I was reading the Inquirer on Sunday. And I never read the Inquirer any day but Sunday at that point. And there was a feature in there about the woman, Janet Mokel, who started the Bed and Breakfast business in this region. And in the article it said she needed more places in Center City. And I said, “Well, I’m in Center City.” I wrote a postcard, Janet Mokel, Oreland, Pennsylvania, and she got it. [Laughs]

DS: ‍So then that’s what got you into the B&B. Tell me, what did your parents (18:00) or your relatives think of what you were doing?

NV: ‍That’s a good question. Well, my dad was already dead by that time. But my mother came after – seems like she came in May – no, after I bought it but before I moved in, I guess. But anyway, she came and she saw it, and there was really no kitchen there. So when she came back a year or so later, she said, “Oh, I never thought you could make anything of that kitchen.” I guess she was really quite worried about me. She and I planted a holly tree, which is still growing, in my garden. She did approve. She clearly was fearful—

DS: ‍But didn’t tell you.

NV: ‍Right. Some other people said, “What are you going to do with such a (19: 00) big house?” And “Why do you need an architect?” Those are the kinds of questions I got.

DS: ‍But you were determined.

NV: ‍I was determined. [Laughs]

DS: ‍So, the Redevelopment Authority – did they play any part in telling you how this should look? Or did DeRoy take care of that?

NV: ‍Well, only how it should look in terms of the historic things. The façade had to be maintained. And I had to put one more masonry wall in. I don’t remember this, when I first did the roof in the back of the house.

The front of the house is four stories, and the back of the house is two stories. And the deed refers to a messuage. And I looked up what that means, and I can’t keep it in my brain. Here’s my living room, and here’s my kitchen, and the kitchen going down slightly, there’s just a slight raise in the floor, and I don’t know whether it’s one inch, but it slopes down; it’s curved. I don’t (20:00) know whether what’s now my kitchen and the room above it were the messuage. It seems to me the messuage means something like an outer building. So I don’t know. Several years ago, I had a historian come to look at my house – not to look, but to stay with me. And I showed her the deed, and she looked at the deed and she said, “Your house was a tenement at one time,” and she said, “but not the usual kind of tenement.” And I should have asked her, “What do you mean by that?” But I didn’t, unfortunately.

Up on the fourth floor, which has a pitched roof, so the floor space is about as much as the floor spaces you have here; maybe not even that much wide, but then a sloped roof which comes down. But on this wall, the east wall, is this thin beam, wooden beam, with rusted old hooks on it. And I have – I imagine that there were workers sleeping in (21:00) that narrow space on the floor and hanging up their overalls there. I don’t know. That’s what I imagine.

DS: ‍Well, you are so close to the river. It’s quite possible. OK.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: ‍Regarding the restoration of the house.

NV: ‍The work was done – deRoy knew a violin maker, and so he was I guess the general contractor. It was his one and only foray into house building. He would never do it again. You’d think he was getting married, he was so reluctant to sign the contract on the dotted line. And it was a terrible experience for him. And it partially, but not exclusively [was] because DeRoy hardly did any specifications, and so he put things together, and in addition I had – DeRoy also had this wood worker. Becky Stoloff also (22:00) had him. Mann. Thomas Mann, or something like that. Maybe that’s not quite right. He was a very good woodworker. And he made – he built the cabinetry, which DeRoy designed. It’s red oak, the cabinets in the kitchen.

Also, Dee designed in the living room – I had this big cave painting from my other apartment. I said to him, “Where are we going to put this?” He designed the space to accommodate the cave painting. Actually, behind this wall in my living room is a fireplace, but it’s hidden there, and the wall board is over it. And then the opposite wall is plaster. So then, underneath (23:00) the painting is a red oak shelving, which are book shelves. And on this wall it was plaster, and I maintained that plaster – well, actually, no. The whole living room when I got it – I should have brought pictures, but you can’t show pictures on a tape – but the whole living room was this God-awful wallpaper. In fact, in the kitchen, the wallpaper was the same wallpaper as my mother had in her kitchen. And actually I liked that wallpaper in the kitchen. It was little, teeny bouquets. It was nice. But in the living room was this dark green, but floral thing. It was very dark. It was plastered walls. We took off the plaster on this wall and took off the wallpaper on the other side. The kitchen had (24:00) wainscoting up to counter height, and we took away the wainscoting, but deRoy used the trim that was in the house that he dislodged from some other places. Also, he took out beams in the second floor above me, big, heavy beams that go across, to use in making the glass area in my kitchen.

DS: ‍He took out beams?

NV: ‍Big cross beams. Yes. One or two.

DS: ‍Does that not make the house unstable?

NV: ‍I guess not.

DS: ‍Where were these beams? On the second floor?

NV: ‍Yes. Right.

DS: ‍So it was created between you and deRoy, and other people performed the work.

NV: ‍Right. Did the work. And I made the curtains.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

NV: ‍Eight hundred dollars. I think the taxes were about $800. (25:00)

DS: ‍Eight hundred dollars.

NV: ‍I think I really have told you pretty much about that, the neighbors. The Khans’ house stood empty for many years after I moved in. I’m pretty sure it was they who did the work there.

DS: ‍And then you had the Buells.

NV: ‍They were there, and they left, I guess, a year or so after I moved in.

DS: ‍So you say that the Newmarket construction was very difficult.

NV: ‍They were open by the time I moved in. I didn’t live through their construction. We opened simultaneously. Actually, I think they had just opened when I moved in, something like that. At first I thought there were some nice elements about it, (26:00) because Newmarket which was done mostly by deRoy – well, by Lou Sauer, his ex-wife is my best friend, and deRoy Mark actually did the building which is now CVS on the corner.

DS: ‍The drugstore.

NV: ‍Right, but when deRoy did it – actually you should stand – if you’ve never done it – you probably have – just back and look at a diagonal of that building – DeRoy’s building, which is now CVS – it’s really a lovely building and has a nice face up there. But the first tenants were in the basement – and Italian restaurant, and they were in the basement, and then they had the ground level as a patio. Well, maybe the Bakers were the first people who bought that house after the renters moved out. (27:00)

DS: ‍Next to you.

NV: ‍Next to me, on the west side, 123.

DS: ‍Bakers was their last name, or –

NV: ‍That’s their last name. Bonnie and – I can’t think of her husband’s name. They got divorced after they left. I think they must have been the first owners after I moved in. And they – what happened is – it was horrible. First, I didn’t have any curtains, and then, you see, in the back of my house was just glass, and so Rusty Scupper [a restaurant] was that tall building, you know, facing on Front Street, and it made kind of an L shape, and so the L came – and this was designed by my friend Lou Sauer – it, you know, made an L shape and then at sort of the second or third story level there was this little glass patio for this glass restaurant, and it was a Japanese restaurant in there. And they would (28:00) play tinkly Japanese music, and people would sit up there and look into my house. I had to go into the bathroom to dress and undress. And then in this patio, they would play loud, off-key music until 3:00 a.m. seven days a week. And this guy, Baker, who lived in there, he would get out of bed in his undershorts and dance a war dance every night. I mean, it was horrible, horrible, horrible. It wasn’t even on key. It was terrible, loud. We would call them up. I called them up so many times they got to know me. And finally they got tired I guess and they gave up the music. Or they couldn’t afford it. I (29:00) don’t know what. They gave up the music.

Well, then, several months later, after they stopped playing the music, one Saturday at 8:00 p.m., somebody in Newmarket – you know, Newmarket was putting on a little concert there. It was 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night. They called me and said, “Miss Van Dyke, we want you to know that isn’t us.” They wanted me to report them. I mean, I wouldn’t report anybody playing, not, you know, it was not objectionable music and it was 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night. What am I going to call up, complain about that? So anyway, it was terrible.

And on our street, people either didn’t know or didn’t care that people lived on that street. Because those condominiums on the north side were not built yet, and there was still a factory on the adjacent corner of Front and Lombard. I think there was still a factory there. And Abbotts ice cream factory was still there [at Second and South Streets]. (30:00)

DS: ‍Second. What was the factory that was at Front and –

NV: ‍I don’t remember what kind of factory it was.

DS: ‍North side, south side?

NV: ‍South side. I think it was empty.

DS: ‍What was in the space where you talk about condominiums, between Lombard and Front.

NV: ‍Empty foundations. You know, recently, in this business about Stamper Square, the architect from H2L2 – his name is escaping me, a nice guy – he explained to the Planning Commission – I think I have this pretty much straight – that – you know, this highway – I guess I-95 –

CS: ‍Crosstown?

NV: ‍Crosstown Expressway, whatever – was supposed to be going through there; so I guess they tore down the houses to put the expressway through there, and then (31:00) they didn’t. And then they must have sold that property, and I can only guess that somebody started to do something and then went bankrupt. I don’t really know. I never heard any explanation for it.

DS: ‍So it was a constant battle with the –

NV: ‍Oh, I was trying to tell you, because people were coming down that street, and Le Champignon under the French owners were there, and then, you know, what’s now Bistro Romano was a series of restaurants, Cracker Barrel and whatever. But anyway, even before – well maybe simultaneously they were both open, but people would go to Newmarket and whatever, and until six a.m. people would be coming back to their cars, and they would be screaming and fighting. And I saw so many white, middle-class fights. You know, people falling out of Le Champignon and a man abducting a woman and putting her screaming into his car. And another fight which a Volkswagen was (32:00) coming down Lombard Street and a woman was lying in his path. Then he would stop, and she would move a little more. And you know, it was just awfully noisy. I was just in tears. I said, “What have I done?” I mean, I began to look for other places to live.

So, I mean, when Newmarket failed, it was wonderful. You know, since it’s failed, it’s been wonderful. And I mean it’s partially the reason I’m worried – am still, I guess, worried about Stamper Square. I guess it’s because it’s not conducive to have residents – to have commercial property that’s going to attract, you know, lots of people and crime in that space that’s so tightly close to, you know, homes. It just doesn’t work. It’s gotten much better, much better.

DS: ‍It’s been empty, that space has been empty –

NV: ‍Decades. (33:00)

DS: ‍A long time.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: ‍We’re looking at pictures that Norma has of her house as a shell before she renovated it, and she has a story about the stairs.

NV: ‍My house is not unique, but unusual. Historic house which you can go into, also has two sets of stairs – but my house has two sets of stairs, one that goes up from the kitchen – and the back part of the house is only two stories high. And then the other one is right around the corner and goes up four stories from the living room. My kitchen stairs go down into the basement and then back up to the second floor. That’s the only other house that I know of, the Bishop [White] House [on Walnut at Third Street], that has two sets of stairs. So there probably (34:00) are some, but it’s not common.

And the difference, really, in my house, which I’m grateful for is that the majority of old historic houses have just one set of stairs which come right down into the center part of the house, so that results in many small rooms. But because my stairs were pushed back, and two of them, I guess, I could have larger room size and open up the space between, you know, for example, between the living room and kitchen is now just one long, open space. But had my stairways been the common type they would have come right down into the center of the living room and kitchen and made it so that the rooms would be very small.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: ‍There’s another story that Norma wants to share.

NV: ‍When I found my house, there was a beautiful – my mother calls it a (35:00) Princess Olga tree of the Netherlands, but I think it’s called something else here, like an Empress tree. Anyway, there were some on Logan Square that were removed in the last few years and some at the Art Museum. But they had wonderful trumpet-shaped, I guess, pink flowers every May. They were gorgeous, although the tree was I think – I don’t know – several hundred years old by the time I moved in. And by the time I moved in it was dying, and there were holes in it and squirrels living there, etc. It was on its last legs. But my mother came before I actually moved in in May one year and saw these flowers and loved them and wanted to grow them, and so she took a piece home and tried to grow one in Michigan. It didn’t work. But anyway, they were beautiful flowers and big, big, elephant-shaped leaves, and they would fall into my garden and create (36: 00) quite a bit of trash there, I guess. Anyway, they were wonderful flowers.

But anyway, the tree was dying, and after it had been there a few years, a man called me up and said he wanted to take down my tree, and how much was my house insured for. I said, “That is not my tree. It belongs to Newmarket. But my house is historically certified.” “Oh,” he said. “I going to have to call Lloyd’s of London.” Then he called me a few months later to tell me he was ready to take down the tree. He said, “I’m going to park a crane in front of your house on Lombard Street, and then I’m going to haul the tree pieces as we cut them down over your garden, over your house, onto Lombard Street.”

I stayed home from work that day, and what he did was cut the tree in sections and haul each of these sections over my garden wall, over the fourth floor of my house and (37:00) to Lombard Street. Meanwhile, he was sitting on the top of my fourth-floor roof, supervising going over my house and onto Lombard Street. And I’m glad that I stayed home that day, because the last piece that they cut was about 10 ft. long and this piece had been dragged across the house and my space, crashed into my garden wall. Fortunately, I was there to see it. He was very good about it when I showed him and repaired it.

DS: ‍We have another story.

NV: ‍Soon after I moved into my house in 1975, September ’75, I noticed that (38:00) the dishes were jumping on the shelf in my kitchen. And I related this then, soon, to the fact that I-95 was being dug at that same time near my house. I was quite alarmed about what might happen to my house because of this. I called up Ted Nickles, who had been working on my house since I moved in, and asked him what I should do.

DS: ‍And Ted Nickles was a –

NV: ‍Ted Nickles was a contractor at this point. I think his background was in art history, but he helped me build some interior window frames and did some other work in the house, quite a lot, actually, over the years. And then so I called him up and asked him what should I do. And he said, “You’d better call Nicholas Giannopoulos, who (39:00) is a very famed structural engineer, who was a partner in Keast & Hood at that time. And Nicholas Giannopoulos has done work on the Academy of Music and restored the Poe House a few years ago, among many other projects.

I called him up and made an appointment for him to come and see my house. And the morning of the appointment, I happened to look out my front window, and across the street was standing this elegant, tall Greek man dressed in a very expensive, beautiful suit and looking at my house from across the street. Then he came in, and my house, as I had mentioned earlier, had just been – I just did the first two floors originally, the first and second floors. The basement still had dirt from 1811 – not quite true, because I had cemented the (40:00) floor, but it was very dusty place filled with lots of boxes and stuff like that. Nor had I done the third and fourth floor. But this man, despite the fact that he was wearing this beautiful suit, went from stem to stern in my house and poked through all the corners and things like that.

And his conclusion was that I should do two things. He did not think I had structural damage from I-95, but he said there were two things that I should do. One was in the corner of the fourth floor on the east side of my house, which was attached to my east-side neighbor. And he said I should do some repairing there and also, I should put up some bolsters or something to bolster the wall of the basement of the (41:00) foundation. I never really quite understood that.

So then, I guess he told me, or I think probably Ted Nickles told me some guy to get in to do the repairs. They did the repair on the fourth floor, and I remember asking them what should I do and when should I do it in the basement. And they said, “Well, that’s something you can do, you know, at any point.” Or something like that. I had no money, and I didn’t still understand what I was supposed to do or really even why I was supposed to do it. All of the years I kept thinking, “What am I supposed to do and when am I supposed to do it?” Well, then bricks began to come out of the exterior of the house near the street level, by the door, the front door.

DS: ‍What time are we now? (42:00)

NV: ‍Now we are in late ’99. And so –

DS: ‍The bricks were falling?

NV: ‍They were falling out of the house, falling out. Actually, that had been going on for a period of time. But at that time, I had a psychotic psychiatrist living on the east side of me, and she would do things like threaten to kill me and throw eggs at the back of my house. I thought she was doing something. But then, toward the end of ’99, I couldn’t get out of my front door. Mind you, I had Bed and Breakfast guests coming in and out continuously. By that time, there was a speculator – a house speculator. He bought houses and lived in them and repaired them and sold them. He was living on (43:00) the east side of me at that point, having bought it from the psychotic psychiatrist, who left it with the windows wide open in the back, so that the rain and snow were coming in – a historically certified house – rain and snow were coming in to the house, and she was trying to get even with her husband, from whom she was separated, because he really owned the house apparently. She just left it with the windows open all winter long, and it caused damage, the flooding, in the next neighbor’s house.

Anyway, I opened my door finally, and this neighbor happened to come out of the house and I knew he had repairmen for his business. I said to him, “I can’t get out my front door. Could you get one of your helpers to come and fix it for me?” Then he studied my door (44:00) and said, “Look, Norma, the wall is bulging out there at the street level where these bricks are coming out.” He said, “You have major structural damage.” Major structural damage. He said, “You have to call a structural engineer.”

I remembered Nicholas Giannopoulos, and I called him up, and he was semi-retired, but when he came out the first time, I said, “What do you charge?” He said, “No home-owner can afford me.” He didn’t charge me anything the first time. I called him up, and he had no memory of coming to my house and telling me what I should do in my basement. But he now told me what I should do – that I must bolster, push against, build columns to push against the foundations, etc. And he explained to me that the force of nature (45:00) pushes against the foundation or pushes against the upper part. Anyway, so that the house, which is sitting properly on the foundation, begins to move in one direction, and the foundation in another. And he told me, “This is major structural damage. This is not a big job for the masons to fix this, but it’s going to cost you. It’s going to be a lot for you.” He said, “The work must be done within six months.” He would do the drawings for me and get me a building permit, fortunately get me a building permit, and find a mason – choose a mason – to do the work. So, he said it must be done in six months.

Well, month after month after month went by. And I kept worrying. It is cold winter. Are we going to find ourselves – my Bed and Breakfast guests and I – are we going to wake up (46:00) on the street, having fallen out of the house? And finally, then, in March of 2000 – actually I wonder if it was March, because in March he was writing me this proposal in March; so actually it might have even been later. Because I remember the masons were actually working in April, because I had so many guests coming in and out of my house, and they had to go in and out the alley gate. And they had to put the steps back in so they could step into the house and then take them off again.

Anyway, so what the masons did – Nicholas had done the drawings, and he mandated that they must take up the sidewalk and dig by hand all the way down to the base of the foundations. No, first they had to build these walls – these columns of cement blocks in my basement to push against the foundation wall. First, that’s what they had to do first. They built these columns of cement blocks. Then they took up the sidewalk and by hand, as per his specifications, dug down to the base of the foundation, and piled the earth in front – (47:00)

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

NV: ‍So after they dug down – they built a wall – after they had taken away all the dirt and the bricks from the sidewalk and dug down to the foundation, then they built a wall in front of the foundation wall. Then they put the earth back. Then they put the sidewalk back and the steps back. Oh, I forgot. Then they put, actually, they had to build ten rows of new bricks, historically certified bricks, from the street level up for ten rows across the front of the house, because they had to replace the bricks. And they told me they had to go through tons of bricks to find suitably historically certified bricks. And they reset – I have a little window that’s at the basement level, with a header on (1:00) it – it’s a marble header, I think. They took that off and reset it, etc., I guess, up to the height, the top height of this window. They had to do those ten rows of bricks.

They did that, and then Nicholas Giannopoulos had specified that they should put one support rod – I don’t know what it’s called. It’s those things that you see in many historically certified houses have two of them at the second-floor level. Well, he specified one for me, and the masons commented that that was unusual. But to do that, they had to cut a long strip in the middle of my living room ceiling. And then they inserted this rod. So then I had to repair the ceiling and repaint it. I guess that was the extent of it.

DS: ‍The group that did this restoration is – (2:00)

NV: ‍Masonry Preservation Group. Very good. I guess they were in New Jersey, but they were very good to deal with. Mechanicsville, New Jersey.

[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
September 15, 2009
Van Dyke, Norma
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources