Robert J. Gill

Robert J. Gill (1921-2017) had an acute interest in history that enabled him to research and appreciate the history of his Society Hill house, located at 713-715 Spruce Street. He bought it in 1970, had some renovations done, and moved in with his wife, four children, and his mother in 1971. He lived there until his death The house’s size and location suited him well. He was on the staff of nearby Pennsylvania Hospital, and the house was large enough for both his practice, which took up the ground floor, and for his family, who occupied the upper floors. Bob oversaw the modernization of the property to accommodate his 20th-century needs without spoiling the mid-19th-century historical fabric of the house, which had largely been preserved. He also personally undertook research on the house and the five previous owners, who included a China merchant, Nicholas Biddle, a physician turned homeopath, and the American Catholic Historical Society. He tells stories about each owner, what they did with the house, and the ways they related to the neighborhood, the city, and the world. These tales have a certain Victorian flavor and include a pygmy elephant, an underground tunnel in the backyard, a beautifully bricked cistern of undetermined size, a privy attached to the house but with a separate entrance and a spring-loaded toilet seat that flushed automatically, and an enormous vault under the sidewalk in front of the house. Bob Gill also relates incidents about Society Hill in the 20th century, including some of the more heated controversies about preservation of some of the historic buildings in the neighborhood and the characters who played significant roles in these disputes.


DS:      The date is October 30, 2006. This is Dorothy Stevens interviewing Dr. Robert J. Gill, who lives at 713-715 Spruce Street. Dr. Gill, could you tell me when you were born and where?

RG:     I was born in Philadelphia in 1921.

DS:      Wonderful. And when did you first come to Society Hill?

RG:     Well, I came as an intern in 1948 to Pennsylvania Hospital. And my wife and I had a little apartment on Eighth Street near Pine, with two other hospital residents. We lived there for, oh, three years. We then moved out to the Germantown/East Falls section. The – and I had never heard of the term Society Hill until I came back. (1:00)

DS:      Which was when?

RG:     In 1955. I stayed at the hospital for training until 1953. I had to go back to the army for a couple of years and then came back and lived out in East Falls near Penn Charter School until we moved down here in 1970 – we actually moved in in 1971, because the house had been fixed up during 1970.

DS:      Why did you decide to come back to Society Hill?

RG:     Well, most of my work and office was at Pennsylvania Hospital, and commuting was not all that far. It was only nine miles from where we lived, but the traffic (2:00) was terrible. I figured my life was going to be shortened. I love the city anyway, and so did my wife. I had been looking for a house as soon as the children were big enough to do their own commuting to school. And –

DS:      How many children did you have?

RG:     I have four.

DS:      Four children. And they all grew up here?

RG:     Well, they were teenagers when we came here. So my daughter would go and get on the train and go out to Shipley. The boys went to Penn Charter. So it worked out. I did actually have two kids go to St. Peter’s [School] for a couple of years. The house was full, this old place. We had four children, and we had a little apartment (3:00) in the back for my mother. We had a full house, because I had this section for my office. The reason – that was the other point of making me move. I hated commuting. And I’m sure that getting rid of that added years to my life. The hospital said they were going to tear down our office building, where Dr. Fisher and I were working together. And so he went west to Ninth and Spruce, and I came east from Eighth and Spruce to here. I’d always admired this old house for years, all the years I was here before. It was wonderful to watch the changes occur. As I say, when I first came I hadn’t heard the word Society Hill and the redevelopment. And after I got back, even though (4:00) I didn’t live here, I was able to be a member of the then SHARA – they called it the Society Hill Area Residents’ Association. It was the predecessor to what we have now.

DS:      And how was that different from what we have now?

RG:     Well, at that time, the issues were different. They were – the city and Redevelopment were trying to – the Historical Commission – were trying to get people to fix their houses, at least on the outside. If they didn’t want to do that, they were asked to get out, you know. I would go to the meetings, and they would be raucous and noisy, and I would go to them just to see what was happening. You would see (5:00) people who had grown up here, and their sons had grown up and gone to the suburbs. And old folks didn’t want to do anything to their houses. Redevelopment or whoever it was would offer them very low interest – three percent or something – to fix up. And the sons and daughters would come in and say, “My mother is 80. Why does she want any kind of a mortgage?” And they would scream and yell, and they almost came to fistfights sometimes. It was tough place. [Laughs] So, after I went away to the army and came back, things were really moving along. I don’t know when they changed names on the Civic Association, but it’s been much more genteel, although you may not think so. They’ve had some pretty good fights, but not like (6:00) those early days. [Laughs] It was tough. It must have been hard on somebody that grew up and had maybe a little store on the corner and lived above [indecipherable]. You saw the pictures, I’m sure,

DS:      What was the condition of this house when you bought it?

RG:     It was not chopped up into apartments, thank goodness. It was seedy. It was not modernized. American Catholic Historical Society had owned it for, well, since 1895, when Dr. Kitchen died.

DS:      Kitchen? K-I-T-C-H-E-N? (7:00)

RG:     He was a favorite of mine. I’ll tell you why, if you want to know, later. Because he grew up in the neighborhood. The American Catholic Historical Society had been here all those years. They used it as a library and had meeting rooms. It was all one great big room on the first floor in the front to the back of the main building. And there were bookcases on every wall of the house. Well, they wanted to get closer to St. Mary’s, because the tourists were coming to St. Mary’s, and they wanted them to see the Historical Society. So they made a swap. They gave this to the Redevelopment, or sold it to them, I guess. And then Redevelopment Authority got the old house right (8:00) across from St. Mary’s where there’s a famous house, the Cadwalader House, I think.

DS:      On Fourth Street.

RG:     On Fourth Street. And they’re down there now. They didn’t leave much except their book cases. Very little plumbing. Very little electricity. The caretaker family had raised a family here. And one day, when we’d been here a year or so, the doorbell rang, and a very nice young couple said, “Can we come in and see what you’ve done?” And it turned out, one of them was the son of the caretaker who had lived here. He said, “We got married here, had our reception here.” We had a nice chat. (9:00)

DS:      So you had to replace all the plumbing and the electricity?

RG:     Oh, yes.

DS:      And the kitchen? Bathrooms?

RG:     Yes, the kitchen was not much. They had just a little kitchen. And there was only one little bathroom. A powder room.

DS:      For the whole house?

RG:     There was a powder room on the second floor, and another one on the third. Just powder rooms, that’s what they were.

DS:      No shower or tub.

RG:     But there was a small bathroom on the first floor, back, for the family. And after they left, a wonderful priest became the overseer of the place. I’ve forgotten his name. [Narrator later said it was Father Bartholomew Fair.] He had a seminarian living here when I came to look at the house. They were growing corn in the back yard. I don’t know how they did all that. At any rate, it had to be really done over. But fortunately, it had not been cut up. That’s the point. (10:00)

DS:      And the floors were original? And the fire places?

RG:     Yes.

DS:      So a lot of things had been saved.

RG:     Now, this shows that they once had hot air heat. [He points to an altered fireplace with a marble insert surrounding a grill.]

DS:      This fireplace?

RG:     Yes. Dr. [John] Cotter – I don’t know if you knew Dr. Cotter. He was – he did what Charlie Peterson did. With the park service and was an archaeologist. He’s the man who dug up the Athenaeum’s back garden, because it was the Walnut Street jail’s workshops. He did an archaeological dig there. Did you get in on that at all?

DS:      I did not.

RG:     It’s been published.

DS:      And it’s Carter? Dr. Carter? (11:00)

RG:     Cotter. C-O-T-T-E-R. He’s nationally known. He finally ended up living in Logan Square. I don’t think he lived down in this Society Hill area. At any rate, he said, “Leave that. It’s a piece of the house history,” which was his big interest. He said, “It shows that it was hot air heat.” And you can see the evidence of that in the cellar. There was more than one furnace. They would stick them in underneath the fireplace above and blow the hot air out.

DS:      Through the chimneys.

RG:     Yes.

DS:      Are any of the fireplaces the old, original, wood-burning fireplaces, or are they all converted to –

RG:     No, no. By the time I got here, they were all showing signs of this. (12:00) This one comes straight up through the floor. Some of the others came up the chimney and out the side. And you could see the duct work, I mean, the grillwork. But most of the chimneys were workable. I mean, the fireplaces were workable. We only used two of them, too much trouble to carry a lot of ashes. [Laughs] I don’t do that anymore.

DS:      So you bought the property, then. You restored it yourself, right?

RG:     Yes. With an architect, yes.

DS:      Who was your architect?

RG:     Um ….

DS:      It’ll come to you. How about – you bought it from the Redevelopment Authority. Could I ask how much you purchased the house and the land for? (13:00) Do you remember?

RG:     Oh, I’d rather not get into that. It wasn’t a whole lot, really.

DS:      This is 1972.

RG:     Yes.

DS:      And you did not consider it pricey.

RG:     No, they knew it had to have a lot of restoration, in the way of electricity, the basics. So they kept the price reasonable.

DS:      Is this considered a double lot or just an extra-large?

RG:     Double.

DS:      It is a double lot.

RG:     In 1800 it was a triple lot with 711 to the east.

DS:      Do you remember the real estate taxes on the property then? Were they –? Certainly nothing like they are now.

RG:     They didn’t pay anything, those fellows, the Catholic Historical Society.

DS:      Yes, but you.

RG:     My taxes were low the first year. I forget what it was.

DS:      Three? Four?

RG:     But it’s gone way up. Terrible. (14:00)

DS:      Do you remember the scope or the cost of the first contract to restore the property? Was it enormous?

RG:     Hard to say, because it changed every month. [Laughs]

DS:      How so?

RG:     Well, what they called extras. Because of change orders or something, they call it. And that ran it up. It almost doubled the price.

DS:      You weren’t living here when you were having ….? No.                     

RG:     The only real architectural changes had to be to get this ready to be a waiting room, consulting room and examination rooms. We saved the architectural features.

DS:      To make it into your office.

RG:     The extent of any real alteration. Otherwise, we kept it as original (15:00) as we could. Except we added bathrooms and a new kitchen, plumbing and electricity.

DS:      So the first floor front room was the waiting room.

RG:     For me, yes.

DS:      For your practice. And then you would consult with a patient here. And then you had examining rooms across the hall.

RG:     Our living quarters were on the second floor. The same arrangement of rooms. Kitchen on the second floor looking out over the garden.

DS:      Nice, big rooms.

RG:     We didn’t want to cut them up because cornice work was all here. That had to have some repair. Odds and ends of it had to be patched.

DS:      Repaired, right. But you liked it, and it was here for you. Wonderful. You have quite a jewel.

RG:     The house, it’s been quite nice. It’s getting too big for me now. (16:00)

DS:      Well, you have to think you’re just maintaining it for the next generation. Did you have any particular difficulty with the Redevelopment Authority? You said –

RG:     Not really. I tried to buy the house about three years before they let me have it. They were stalling around and stalling around. I think they were still dealing with the Catholic Historical Society. I don’t know why, but it took at least three years to get it. I put in a letter that I was interested in it; put me on the list.

DS:      Did they increase the price from when you first put your name on the list until when you finally were able to purchase it? No. The price stayed the same. (17:00)

RG:     Yes. Father Bartholomew Fair was the priest. He was a scholar. He was a librarian at the seminary out – the Catholic seminary out at St. Charles. And we got to be pretty good friends. He knew a lot about the house, and he was a very fine gentleman. He told me that the key – the original key to the front door was sitting on a shelf. Of course, when I got here it was gone.

DS:      Oh!

RG:     The original lock is still in the front door, but not the key. A few things (18:00) like that happened. There were some other old locks with the keys. The keys must have been removed when the redevelopment people and others came through.

DS:      But somebody, between the time you bought it and took purchase removed the keys, the antique keys.

RG:     Not all of them. Just some of them. Parnam. Edward Parnam was the architect.

DS:      OK! Edward Parnam. P-A-R ….

RG:     N-A-M. Parnam. He was the architect, and he was a lovely man.

DS:      And what did he need to do for you?

RG:     Well, he laid out [plans] for doing the bathrooms and the kitchen and rooms for (19:00) the office.

DS:      And he led the restoration of what was here? The fireplaces are original? The floor?

RG:     All the fireplaces. There was a fireplace in every room. I don’t know how they handled it, because when we got here there was not a damper in any one of them. Can you imagine fireplaces with all the heat going up in the old days? I don’t know how they handled all that. I guess they had a lot of help or something. But some of them had covers, tin covers, high Victorian decorative covers. We still have those. We tried not to throw anything away. But we still have an old, original mantle that had to be taken out of one room. (20:00)

DS:      Wonderful.

RG:     And we found [Laughs] we found the original shutters in the attic, in the crawl space, with their original coat of paint. And they had just been taken off and put up there.

DS:      They’re still up there?

RG:     They’re on the house! On the front!

DS:      You restored them.

RG:     We didn’t have to restore them. We just had to paint them. [Laughs]

DS:      So, there were no shutters when you came? They’d taken them off and left them off.

RG:     The shutters had been taken off the back. They disappeared. They must have cut the wood up for something.

DS:      But they weren’t with the house. (21:00)

RG:     No, but you could see the dogs and hinges and whatnot. I didn’t have to put shutters on the back. Redevelopment wanted shutters on the front. Thank goodness, we had them. The contractor took a look and said, “That was an expensive find.” [Laughs] There are eleven windows out there. I don’t know what he’d charge now.

DS:      Did you have any trouble with the contractors that you used?

RG:     Oh, I would say everybody does. They get behind and start some other job somewhere else. The promise of doing this in a hundred working days turned out to be a little over a year.

DS:      But eventually you stayed with the same contractor and he did finish?

RG:     Yes.

DS:      And he did a good job, as far as you’re concerned, without – (22:00)

RG:     Pretty much. In retrospect, you know, you think, “Why didn’t I put more outlets for electricity here or there?” You know, you live and learn, when you live with it a while. We’ve had other things done since to correct our original mistakes. Everybody does that, too, from what I’m told.

DS:      Who owned the property before the Catholics?

RG:     Yes, I’ve got this right back to the day one. This house was built – not by [Nicholas] Biddle, as the sign out front suggests. It was the Biddle family that insisted on the wording of that sign. [Indecipherable.] A lot of people think the Biddles built the house, but they didn’t. The house was built by a China merchant named (23:00) Whitton Evens. E-V-E-N-S. Get that?

DS:      Yes. Chinese, with the name Evens?

RG:     He was a Quaker.

DS:      Ah, a Quaker.

RG:     And he was a Quaker merchant. And when things changed in the merchant shipping from Philadelphia, he lost out and sold the house. And that’s when – the house was built between 1810 and 1820. It wasn’t here in 1810. It was here in 1820. The City Directory shows his address here in 1815. Now, at that time, the place next door, 711, Dr. Niedermeyer’s house, was connected. It was part of this. (24:00)

DS:      Part of this house?

RG:     Yes.

DS:      So 711 was part –

RG:     I should say it was before this house.

DS:      Oh.

RG:     I imagine Whitton Evens lived there until he finished this. I don’t know who the builder was or who the architect was. And for a long time they were connected, these two houses. So you had a triple width. And it was about in 1840s something, after the 1840s they separated. Whitton Evens was the first owner, and he got out of it in 1828. He moved to Mantua, where he died. Even though the ships and the ship captains (25:00) had their big days. He and his brother were in the shipping business, which declined. And then Nicholas Biddle, the banker, bought the house.

DS:      He bought it from whom?

RG:     He bought it from the estate. He lived here for, oh, 12 years. When his bank went under, he moved out to Andalusia. He got it in 1828, he only lived here till about 1840 or ’41. When the bank went under. And then (26:00) after him there was a fellow I don’t know anything about. Shaw. Lived at 11 th and Spruce. Shaw was an “agent and collector,” according to the City Directory.

DS:      Shaw. S-H-A-W?

RG:     He only had it for a few years, four or five. And then, then we get Dr. Kitchen. Wonderful Dr. Kitchen. James Kitchen, who was born down around Front and Spruce. I have some pictures here, too, if you want to see them. Dr. (27:00) Kitchen got this in 18 – about 1854, ’53, ’54. He was a physician, and when he died, he was the oldest physician in Pennsylvania, and maybe in the United States. He was born in 1800, down there at Front and Spruce. The 100 block, now. And he died in 1894. And he lived in this house from about 1854 until he died.

DS:      In ’94. (28:00)

RG:     Yes. Now, Dr. Kitchen was the son of – I forget his father’s name, but he is buried in St. Peter’s.

DS:      St. Peter’s Churchyard?

RG:     He ran the old coffee house, historical coffee house at Second and Walnut, where the City Tavern is. Then they moved it into the new Merchants’ Exchange Building and called it the Merchants’ Coffee House. That was his job. He was English-Welsh background. Dr. Kitchen grew up down there, went to Penn (29:00) Medical School, went to Pennsylvania Hospital as a student. He tells how he used to walk by and pick blackberries across the street. The hospital had a farm across the street. There were no houses there in his day. And he became the physician to the Lazaretto. The ships would come in, and they would –

DS:      The Lazaretto?

RG:     Yes. You never heard of that?

DS:      No.

RG:     You should. They’re trying to save it. It was like a – not like Ellis Island, (30:00) really. It would take sick people off the ships and keep them there, not let them come into the city. It was called Lazaretto, I guess after Lazarus or something.

DS:      And where was it located?

RG:     Down the river.

DS:      Oh, south?

RG:     Yes.

DS:      In the Delaware River? It was an island, is it?

RG:     Well, it was – I don’t think it was an island. There’s a big drive to try to save it. I have a print-out. Gretchen Worden, who was at the College of Physicians Museum, was very big in working on that. She just died not long ago. But the Lazaretto was where they would take sick people, supposedly sick people off the ships, and keep them there. It’s a quarantine place. Well, he was the doctor of that for a long time. (31:00)

DS:      In the 100 block of –

RG:     No. ‘Cause he didn’t come here until 1854. He apparently got an illness. Couldn’t get better. Couldn’t get better. And homeopathy was coming into vogue. When would that have been? 1843 or something. And he went to a homeopath. And at that point he got better. And he quit regular medicine and became a homeopath. He was read out of everything in medicine in those days. He became a homeopath. And he and a professor – a surgeon – from Penn did this together, and it was not done. But he did it. [Laughs] He was very popular with it. And he lived and practiced homeopathy in            (32:00) this house. He had his office here, I guess in the front. Never married. Lived here till he died. The house was full of sisters and nephews [sound of telephone ringing]. He had a house full.

(Tape is turned off, then on again)

RG:     [Indecipherable] James Kitchen, M.D. And they owned it from 1853 to 1895.

DS:      Say that again?

RG:     James Kitchen, M.D., owner, 1853, until his estate cleared out, 1895.

DS:      OK.

RG:     He was born in 1800, died in 1894. Let’s see. Oh, after he turned to homeopathy in 1839, he became one of the founders of the Hahnemann Medical College. And he was listed as a professor up there. Big oil portrait of him over the – in the (33:00) President’s office. In addition to being the doctor in charge of the Lazaretto, he was also the port physician for a few years, and he was also the physician to the Society of the Sons of St. George, of which he was a member. After he got out of Penn Medical School, he took the usual year in Europe and brought home some things and gave them to the APS [American Philosophical Society] down here. His name is in the APS although he was not a member.

DS:      Then the Catholics would have bought the house from him?

RG:     Yes. Well, from his estate, Yes. As I say, he was the oldest doctor (34:00) in the state at the time he died. Now, you care about, you’re thinking about the house. I’ll just end up. He was buried up here at St. Andrew’s, which is now a Greek cathedral. That was an Episcopal church.

DS:      Here on Eighth Street.

RG:     That big, white church. That was a Strickland church, 1822. And he was buried up there along with his sisters. And I went to see what they had on that. And when the Greeks took it over, they moved all the bodies. [Laughs] Sent them out to St. Andrew’s, which was the name of that church which was all transferred to (35:00) the divinity school in West Philadelphia, which is now part of the University [of Pennsylvania]. And then the divinity school closed, and they moved them all again [Laughs] out to the Church Farm School in Chester County. So much for your last resting place. Forget about it.

DS:      In Exton, PA, is where he ended up?

RG:     Yes, out there somewhere.

DS:      But his father is down in St. Peter’s Churchyard. And he’s still there. [Laughs]

RG:     Yes, he’s still there. And Dr. Kitchen was apparently baptized and confirmed over at Christ Church. I have no idea if he went to church after that. I’m telling you all this, because I hope to write him up a little bit some time. I find him fascinating. So that’s when the Catholics took it over and had it until I bought it. So there (36:00) haven’t been many owners: Evens, Biddle, Shaw and Kitchen and the Catholics and me. That’s not very many in 200 years.

DS:      Let’s back up. Evens’ first name was –?

RG:     Whitton. W-H-I-T-T-O-N.

DS:      So start – go through that litany for me again?

RG:     Whitton Evens was the fellow who had the house built. He was a China merchant. He’s the one whose captain – one of his captains of a ship, the Asia, I think – brought back the elephant that used to live in my back yard.

DS:      An elephant?

RG:     An elephant.

DS:      Lived in your backyard.

RG:     That’s not a legend. It’s true.

DS:      For what purpose? (37:00)

RG:     Well, this ship’s captain brought home this elephant – must have been a pygmy elephant – and a Hindu keeper, as they called him. And the elephant lived in the back yard. [Laughs]

DS:      Maybe that’s why your garden is so gorgeous. [Laughs]

RG:     But it was a big place then, you know. You had the house next door and this, and probably there were no other houses up here then. When Whitton Evens got out of here in 1828, the elephant went to the menagerie at Eighth and Chestnut. There was a menagerie there or a circus, and legend was that the elephant got loose and ran around Washington Square and had to be shot. The actual story I looked up in the newspapers. I said, “I’ve got to find out the truth on this.” And I went through the papers, and (38:00) every day there would be a little squib, “Ride Columbus the Elephant. Five cents a ride.” And then one day, there was a new headline in the paper. The elephant went crazy and killed his keeper. Or damaged his keeper before he died. And then that seemed to be the end. And from then on, there’s no more “Ride the Elephant for Five Cents” in the newspaper. But it didn’t say that he got away and ran around Washington Square like the legend said. I’ve got that written up. [Laughs] Well, the fact that makes it true about the elephant being in a menagerie – that – the newspapers had that. The other part about the elephant in the back yard, comes from the nephew of Dr. – of Mr. Whitton Evens, (39:00) who wrote a paper, “The Autobiography of John West Nevins,” and I can’t find it anywhere. And I’ve looked all over. And one of Evens’s captains brought the elephant back. And he says the elephant was later stuffed and went to Peale’s Museum. [Laughs] He said, “I had many a ride on the back of that huge pet from the extensive grounds of this domicile.” They also brought with them an eastern tortoise, a very large (40:00) tortoise, and the kids would ride around on the back of the tortoise.          

DS:      [Laughs] OK. So we have Evens sold it to somebody else ____________.

RG:     He lost it. It went to Biddle. He actually lost it. It went to the sheriff, and Biddle got it.

DS:      OK.

RG:     And then this Charles Shaw had it for just a few years.

DS:      After Biddle and Evens.

RG:     And then in 1853, Dr. Kitchen got it. And then the Catholics got it. (41:00)

DS:      A wonderful history for a beautiful house.

RG:     I said that street back there, Manning Street, used to be called Orange, Orange Street. There was an Orange Street Meetinghouse at the corner.

DS:      At Eighth and Pine 

RG:     Where the Farm Journal is. And they wanted a burial ground, and so they bought land at Seventh. And they were only able to put two burials in it, because the water came up, Dock Creek came up and got ‘em. So that was the end of their burial ground. I don’t know when the Quakers left that place. I didn’t follow that up. So that’s a (42:00) piece of the neighborhood history. I just learned there was another Quaker meetinghouse at Ninth and Spruce. I just read something about it the other day.

DS:      So the Redevelopment Authority insisted that you put the shutters back on.

RG:     Oh, yes.

DS:      And isn’t the front of the house stucco?

RG:     Yes. They insisted I keep it. It’s brick underneath.

DS:      It’s brick underneath, but as long as you’ve known the house it was always stucco?

RG:     I’ve known the house since I first came here in 1948. Just passing by, it was always stucco. _________________.

DS:      And was it this color?

RG:     It was different, a whitish – white.

DS:      Dirty white. (43:00)

RG:     But the – I don’t know – the shutters were sort of an ochre, in that they were dirty. That was the original color, yellowish.

DS:      And the steps are original?

RG:     Oh, yes.

DS:      Beautiful steps. Wrought iron.

RG:     Oh, Yes. Wrought iron railing, marble steps.

DS:      That was about all they required that you do on the outside, right?

RG:     Now the question is why they insisted on keeping the stucco and not taking it off. I think I know, because I saw at 11 th and Spruce where they did that, and what they have is destroyed brick underneath. To make the stucco stick on they hatch it. They (44:00) make chips in the brick [indecipherable]. I’m sure if I took the stucco off I’d have terrible-looking brick underneath. Thank God I didn’t have to do it [indecipherable]. I don’t love stucco completely, but what they told me I had to do.

DS:      It’s handsome, it’s a handsome house. Yes.

RG:     If it’s painted up right, it’s OK.

DS:      I think we have covered all my questions. Unless you have any other favorite stories? I mean. Like that elephant! That just came out! Anything else like that that you can think of? [Laughs]

RG:     I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of fun down here. I had a lot of troubles, too. But you know, like losing the electricity the other day. Losing it. I did that sidewalk over in brick just two years ago. Now it’s busted up.

DS:      But you had a practice here until just – what? – not too long ago.

RG:     Well, the end of ’98, December ’98. (45:00)

DS:      You retired

RG:     Yes, quit then.

DS:      And when did your wife die?

RG:     She died in 1983. And my daughter was still here. The boys were gone, but my daughter was still here. A couple of years till she got married. I’ve been alone ever since.

DS:      And the children when you moved into the city, they thought it was good, what you were doing? Or were they not sure?

RG:     Well, you know, they were young teenagers. They didn’t want to leave what they had. You know, they didn’t want to change schools. They didn’t want to do any of that. You know how kids are. They’ve gotten to like it very much. I’m not sure any of them would want to have it and live in it. Well, yes, I think some of them would, but I don’t think they will . (46:00)

DS:      You think they might like to live here but you don’t think they will.

RG:     Not all of them. One of them, absolutely said he didn’t want the house. Too much house. Not his style of life. He lives out in Chester County. [Laughs] But they like it here. They’re down here a lot. I think my daughter is the one who would really like to live in town.

DS:      Her children are grown?

RG:     Teenagers.

DS:      Anything else about the house that you can think of?

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

RG:     [He’s talking about the connection between 715 and 711 Spruce Street] ……… and beforehand, there was a lady who ripped the plaster off her wall at 711 to bare brick. That’s what she wanted. And what that showed us was where the connection was between the two houses. You could see where the door had been. It was right in that area.

DS:      In the front room. It was in the front room.

RG:     My memory is faulty. Maybe right there. You go tapping around, you could find it. So that was interesting.

DS:      Yes.

RG:     Father Fair thought there was an underground tunnel somewhere. I don’t know why, but we did find a – at one point we had a tree right there [pointing to the back yard], and it got too big. We had to take it out. It broke my heart, because I put it in. When they put the tree in, they hit a bricked-in area, and there it was. It was a tunnel that (1:00) went right from there in that direction. I think it may just have been –

DS:      From this back – first floor room, in the cellar, in the cellar, towards the Niedermeyer house at 711 [Spruce St.] –

RG:     But I think probably it was a – what do you call those places where you keep vegetables? Something cold.

DS:      A cellar? Root cellar?

RG:     Yes, a root cellar. So that’s still there. And the other thing –

DS:      But this father, what did you call him? Father Fair?

RG:     Father Fair, the priest.

DS:      The priest, Catholic priest, said that, was he alluding to –?

RG:     He was very vague, and I shouldn’t even have brought it up, because (2:00) I don’t believe he knew what he was talking about.

DS:      But he thought there was an underground connection between the two houses.

RG:     That may be what he was referring to. I’m not sure it was a connection. I don’t know how far it went. We didn’t dig deep to put the tree in. Where the rose garden starts, I was trying to plant a bush, and I hit something hard and found a concrete or a stone circle with a little hole in the center and this beautiful, bricked-in – what? – privy  or cistern or whatever. And we dropped a line down there and didn’t find the bottom. [Laughs]

DS:      How far do you think you went? (3:00)

RG:     I don’t know. [Laughs] It may have gone into Dock Creek, for all I know. But, you know, the top of it was about 18 inches below the level where I was trying to put this bush. I closed that up. The hole in the center was covered with a brick.

DS:      But you didn’t fill it in.

RG:     Oh, God, no. It was a beautifully bricked circle. My son keeps promising to bring his camera and drop something down there. The other thing that’s fascinating that I forgot to tell you is the outdoor privy, I guess you’d call it. You had to go out and turn around and go in another door. And in there was a privy with a spring-loaded seat, so that it flushed. And this had to be Victorian or something. (4:00)

DS:      Amazing.

RG:     Isn’t that interesting? I never saw anything like it, and I wanted to save that valve and everything, but the plumber got it and took it. I was mad. You know, nobody knows anything.

DS:      So this is different from the one that was under the rose bush? This privy –

RG:     Oh, I don’t know whether that was a cistern or a privy under the rose bush. It could have been a cistern, collecting water. I don’t know. I never hit the bottom of it to find out.

DS:      So the privy that you knew about, that was here when you came, was the one. You had to go out the back door and into another –

RG:     Turn around and go into another back door in the back of the house. (5:00) Isn’t that interesting?

DS:      I guess it was their way of separating it from the rest of the house?

RG:     I guess. That is no longer functioning. It’s a tool shed now. [Laughs]

DS:      But it was when you were removing the toilet with the spring seat that it disappeared.

RG:     They had to change that a little bit to make the back bathroom proper. There was a lot of construction. But it was an interesting finding.

DS:      That cistern is very interesting.

RG:     I’d like to know what’s at the bottom of it. One of my boys has one on his property, and he simply got a camera with a light. (6:00)

DS:      Like the plumbers use.

RG:     Yes. And went down. He said he’d do it for me, but he hasn’t come around to do that.

DS:      Get on that boy. [Laughs] Any other wonderful stories about the house or the people that lived here? Or your life here? Your family?

RG:     My life, it was just a city life. I had my office here, and I was on the staff working at the hospital.

DS:      And you never had any trouble with neighbors?

RG:     No.

DS:      You were glad to be here.

RG:     When we first came, the houses above, seven of them, were empty. And we had a problem until we got those – Redevelopment had promised that they were going to be single homes. They backed off on that and allowed the owner who bought (7:00) seven of them, I think, to put apartments in them all. He doesn’t own them anymore. Somebody else does.

DS:      But they are all apartments? So from your house –

RG:     Further up, we have single homes, and down this way we have single homes. Next door to the west, six or seven are apartments. So that was a bit of a disappointment. We were hoping …. And then there was the big fuss about across the street. You know about that, I’m sure. The hospital wanted to tear those down, and Charles Peterson and Dr. Cotter and [another individual] fought to preserve them.

DS:      Ellie Gesensway.

RG:     Gesensway and the lady that lived around in the Morris House, whose name escapes me at the moment, all were fighting, fighting, fighting to save them. (8:00) I have a picture of it somewhere. They had pickets out there one rainy, cold day. There was Mr. – one of my patients – [Justice] Williams. He was a Quaker, lived on Philip Street, and the lady from the Morris House in her full-length mink coat, in the pouring rain, and a whole bunch of young people carrying placards against the [indecipherable]. And the leader of the band was sitting quietly in an automobile, nice, dry and warm.

            [At the request of the narrator a portion of the interview is omitted here.]

            My house was just about getting finished. I was here every single day (9:00) watching these workmen, who would close up at night and lock the doors. And I stood up and took a picture of this. It was so funny. There was the lady carrying a placard. She was a lovely woman. When my wife was sick, she would show up with soup and this and that. And she lived the old life. She had the Morris House. Do you know the Morris House?

DS:      I do.

RG:     It’s a Bed and Breakfast now, and a restaurant across the gardens. The garden’s a lovely place. At any rate, she invited us to dinner at her house, and I looked up, and there was no electricity in the dining room. She didn’t have any electricity. (10:00) I think there were some other people who did things like that down here. They tried to keep it very old and authentic, you know. There was the nice man who was the bird expert from the Zoo.

DS:      Gus Griswald.

RG:     Gus Griswald. He wouldn’t do anything to his house that wasn’t absolutely authentic. He was an interesting man. The other thing that got me interested in this area – in fact, I go to Christ Church. I was on the vestry for many years there. And then Ernest Harding came to town and lived in one of Charlie Peterson’s apartments. And then we bought the Wharton House for the church, for the rectory. I lived through (11:00) the redevelopment of that place. That was really cut up in little apartments you know. It was really in bad shape.

DS:      It’s beautiful now.

RG:     Oh, it’s lovely. It’s gorgeous.

DS:      And that’s right next door to Gus Griswald’s.

RG:     Yes. That’s right. So that kept me in touch for a few years. We had a president of the Civic Association named John Smith. Remember him? (12:00)

DS:      I do.

RG:     Do you ever run into him anywhere?

DS:      I just saw him, like, three weeks ago.

RG:     Oh, really? Is he OK? His wife, Sue?

DS:      He’s fine, and his wife is fine.

RG:     Good.

DS:      Boys are all grown.

RG:     Yes. They live way out, don’t they?

DS:      They do. Villanova.

RG:     When I first came here, he told me, “You’re on the cutting edge.” [Laughs] Because it was just getting going. We were late, compared to you folks down at Third and Fourth Streets. All of us here used to complain that nobody cared beyond Fifth Street. [Laughs]

DS:      You felt like you were on the fringe?

RG:     Yes.

DS:      Were you involved in the Civic Association?

RG:     I was never an officer. I still go. I’m a member. But I haven’t been (13:00) actively involved in it. I contributed to the lights, and I don’t have one. [Laughs] I’m in the position now where the city said, “It’s PECO’s fault. Go to them.” And PECO said, “Go back to the city. Lighting.” Been bounced around.

DS:      Anything else you can think of?

RG:     You go, and I’ll think of more.

DS:      Well, I can always come back. I’m sure we have some more tape here we could add to.

RG:     I can summarize by saying it’s been wonderful living down here. I enjoyed all the time I – I just practiced [medicine] the way I did it. It was perfect for me.

DS:      Medical practice.

RG:     I don’t think you can do it this way. People don’t start out all by (14:00) themselves any more. They get into groups, and medicine has changed so much. It’s hard to do it this way. I guess there are areas where you can, but it worked for me, and I was very happy with it. My colleagues worked together.

DS:      And it was easy walking to work.

RG:     Sure was. That was the other point. I would get home, say, 6 or 7 or 8 o’clock at night, and get a call and have to come back in. And I thought, “If I keep this up, I’m going to die.” So I just decided, as soon as the kids can do their own commuting, we were coming in, as soon as the house became available. It all fell together. I had to get out of the other office, because the building came down.

DS:      Where was that building?

RG:     Right on the corner. It was 801 Spruce Street. There were three houses (15:00) between the corner of Eighth, where I was, and Lying In, the Spruce Building, as they call it now. And they had nurses living in them on the upper floors, and they had doctors on the ground floor. Dr. Fisher and I had the corner of 801 Spruce. [Indecipherable.] We were roommates when we were interns. We’ve known each other from day one. And we’re still good friends. He lives in Haddonfield. His wife just died. A real loss. She was a fine woman. So, as I say, they announced they were going to tear the building down, and those three houses and a new building attached.

DS:      That’s on the northwest corner? (16:00)

RG:     The northwest corner.

DS:      That would have been in the ‘70s.

RG:     Yes.

DS:      Early ‘70s.

RG:     They were just old townhouses, I would say. They could have been saved. Thank goodness these got – these façades, at least, I take a little – I’d like to take a little credit for that, because I was in Birmingham doing some work in their library one summer. And I saw an old brownstone building with its back torn off and a white – ugly white piece was being attached to it in the back. And I thought, “Well, they’re saving (17:00) the façade at least.” I took some pictures of this and brought them home. Showed them to Mr. Cathcart. There were people at the hospital who said, “Maybe we could do it this way.” [Indecipherable.] “That’s a big if, but –.” I’m not sure they did it because of my pictures, but maybe they did it because the squeeze got on them so hard they had to do it.

DS:      Now, Mr. Cathcart left when? When did he leave as head of Pennsylvania Hospital?

RG:     Oh, dear. It’s got to be more than ten years ago.

DS:      Some time in the ‘90s? Early 90s?

RG:     Yes. He was a good administrator. He really was.

DS:      So that’s what they did. What did they call these houses across from you?

RG:     You’re thinking of Portico Row up in the 9, 10 hundred block [indecipherable] (18:00) of Spruce, where on the first day of arriving at the hospital, they said, “Now any of you who are married and need an apartment, do not go on Spruce Street between Ninth and 12 th.” It had a very bad reputation. [Laughs]

DS:      For prostitution.

RG:     That was one of them, yes. And they had rooming houses and that sort of thing. We were warned then. Don’t do that. Now it’s different, of course. Sailors would head to that area. So that’s how we found our little place on Eighth Street. That was kind of a fun place to live [indecipherable]. (19:00)

DS:      Your apartment. That was before you were married.

RG:     No, I was married.

DS:      You were married.

RG:     We had our first child there.

DS:      Is it where the garages are now? Was that where your apartment was? On Eighth by Pine? The Pennsylvania Hospital garage?

RG:     It was below that. That’s Pine, and we were between Pine and Lombard, in that block, the 400 block. There were houses across the street, and houses on our side. What was where the garages are was a parking lot, a flat parking lot for (20:00) the hospital at Delancey. On the fourth floor of our building was a Jewish cantor and his family.

DS:      On the fourth floor of the apartment building where you and your wife lived?

RG:     Yes. It was really an old Victorian house. Elegant living there. It had a full-length mirror between the windows. And the cantor’s wife used to package the garbage and throw it out the window [Laughs] from the fourth floor. They were nice people.

DS:      So they lived up there.

RG:     They lived up there. And when garbage day came, she’d toss it out and it would get swept away.

DS:      The garbage people would pick it up, huh? [Laughs] (21:00)

RG:     Fourth floor. They lived on the fourth floor. We had the first. There were two docs up on the second and third floors.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

RG:     On the front of 715 Spruce.

DS:      You’re talking about the windows and redevelopment.

RG:     Windows had been – the sash had been six over six, and they changed to one big glass kind of thing. But Redevelopment wanted that put back, so we had to put those back. I admit it looks better.

DS:      They’re not original. But these windows back here are original.

RG:     Oh, yes. Original glass, too. Yes, the alterations around 1845 (22:00) changed those windows to what they shouldn’t have been. I guess that’s when they were able to get big glass pieces.

DS:      It was probably in fashion.

RG:     It showed you had money.

DS:      You know, one question I didn’t ask you is what was the reaction of your family and friends – not your immediate family, but, say, your parents, your wife’s family, your friends? What did they say?

RG:     Well, my wife’s family were sort of neutral about it. So was my mother. We had no problem with that. Some of my friends thought I was crazy. [Laughs] Here are some pictures of the “before.” (23:00)

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

DS:      We’re looking at a picture here from the 1940s of the front of the house.

RG:     And another from the ‘50s. The – under – this is a hole. I don’t know what it was for.

DS:      This is a hole underneath the steps above ground.

RG:     Yes. We’ve had it sealed just to keep the cold out. The other thing is that under the sidewalk, there was this beautiful, large vault that you could walk into. It was about seven or eight feet high from the cellar. And the insurance company went up in smoke about that. They said, “You’ve got to fill that in. Seal it, because we won’t insure the house otherwise.” And they envisioned – came up with a big scenario like an oil (24:00) and gasoline truck comes up, lands on the sidewalk in an accident, goes on fire, spills gasoline down this where the coal chute was, where they poured the coal – that’s what that really was – and they envisioned the whole house burning down. Or it was a big, heavy truck crashing through into the cellar. So they said, “Fill it up.” So we filled it up with sand. Poured sand in there for days. Got it filled up and had it sealed. So that’s gone, but a lot of the houses have these coal chutes.

DS:      It’s where they delivered the coal.

RG:     Yes. The only thing that goes through there now is the fire line. The fire department has a line that runs all the way along.

DS:      A fire line? (25:00)

RG:     Yes. A water line.

DS:      OK.

RG:     It’s for the hydrants.

DS:      Hydrants. Yes. I often wondered why they had those holes like that in front of the beautiful steps.

RG:     Well, that was a real working coal chute. We had it sealed off.

DS:      And it was connected to the vault under the sidewalk.

RG:     Yes. It went right into the vault. I had to laugh at the insurance company scenario. It sounded like they had writers on their staff or something.

DS:      Here’s a picture of the house –

RG:     When I came there were trees out there. They were northern ash or something like that. And they all got infected and started to die. And the city said, “We don’t (26:00) have the money to replace them.” We didn’t have Mrs. [Jean] Bodine, the tree lady, working at that time. They said, “You can take them out at your own expense and replace them at your own expense.” We had them taken out all up and down the block. They were infected with something and dying off. My wife was then alive, and she started collecting money from the neighbors to replace the trees. And everybody contributed to that and put the money in a savings fund. And then she got sick and died, and I ended up arranging to get the trees put in. And this is one of the new ones. You see what they’re like out there now. (27:00)

DS:      What kind of trees did you replace it with?

RG:     Pear trees, which is not the thing you do now.

DS:      It was in vogue though.

RG:     Oh, yes.

DS:      It isn’t anymore.

RG:     They got infected. And believe it or not, McFarland came around and said, “They’re infected with a bacterium.” They said, “We have to treat them with streptomycin.” [Laughs] Which sounds just like you and me. And sure enough, they went out there and sprayed them with streptomycin and saved the trees. There’s the place where the new one is now, and the new, little skinny trees. These are in back. Thank goodness I didn’t have to put the shutters back there.

DS:      You were saying?

RG:     It says, Catholic Historical Society, 1913, still had coal and gas. By 1925, (28:00) coal and electricity. 1921 they had bills for gas, electricity and coal. And noted they were wiring the house for electricity. $281. Look at that. So they electrified around 1920.

[End of interview]

Transcriber’s Note: This version of the transcription omits the passages that the narrator embargoed.


© 2007 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
713-715 Spruce Street
Interview Date
October 30, 2006
Gill, Robert J.
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources