Robert Parsky

Robert (Bob) Parsky came to Philadelphia in 1965 to work for Stonorov and Haas Architects. The day he moved into his rented apartment at 262 S. Fourth Street, the building next door, on the corner of Fourth and Spruce Streets, was being demolished. In the next block of S. Fourth Street, there were only three or four occupied buildings. A couple of years later, Bob and his first wife bought 348 S. Fourth Street from the Redevelopment Authority. Bob was not put off by the condition of the building. It was, in fact, precisely what he wanted. He says, “I wanted a shell, and the fact that it was wide open inside, I was able to do with it what I wanted to do…. It was the challenge that a 20-something architect wanted.” He describes some battles with the Redevelopment Authority and his difficulty getting a mortgage. He held down his job at Stonorov and Haas, took on jobs designing renovations of other houses in the neighborhood, and acted as his own general contractor on the renovations of his own house. He wanted to restore the Flemish bond façade of his house. He collected – half a dozen at a time – hundreds of bricks with glazed headers from the ruins of buildings that had been demolished to make way for the houses that were about to be built on Lawrence Court. Bob observes, “There was an extreme enthusiasm in the neighborhood based on the fact that people were building their places and rebuilding a city and going to then live in it… There was a vibrancy, and there were really wonderful people living here at that time.”


DS: This is an interview with Robert Parsky. The date is May 5, 2008 and the interviewer is Dorothy Stevens. The location is 116 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Go ahead.

RP: I came to Society Hill in late May or early June 1965. I came here from New Haven, Connecticut, where I had just completed my Master’s in City Planning [at Yale University]. I came to Philadelphia to work in architecture and city planning. I moved to 262 South Fourth Street, which is just off the corner of Fourth and Spruce. My first wife [Dihanna Parsky] and I lived in an apartment that occupied the basement and first floor.

DS: You rented?

RP: I rented from John Jaworski, who is one of the old-timers in this neighborhood. His father, whose name I have just forgotten, really ran the apartment buildings (1:00) at that time, and John was a young man working for RCA. I came to Philadelphia to work with Oskar Stonorov, at Stonorov and Haas Architects, who were involved in both city planning and architecture, which I wanted to do. I did my architecture at Penn State, graduated in 1960, worked in Washington, D.C., for two and one-half to three years, then went to graduate school at Yale in City Planning and then came to Philadelphia. That’s my introduction to Philadelphia.

I remember the day I came to Philadelphia, which was literally the (2:00) day after graduation. I moved here – 262 S. Fourth Street. I remember that the building next to 262 was being torn down that day, at the corner of Fourth and Spruce. We walked down the street and saw that there were about three or four occupied buildings on the block between Spruce and Pine Streets.

DS: That was all.

RP: That was it. The rest were either buildings that had signs on them for the Redevelopment Authority or were just closed up, or they appeared not to be occupied. You couldn’t really tell.

DS: You rented there. What made you decide to buy and renovate at 348 S. Fourth?

RP: Well, I was living there, I guess, about a year – that was ’65. In ’66 and ’67 we decided to start looking to see if there was a possibility that we could buy a (3:00) property and renovate it into a house for ourselves. In late ’66 we found 348 S. Fourth Street through the Redevelopment Authority, through Ted Newbold.

DS: Did he have a list that you could look at, or –

RP: Well, there were two things. There was a list that we could look at and there were signs on buildings, wooden plaques that said, “Redevelopment Authority Property, etc.” They didn’t say whether it was sold or not sold. I forget the exact information, but you could tell whether it was a Redevelopment Authority property by this plaque on the doors. We looked at a couple of properties, and then walked into this one at 346-348 S. Fourth Street. It was a double width property.

DS: It was originally?

RP: At that time, it was a double width property; originally it was two houses. When we walked into it, it had been Hoffman Iron Works, which was the company (4:00) that made steel stairs. We walked into this vacated building, and the first floor was one room. It was the factory. Part of the first floor was missing and you could see the basement; part of the second floor was missing, and you could see the second floor, part of the third floor, and all the way up. [Laughs] The back of the house was tar paper, as most of the back wall on the first floor was gone. There was just tar paper over wood studs. We went up to the second floor and looked out a window and saw this vacated back yard where they had torn down the rear wings of the property. I didn’t know that when I walked in. I had no idea what it was going to look like. It was just the front portions of the house. The back wings were down, and there was this vacant piece of ground, which I now know is thirty-two feet wide and sixty-some feet deep, that was part of the original houses. The two houses, each one being sixteen feet wide, made it thirty-two feet (5:00 ) wide. The front house was thirty-two feet deep, and then the back wings went another thirty feet before they were torn down. I saw this land back there, and said, “This is it. This is absolutely the property, because of the gardening potential there.”

DS: Your wife felt the same way?

RP: Absolutely. It was wonderful. We then went and said to Ted, “OK, we’re interested in it.” He said, “Well, there’s some people already interested in this property.” I said, “Do you have deposits from them? What do you have?” Ted said, “No, we don’t have deposits yet, but there are some people interested.” I said, “Give me five minutes.” I walked down to Fourth and Spruce to our apartment, came back with my checkbook and said, “What’s the deposit?” He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Yes, I can do that, Ted.” He said, “Well, OK, it’s $500.” I wrote out a check for $500 and handed it to Ted and said, “Let’s go to the Redevelopment offices on Spruce (6:00) Street.” For whatever reasons, he stalled and tried to keep us from starting the purchase. He finally gave me a piece of paper and so on and said, “Well, you have to get approved by the Redevelopment Authority.” I said, “Well, here’s my deposit and I want this property.”

DS: What kind of approval did they want from you?

RP: They had – there was some process that the Redevelopment Authority had to approve that you were qualified to do a rebuilding.

DS: Financially.

RP: Financially and to take over the property and physically get it done. I don’t know what their approval process actually was, but I remember there was one. We were approved, and we got the property. At that time, when I wrote out the check we had $600 in the bank. (7:00)

DS: [Laughs] You gave him $500.

RP: I gave him $500 of it, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with John Jaworski that weekend, because rent was due.

DS: What was rent at that time?

RP: I paid $150 a month, so we were $50 short. [Laughs] I wrote him a check for $150 and paid my rent, and my wife ran home with her paycheck – she was teaching at McCall School – and we cashed the check, and life went on. There we were. We owned a property. I knew that I had to get the money together to buy the property, because I had at some point to settle on the property. You had to – which was $10,600 for the two properties. I think it was $3,000 or $3,500 or something like that to go to settlement. I forget the exact numbers. I immediately started doing moonlighting architecture, and doing some houses around the neighborhood for some people to get the money to do the property. The beat goes on. We did it. We got the property. I did the drawings, of course, as an architect. (8:00)

DS: The fact that the house was in such disrepair or had been used for so long for something else did not bother you? It didn’t scare you?

RP: No, it didn’t scare me, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted a shell, and the fact that it was wide open inside, I was able to do with it what I wanted to do, which was make it a contemporary house inside and restore the street side to historic regulations. The back would be rebuilt contemporary or historic, whichever, and the garden could be. It was the challenge that a 20-something architect wanted; how I did it in those days, I’m not sure, but we did. I did the drawings for it, and took it to [the] Redevelopment [Authority] (9:00) and the Historical Commission. It went through enormous argument, because they wanted the front to be restored to two houses, with two front doors. I said, “Well, the only way that I would do that is the other front door – I was only going to have one that operated – was going to have a sign on it, and that sign was going to say, ‘This door’s a fake. There’s nothing inside this door. There’s a wall. You can’t open this door.’” I was bluffing, of course, as I only wanted one front door. We went around and around for about six months on that with Bob Dyson at the Historic Commission and some other people, until they finally agreed that the concept that I’d come up with, which was a symmetrical front, would be acceptable, and I didn’t have to do the second front door. I said, “If I have to have two front doors, then I want to have the right to (10:00) have an apartment in the building.” I would take the third floor – we didn’t need more than two floors in the house – and have stairs that goes up to it. They said, “You can’t re-subdivide this property back into two properties. You must keep it now as one.” When I bought it, I had to sign an agreement that I would always keep it as a single property, two widths wide but with two front doors. That was my biggest argument back then, but we won. We kept it as a single property. We tore out most of the front of the house and restored it and all those good things and rebuilt the whole back.

DS: The front is beautiful, by the way.

RP: Thank you very much. It has held up. I’ve always worked on it, I mean, constantly working on it. You know, I rebuilt all the shutters myself with epoxy last summer. I really wanted to have a historic structure that was contemporary inside, so we have a two-story high living room. Have you ever been in the property? Dave (11:00) [Stevens] was years back when I was on one of his committees in the Society Hill Civic Association, Parking Committee or something. I think we met there one night. It’s a two-story-high, contemporary space inside. My current wife [Ann Roantree] says it’s 1790s on the outside and 1960s on the inside, but now it’s mid-century classic!

DS: Is it two stories?

RP: No, it’s five stories. There is a basement, three livable floors, and an attic. The first floor is a full first floor. Part of it is lowered into the basement, and then there’s this two-story high partial living room, then the second floor living space, the third floor living space again, a full attic and a full basement. It’s about four thousand to forty-five-hundred square feet over five floors, plus this garden that we’ve developed over the years. The garden (12:00) is a sanctuary, as far as I’m concerned, because of its significant size. You know what a double width means. It’s very important. It’s about this dimension as a first floor – living, kitchen, dining on the first floor. The second floor has master bedroom, dressing room, laundry, bathroom and a library. The third floor has two bedrooms, bathroom and a large studio living space.

DS: It sounds very comfortable.

RP: It’s extremely comfortable. It’s only occupied by two people.

DS: And two dogs?

RP: And two dogs. Always two dogs. Well, first one dog, then two dogs, now two more dogs. There have been five dogs through the property.

DS: Your wife taught at McCall School?

RP: My first wife was the art teacher at McCall School.

DS: When?

RP: 1966 to ’67. Somewhere in that time frame. We came in ’65. I don’t (13:00) remember if she started in the fall of ’65 or not until ’66. I can’t remember for sure. She taught there for two years under a wonderful principal back then.

DS: Tobias. Abraham.

RP: Abraham Tobias. There were two art teachers in the school. Then she left that and went back to school herself, to go to the Pennsylvania Academy [of the Fine Arts]. We’ve been happy in the neighborhood.

DS: Did you have to get a loan?

RP: Yes.

DS: Did you have any trouble getting a loan from a bank?

RP: Nope. None whatsoever.

DS: Even though you were building – restoring – in this neighborhood, you didn’t have any trouble?

RP: No, I went to a bank that was then called Benjamin Franklin Federal Savings and Loan on Chestnut Street. The president of the bank, who was a wonderful (14:00) person, said that he was very interested – they were very interested in loaning to people who wanted to restore properties, or rebuild, or whatever, and particularly interested in people like architects who they were confident would get the work done. I had a contractor give me an estimate – or a couple of contractors – of what it would cost, and I had decided to be my own contractor as well. The bank didn’t agree to that. They said, “You’ve got to have a contractor. We won’t loan it to you – we’ll loan you the money, but you have to have a contractor. You’re not a registered contractor. We don’t know if you’ll get it done for that money unless you have a contractor.” So, I had a contractor who gave me an estimate, and we worked off that estimate, but I was the contractor, and he didn’t do the billings.

DS: [Laughs] (15:00)

RP: The president of the bank, whose name I don’t remember, would come by the house from time to time to see it himself. I remember him coming in one day, and I had a drafting table set up inside the house, because I was also working on other houses out of there. I had to do drawings physically there while working on the property. I recommended two or three other people to him, who all got loans, including Jimmy Lueden, the painter up in Mt. Airy. I remember the president of the bank said to me, “You know, you really need to buy more property, in Fishtown. You need to go to Fishtown. That’s going to be the area that’s going to develop next. Society Hill is done.” This was in the ‘60s. (16:00)

DS: Sixties!

RP: Right. He said, “Go to Fishtown, where you can still get bargains.” I didn’t.

DS: Do you wish you had?

RP: Yes, of course, today, but it did take forty years for Fishtown to come around. I don’t know if early investments would have worked.

DS: Do you know anything about what the house looked like originally?

RP: Yes.

DS: When was it built?

RP: It was built in 1792. It was two houses, and it was built for a pharmacist and somebody else. I’ve forgotten the other person’s name, who owned the other property. I have letters that I found – in a crawl space above the attic – from that time frame, that were orders to the pharmacist. His business wasn’t in the building, but he stashed orders and other mail and other things up in this crawl space. I have some of those letters and bottles and other relics from that time frame, 1790 through the early 1800s. (17:00)

DS: Business letters?

RP: Business letters.

DS: Or personal letters?

RP: Business letters, where he was placing orders to companies for whatevers and then letters back to him saying, “We don’t have any more aspirin available this year,” or something like that. I also had other things that we found up there. It was two houses. I don’t have photographs or anything of the interior of the houses when they were residences. I have photographs from 1860 and one of the exterior of the property when it was – when it was still two houses, with people looking out the window and nuns standing on the corner. I have photographs from the turn of the century when it was becoming a commercial area, and then again probably like 1945 or ‘50 or something, when it was already the ironworks factory. I have photographs just before I bought it, of course, when it was a boarded-up ironworks factory. (18:00)

DS: Wonderful. Why did you and your wife choose the city? Was it just because of your type of education – you needed to be in an urban environment?

RP: Well, I grew up in a town of 3,000 people in central Pennsylvania, Philipsburg, near Penn State. My first wife came from Detroit. We came to the city because I wanted to do architecture and city planning. The head of the city planning school at Yale at that time was Arthur Rowe, who was Ed Bacon’s assistant when they did the master plan for Society Hill. Art Rowe said to me, “I think you ought to go to Philadelphia.” I came from Washington, where I had been working in architecture only. He said, “I think you ought to go to Philadelphia, where there’s going to be a lot happening. There are a lot of good firms there that are doing both architecture and city planning.” He gave me a (19:00) list of three or four firms. I came to Philadelphia and interviewed and had some offers. I came to work here with no ties to Philadelphia other than that.

DS: You and your first wife liked living in the city?

RP: Yes, and I still do. My second wife and I still do. She’s from Philadelphia. She’s from the Fox Chase area, and we love living in the city and always have. We continue always to debate that issue. Should we go somewhere else? Do this? Do that? Whatever. And, here we are.

DS: What was the reaction of your family and your friends?

RP: Well, the family is an interesting reaction. My father owned little clothing stores in central Pennsylvania, and he used to come to both Philadelphia and New York to buy merchandise. He would come to Philadelphia to buy things like suspenders, (20:00) belts, and boots and those kinds of things. He’d go to New York to buy women’s better goods. He’d also come to Philadelphia to go to Botany 500 to place orders for suits, whatever. When I told him where we were going to move in Philadelphia, he said, “You can’t possibly, possibly, live in that area. You know, I go to Third and Market Street to buy, and I wouldn’t walk south of Market Street for anybody.” He said, “You can’t live there.” Well, when I graduated from Yale, that day my parents had gone to New Haven to go to graduation, and then they drove to Philadelphia, to see where we were going to live. I had made them hotel reservations, and they came here and thought we were crazy, absolutely crazy in this deserted part of the city.

DS: He was afraid of crime? (21:00)

RP: He was afraid of crime, I guess, and living in an area that wasn’t yet developed. He came to the U.S. as a little boy from Pinsk, Russia. He was afraid of the big city crime. Not that he was afraid to go to a big city; he would go to Philadelphia and to New York to buy and so on, but he was afraid for us to live in a big city, in that area, even though he had a cousin who was an architect in Philadelphia and other relatives. He had a first cousin who I had only met once in my life, Matthew Ehrlich, who had a practice over near the PSFS Building. In fact, I met him with my father, a social visit kind of thing. My Dad still thought I was crazy for being here.

DS: But your uncle didn’t? (22:00)

RP: My father’s cousin. No, he thought it was a great idea. He said, “If it doesn’t work out at Stonorov’s office, give me a call and I’ll see if I can help you.” It never came to be the case, because I didn’t need to.

DS: How about your mother?

RP: My mother was fine with it. She was originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, which was a big city in Pennsylvania. She never showed that she was afraid of it. My father was the one who was showing it. But then, once we were here, they were fine with it. Once we settled in, they came to visit. They enjoyed it, thought it was lovely.

DS: Your first wife’s parents?

RP: They were from Detroit.

DS: They were used to the city?

RP: They were used to the city. It was no issue with them that I know of. They would come to visit. In fact, my first wife’s mother moved to Philadelphia at one point. Her father used to come and spend long periods of time with us, up to a month at a time. In fact, he died in our home. It was never an issue with them. After (23:00) that initial reaction with my father, it just all seemed to go away. Or if it didn’t go away, he didn’t bring it up. I don’t think it was a problem.

DS: Well, we’ve really gone through a lot of what I was going to ask. The condition in the house – you couldn’t really live there – you continued to rent?

RP: It took two years, almost two years from the time I bought it until the time we moved in. You could not live in it, no, until the work progressed. It was a deserted factory. When we moved into it, it was not finished; we are still not finished. There’s always things you’re doing in a property like that. We made it very habitable, obviously, but I remember moving in with plywood floors, and the finished wood flooring (24:00) was installed. I had hired several men who were working in the neighborhood. In fact, they were working at Dean [Holmes] Perkins’ house at 401 S. Fourth Street [and Cypress] – two brothers, who were bricklayers and carpenters. I met them on the street one day. We talked. I asked them to come down and look at my property and asked if they’d be interested in working weekends and evenings, because I wanted to do work on it myself. We set up a crew of these two brothers and a laborer and myself as the basic crew of four, and over fifty-two straight weeks, we rebuilt the property. I had a mechanical and an electrical contractor, who would come in and do all those kinds of things, but all the carpentry and masonry were done by the four of us. We had a roofer. As I said, (25:00) I was the general contractor, and I was also the general carpenter and would clean and sweep up and make coffee on Sunday morning. [Laughs] We would have neighbors come in to see progress, neighbors such as Joe Ottaviano, who’d pop in every Sunday morning to make sure we were still doing it right, not to offer help but to offer his thoughts and criticisms and whatever. [That’s] not a negative on Joe, because he hired me to do several houses that he was doing, when I was doing houses in this neighborhood. There were a couple of properties that he had purchased or that he had been asked to be the contractor on. He recommended me to people that I might be interested in being considered to be their architect. At that time, I did the house for Luther Brady at 316 Delancey Street, right across from Three Bears Park, and right across from Bertha von Moschzisker. (26:00) I did the re-design of that property. There had been an architect on it, and they couldn’t make the house work. They couldn’t get the stairs to work, so I went in and did a re-design. The exterior was a reconstruction of a house that had been either there or next to it. I’m not sure. The interior didn’t work with the floor to floor heights. He also recommended me to Harry and Rinda Schwartz when they were buying their property at Third and Pine Streets [401 S. Third Street]. I did their house, and Joe was the contractor on that one. I had several others; I guess I did maybe half a dozen houses in Society Hill and Queen Village, as a way to pay for my house.

DS: [Laughs] Any other significant houses that you can remember?

RP: Well, Harry’s was significant.

DS: It was.

RP: Luther’s was significant. I did the house [at 338] South Second Street (27:00) next to the parking lot of the bank at the corner of Pine and Second. There was a house immediately to the north of that parking lot. It’s an all new house.

DS: Set back?

RP: Set back. I did that house and I did the interiors of two or three others in the neighborhood, which I’m not going to tell you who they are, because it’s always been a private kind of thing. Probably six, maybe seven houses, and then I did several in Queen Village at the same time.

DS: This is all in addition to working for an architectural firm?

RP: Yes, I worked for Oskar Stonorov full time and did my property on the weekends and did drawings at night. When you’re in your starting days in architecture, it’s the only way you can make any kind of money to pay for anything. (28:00) You don’t make it on a salary, that’s for sure. I was [also] doing two houses in York, Pennsylvania. One of the main reasons for coming to Philadelphia was when I was in graduate school at Yale, I was commissioned to do two houses in York, Pa. When I was living in Washington, I designed a house in York. It was under construction when I went to graduate school in New Haven. While I was in graduate school, I was contacted by two couples in York, who had bought, essentially, a mountain, and wanted to build two houses, one on either side of it. They saw the house that I had done, that was under construction in York, and asked if I’d be interested in being their architect for these two houses, so I came to York and did these houses. Part of my contract with them was that I had to be able to regularly inspect the construction – not supervise – every couple of weeks; I had to [live] within two or three hours of York. We weren’t going (29:00) back to Washington, so the other city was Baltimore or Philadelphia. Between that and Art Rowe at Yale, those were my decisions how to come to Philadelphia. Every other Friday, I would drive to York at five in the morning to be there at seven in the morning and then get back to Oskar’s office at noon and keep on going. Those houses got built, by the way, but I don’t do houses any more.

DS: You don’t?

RP: I haven’t done houses since then. Not at all. I did a dirty dozen, as I say. That was the end of my housing career. But they paid for the start of my own home.

DS: When you were restoring your own home, did you find any surprises in the whole thing?

RP: Well, everything was a surprise, of course, because it had been fairly well destroyed, when it was turned into a factory. I mean, every time we turned a corner or opened up a wall, something wasn’t there that should have been there. Structurally, it was (30:00) in terrible condition, but the good news is there was a lot of steel left in the house in the basement, from the iron works factory, beams and all kinds of material. I hired a person who could work with welding, and I designed the whole first floor of the house in steel. We built the steel structure inside the property and ran the wood joists between the steel structure. That’s how we were able to do the gymnastics of the building that I have done with the step-downs and -ups and so forth. We have a steel frame inside the brick house, basically. The first floor was all one room except for one steel column holding up a beam, obviously, that was spanning the house and holding up the brick walls that were the party walls between the two houses up above. Once I got the (31:00) property, I tore out some walls and found other steel beams and then really had to – had to do the planning. You couldn’t take those out. They were supporting everything.

DS: The other house?

RP: – the two houses.

DS: Amazing.

RP: The front of the house had steel beams in it, because there were two big garage doors on the front of the building for the iron works factory. Those columns in steel were holding up the second and third floors and the main roof of the house. Buried in the brick walls of the new brick and the old brick is a lot of steel, which some day somebody will find again. When you walked in the front door of Hoffman Iron Works, there was a sign painted on the plaster wall to the left that said, “Hoffman Iron Works”, with a big arrow, a finger pointing to the upstairs, and it was like a vestibule. When I (32:00) rebuilt the house, I covered over that wall with a new wall, but left the sign intact. Someday, in the next historical digs of Society Hill, when the next party goes to renovate and they tear off the drywall and plaster of the first floor – behind it they will find the 1940 signs of Hoffman Iron Works. They’re all still there.

DS: This is H-O-F-F-M-A-N?

RP: H-O-F-F-M-A-N, which was bought by some people who started the Broomall Iron Shop, which is still in business. It’s one of the major circular stair manufacturers in the country. Broomall Iron Works. You can get catalogs and order your steel stairs from them today.

DS: Good to know. (33:00)

RP: There were other surprises, like in the basement. You know, you go to do something, and all of a sudden you realize there’s a buried oil tank that had to be taken out; little things like that. The real surprises were the historic surprises in the crawl space above the attic, where I found these various letters and notes and whatever, and also a lot of implements like tea pots and cups and saucers. People had stashed things over the years above the attic. It was like a trap door, and their household products were there. I have several boxes full of relics from the property, which I always planned to put in a display case but haven’t yet.

DS: They were just storing –?

RP: They were just storing things up there, out of the way.

DS: They forgot them? Or died?

RP: Who knows? They left them when the property was sold. There were (34:00) not that many owners over the years. I have the complete list of all the owners since the day it was built. There couldn’t be more than six or eight owners in a couple of hundred years, interestingly enough.

DS: From 1792?

RP: Yes, to 1965. One hundred forty, one hundred seventy years, something like that. I don’t think it was a dozen [owners]. The interesting architectural thing was that we stripped the ceiling away in the attic to expose the structure of the attic, leave it exposed in parts, and all the beams – it is a typical A-frame – and on the side of each beam was a Roman numeral I, II, III, IV, V, VI, etc. carved into the wood, which told me what happened: to build the house, they pre-fabricated, on the ground, the roof structure, beam by beam, numbered them, and then lifted them into place. We’ve exposed all that so you can see the numbers (35:00) on there.

DS: It wasn’t painted; it was carved?

RP: It was carved into the wood. We had subsequently painted the wood, but the carving was deep enough that all of the numbers exist. All except for one beam, which somewhere along the way was torn out of the house. It’s gone and replaced with something else. All the beams are there.

DS: A lot of history in that house.

RP: A lot of history. Nobody important that I know of lived there.

DS: Do you have the names of everybody –?

RP: I have the names of everybody who lived or owned the houses. Yes. Got that from the Redevelopment Authority. Somewhere along the line the Redevelopment Authority did searches on all the properties when they did title searches. They provided us with a list of every property owner. Maybe somebody’s missing, but as far as I know it’s a complete list. (36:00)

DS: Did they put down what that owner did?

RP: In some cases, yes. It would say, like, merchant or pharmacist, or something like that. I think almost all of them were listed by title as to what they did. I do have that. The neighborhood was interesting. During the construction time, because a lot of people like yourselves and others – I don’t remember what year you came in that same time frame –

DS: Sixty-three.

RP: There you go, one year different – were building their homes. Some people were doing the physical work themselves, but people were working along with contractors. Some people were having it done. There was an extreme enthusiasm in the neighborhood based on the fact that people were building their place and rebuilding a city and going to then live in it, or having it built and going to live in it. There was a vibrancy, and there were really wonderful people living here at that time. (37:00) Young couples, generally. Some single people. There were some people who had lived in the neighborhood and were still staying in the neighborhood, rebuilding some of their properties. Then there were people who weren’t rebuilding their properties, and there were a lot of fights with people about getting things done and so forth. Why was someone allowed not to restore the front of their property? I remember a lot of discussions like that. I found it a very exciting and vibrant place.

DS: Did you work in the Civic Association?

RP: I was a member of the Civic Association for a while. I was chairman of the Parking Committee at one stage, although I was not an elected board member, I don’t think. I became president of Society Hill Synagogue in the early ‘70s. I joined that (38:00) synagogue when I was still living at Fourth and Spruce and then moved into the house in ’69. I bought the house in ’67; moved into it in ’69, and became president of the synagogue at that same – I think it was in ’69 or ’70. The very act of the rebuilding of the Society Hill Synagogue, trying to save that building which was in dire straits and was ready to be condemned, [became my major civic endeavor].

DS: Wasn’t the architect Mr. Magaziner?

RP: Well, Magaziner had worked on it. Prior to my getting involved, he was involved in it, and then we got him re-involved in it, and then hired other architects to work on it along the way. The problem was not architecture; the problem was financial. It was a young community of people who were taking over a synagogue from a (39:00) former congregation, basically, and these were all people like myself who had no extra funds in their pockets, to try to restore a synagogue building. When I became president, for the first time we had a major fundraising drive, and we needed $18,000 to do some immediate structural repairs.

DS: It had been a synagogue before?

RP: Originally, it was a Baptist church, designed by Thomas U. Walter; he had done the dome on the capitol in Washington, D.C, and other significant structures. It became a synagogue at some time in the ‘40s, I’d say. Somewhere in that time. Then, it was not in use, or it was barely in use. New people came into the neighborhood and (40:00) started it up again as Society Hill Synagogue. It was

DS: You had a fundraiser?

RP: We raised $18,000 in one night. I got eighteen people each to pledge $1,000. That’s what we needed to get this structural repair done so we could then go out and borrow some money to get the reconstruction of the place going again. Without that structural work, it was going to be condemned by the city and closed. I found eighteen members, neighbors, and we got it going. (Eighteen means “life” in Hebrew.) We had fundraisers and the artist Edna Andrade, who just recently died, contributed a painting. She did a print, and we had a fundraiser, and everybody got one of her prints who came to that fundraising event. We had a series of fundraising events like that. My energies were at that (41:00) time in the rebuilding of Society Hill Synagogue more than any other civic opportunity. That was my main effort at the time.

DS: There was a real feeling of camaraderie?

RP: Oh, I think the neighborhood was just wonderful, and I think it was different than it is today. People are buying houses today for very different numbers than we bought them [laughs] and then tearing them apart and putting more into them than anybody ever put into the others originally. Amazing, I’m shocked at what’s being done to a lot of properties today.

DS: Can you give me an example?

RP: Oh, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to tell you personal properties. I see properties totally destroyed inside and rebuilt that had been restored and rebuilt, but they’re not of today’s lifestyle. They’re being done again. Somebody’s (42:00) spending $500,000 to $1 million to buy a property and then spending another $300-$500,000 to re-do the property again. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, if there was $100,000 being spent on a property, it was a lot of money. You could buy a brand-new I.M. Pei house for $45,000, so why would you go to the bank and borrow $45,000 and take an old shell and rebuild it, which we all did? You had to borrow money to do it. I think the good news in the neighborhood was that Ed Bacon saw the value of connecting all the institutions with a midblock walkway system. To me it’s the best thing in Society Hill. All the walkways go from religious institution to religious institution. That’s the way to get through the neighborhood, and on the little streets. Then there was the combination of new and restored properties. I think it’s been very healthy that the area was not just a Williamsburg, where it had to be restored, or if you built (43:00) new, you had to look like you were old. I think it’s been very healthy that contemporary and historic have been able to blend together. Not all successful, obviously. [There are] a lot of properties along the way that, as an architect, I would not have agreed to let somebody build, if I’d had the authority to say no, but I didn’t. There are a lot of wonderful properties. I’m sitting in one as I’m talking to you.

DS: Thank you.

RP: Yours has great respect for the street and everything else. There are properties that don’t. Most of the ones that aren’t nice were ones that were done by developers. Individual properties – generally speaking, new ones – were done by people who cared. Then there are a few new ones that aren’t so nice now, too, but we won’t talk about them.

DS: Right. Tell me, did you get to know any of the old-timers? I mean, the (44:00) people who were born and raised here?

RP: Well, yes. You can’t live at Fourth and Pine and not know old-timers. I got to know the entire Ottaviano family, from Ralph to Joe to Fred, the politician, the contractor, the mother and the father. I didn’t know Joe’s father. I knew the grandmother, I mean Joe and Fred and Ralph’s mother. I don’t remember their father. I don’t remember if he died before I came here or not, but she died subsequently. Of course, there were the Jaworskis, whom I was renting from, and there was Louis Brown, who owned half a dozen properties. His son owns the property next to ours, which was never restored, the property immediately north of our house. It never had the front (45:00) restored. There was great photography of it, historically, in the city, in the archives. It’s all there. It was never done. It is a six-unit apartment building, of which he owns half a dozen buildings with six units in them. Marty Brown was his father, whom I knew.

DS: Marty?

RP: Marty Brown. Louis owns them now, the son, and takes care of them.

DS: Because they owned it, the Redevelopment Authority never had jurisdiction over it?

RP: If they didn’t sell them to the Redevelopment Authority, [it] had no jurisdiction over them. They were able to keep them. He has the one at the corner of Fourth and Spruce [329 S. Fourth], at the bus stop there, which he’s fought the city with over many years. He’s started doing things to it which he should not have been allowed to do.

DS: This is on the northeast corner? (46:00)

RP: On the northeast corner, right. He owns the one adjacent to my house. He owns the one [330 S. Fourth St.] immediately adjacent to what was Nancy Grace’s garden. That front is good; that historically is pretty good. It’s not exact, but it’s not bad. He owns…two on Pine Street, one in the 300 block, one in the 400 block, and one in the 200 block. He’s got 25 or 30 units, just like the Jaworskis do, who also don’t care about the historic side of this town or the new side of the town.

DS: Did the Brown family live here in the neighborhood?

RP: They may have, long before my time. Louis Brown, the father, wasn’t living here then. He had all those apartments, and the son and his mother lived somewhere (47:00) in Philadelphia. I don’t know exactly where, but I assume they lived down here at one time, just like the Ottavianos did, and the Jaworskis did.

[End of side one of tape]

[Beginning of side two of tape]

RP: … [Telling about the Singer family] on Pine Street. They had the big house on Pine Street in the 200 block of Pine. There was two sisters and a brother – maybe three sisters; I’m not sure. There was another family, whose name skips my mind on Pine Street, also, but I can’t remember their names.

DS: Onitsky?

RP: No.

DS: That’s good to hear, that you did interact with the people who were here.

RP: Oh, yes. I got to know people through the synagogue. There were the Segals, who lived on Delancey Street, in the 500 block. They’re all gone. They’ve either moved or live elsewhere or died. I think one of them lives in the Hopkinson House. There were some people in the Hopkinson House that I knew. Then there were two (1:00) men who lived at Fourth and Spruce, where I lived, and they lived on the third and fourth floor, while I was living there. They bought a property in Queen Village, which I did for them. I’m still friends of both of them; they’re eighty-five and eighty-six. They’ve just moved into a retirement home out on Belmont Avenue. There were a lot of people around, some of whom are here and some of which aren’t here. Then in the immediate neighborhood, there are those of us who came almost at the same time who are still there right in our block. That’s Fred Ottaviano; he and his father were building then; built Fred’s house [341 S. Fourth St.]. Sam Sadler, right down the street from me [340 S. Fourth St.] There is Lou Criden immediately adjacent to me, at 350 [S. Fourth St.] I’m at 348. (2:00) Lou actually finished his house just before us. Lou’s an attorney, retired now.

DS: Did he restore his house?

RP: He had a new front put on the house, an almost historic restoration, but not quite. Proportions are off, but it is an all new front, done in the style of what was there originally. The four houses, my two, Lou, and the northwest corner property [Fourth and Pine Streets], which CJ Moore had – CJ just sold his house in the last two years and lives in the Hopkinson House (I don’t know if you’ve talked to him or not). [Post interview addition: The current owners have recently painted the shutters, doors and windows in a manner that is not historically correct. Neighbors spoke to them and showed them photos while the work was in process, but they refused to listen. They, in fact, said they would sue any neighbors who interfered. This is not the same spirit that prevailed in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. I hope these results are not the start of a new trend.]

DS: Yes, I intend to. He’s on the list.

RP: Yes. I would think so. He’s still very active in St. Peter’s and so forth. Our four properties were built at the same time, in the same style of architecture. When (3:00) CJ restored his, he moved the door around to 401 Pine Street. That door was originally on Fourth Street, so there were four doors on Fourth Street. Now there are two. [Laughs] Lou was there. Fred was there. Sam was there. I was there.

DS: How about the Physick House?

RP: The Hill Physick House? Well, it was being – it was there.

DS: It was there?

RP: It was there, and it was having work done on it back then.

DS: It was being restored.

RP: It was being restored, I guess, by the group of people that took it over, whatever it’s called now, the Hill Physick Foundation.

DS: Landmarks. [The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks]

RP: Nancy Grace’s house [320 S. Fourth St.] was being done in Oskar (4:00) Stonorov’s office, and I worked on that. I did the pool house for Nancy. Oskar did the main house; Rody Davies was in Oskar’s office. We worked together; then he left and started his own practice and, of course, lived down the street here. [He] did a lot of properties. He did the corner house next to – for Nancy Grace, the one right across from Dean Perkins’s.

DS: The contemporary house [400 Cypress St., at Fourth]?

RP: The contemporary house on the corner across from Dean Perkins’s house, which is now Jean Bodine’s house [401 Cypress St.], [designed by Romaldo Giurgola]. Then there was the courtyard, which is now Lawrence Court. All the properties in that courtyard, that were originally there, were all destroyed by the Redevelopment Authority. They were all torn down to create the land to build that courtyard. There were back houses and front houses and garages, a whole series of buildings. When they were torn down, I went into the basements and foundations of those buildings, before they were completely torn down and filled in to build the (5:00) new houses, and I removed all the glazed headers out of the foundation walls so that I could then use them on the front of my house. [Now] all my glazed headers are originals; I wanted to restore the Flemish bond front. I would go down there at night or early mornings and dig out six bricks one night and two bricks another night and bring them over to the property and chip them and clean them and get my five hundred or seven hundred glazed headers or whatever the God-awful number was. [Laughs] It seems like I did that for about six months. Then, all of a sudden, the bulldozer came and everything was gone. They took it all away.

DS: Were the houses derelict? Did they need to be taken down?

RP: I can’t tell you, because they were all vacant and partially down when I came. They were in the – that was the demolition that was going on in that block, literally the week I came, so I can’t tell you what the houses were like. I don’t know that I ever (6:00) saw a whole house back there. Demolition was already happening, unfortunately. There probably were some good ones tucked in. There always were.

DS: There are still three there.

RP: There are three on Lawrence Street, but the only three. I can only imagine that there were others, because Lawrence Street went through. It ran through to Spruce Street. It became the walkway system by the synagogue there. The same thing happened over at St. Joseph’s Way. Some of those were streets and became ways, which was part of Ed Bacon’s plan, which was a wonderful plan.

My recollection of the neighborhood was a neighborhood going up and a neighborhood coming down. A neighborhood being restored, and a neighborhood being destroyed, and a neighborhood really being rebuilt. The house at the corner (7:00) [338 S. Fourth St.] – on the walkway across from Delancey that is now occupied by a pediatrician and his wife – they just had a baby last week – was “the Countess’s house”.

DS: Adrianna von Pein.

RP: Adrianna von Pein, the countess on our block. Prior to her, the house was actually restored for the Lees – not the Lees, the man who owned Lees Carpets. It’s a famous name. The husband and wife built that wonderful house.

DS: You’ll think of it later.

RP: That restoration inside was one of the best in the city. They tore out every floorboard, numbered them, took them to a mill, re-planed them, and put them back in. The (8:00) pine floors on the first floor of that house were absolutely beautiful.

DS: Was it Barclay?

RP: No. Sam Sadler could tell you their name, for sure. I will, some day. If I remember it, I’ll call you. I’ll leave you a message on the phone.

DS: That’s a beautifully restored house.

RP: [It] has now had another partial renovation done to it, by the current owners. I have not been inside, so no comments.

DS: Do you remember what your taxes were back in the day?

RP: Probably more than I wanted them to be then, just like they are now. No, I don’t remember the number. I can tell you. I’ve kept a record.

DS: It would be interesting.

RP: My wife and I have recently – over the past year – tried to reconstruct, so (9:00) we know the basis of our property – all those kinds of records. We’ve gone back and looked at old checkbooks or whatever that we still have. I’m sure I have the tax records back then. It was probably something like $500 or $700 or something like that. I’m sure it was under $1,000 originally. It was in the hundreds. I don’t think it was more than $500 or $700. I remember one year when I got a tax bill and it was a whopper! This was fifteen-twenty years ago. All of a sudden, they doubled our taxes or whatever, and I went to find out why. They said, “You just put a swimming pool in your back yard, and you rebuilt your back again, and all kinds of things” and whatever. I said, “That’s great! I’d love to be enjoying it if I did.” (10:00)

DS: You didn’t; it wasn’t you?

RP: It wasn’t my property. Wrong property. The man who lived behind us, who subsequently moved on, was the head of the Board of Revision of Taxes, the Burds, Neil Burd. They don’t live here anymore. I don’t know if he’s alive. They moved to Florida some years back, he and his mother. But he had been the head of the Board of Revision of Taxes.

DS: They corrected it?

RP: They certainly did. We haven’t put the pool in since. Just a bird bath.

DS: [Laughs] No. How much do you think – could you give me an estimate of how much do you think you put into that house?

RP: I could, but I won’t.

DS: Oh.

RP: I can give you more than an estimate. I can give you an exact accounting, because I’ve kept my records.

DS: It was a lot.

RP: Yes. It was a lot. It was more than I borrowed, far more than I borrowed, (11:00) because I would put in money from my earnings and my wife’s earnings and whatever, whatever. We had two mortgages: one from the Redevelopment Authority, one of those famous 3% mortgages, and then we had a real mortgage from the bank, which was really a construction loan that we converted into a mortgage. I continued to earn money and put money into it. We built it for many years. I mean, we moved into it in ’69, but I was putting money into it for a long time after that.

DS: Loving it?

RP: Absolutely. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

DS: Any other stories that you can think of that would be interesting to people?

RP: Well, there probably are, but I don’t know that –

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

RP: I grew up in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, small town of 3,500 people. My (12:00) father had a clothing store there. His father had a clothing store and tailor shop in downtown Philipsburg. We lived in an apartment above the store. He had stores in Clearfield and Philipsburg. When I came to Philadelphia, I lived in a basement and first-floor apartment. We rebuilt the house at Fourth and Pine, and ten years or so ago, we decided to change our business to just a consulting business for the planning of healthcare institutions and horseracing facilities. When we started the business in 1991, we started in the house. It was just Ann and myself. We quickly moved it out of the house to Fourth and Walnut, because we had 12 people working for us, because we were doing full architecture. We did that for about seven, eight years. We decided not to do full architecture. We moved back to 348 [South Fourth St.], and took over the third floor. (13:00) Now I live above the store. I mean, I work above the store and live below. I’ve reversed the living/working environment of my days in Philipsburg. Today, Ann and I have worked not only in Philadelphia, but in Europe, Asia and Africa from our store above the house.

[End of Interview]

Transcriber’s Note: The narrator made a number of changes when he reviewed the draft of the transcript. Thus, the transcript differs from the tape recording of the interview in several places, and the timing designations are not exact.

©2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
May 5, 2008
Parsky, Robert
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources