Roland (Rody) Davies

Newlyweds Roland (Rody) Davies and his wife, Margaret (Peggy), purchased the two trinities at 303-305 S. American Street from private property owners in 1961. Although the Redevelopment Authority did not facilitate the sale, the Davies family still had to coordinate with the Authority’s architects in the exterior renovations that ensued. Rody was an architecture student at Penn when they made the purchase, and the couple performed much of the renovation work themselves. They raised three sons in the house. In this interview, Rody discusses the character of the neighborhood when they first moved in, the hard work of renovating the interior (e.g., fireplaces, floor boards, staircases, fixtures, kitchen) and exterior (e.g., roofing) of the house while also living there, and social relationships between old and new residents on the block. Rody and Peggy sold the house in 2002 and moved to Maryland.


DS: This is an interview with Roland Davies. The date is April 21 st, 2008. The place is 116 Delancey Street. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens. Rody, tell me when did you come to this neighborhood?

RD: Well, Peggy and I eventually made our way into Society Hill in the spring of 1961, after I had finished up my final semester, prior to going on thesis at Penn, at the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. It all started when we were living at 39 th and Walnut in a really nice apartment which I was constantly fixing it up and repairing. We realized what a waste of time and money it was fixing up somebody else’s property. One day, a huge, beautiful house across Walnut Street went up (1:00) for sale. Peggy called up the realtor and nearly fainted when she heard the price of that house was $150,000. This was, to say the least, a little beyond our means. Undeterred, we decided to continue looking for a house to buy.

We were newlyweds. We liked being in Philadelphia; so we went across the Schuylkill River to check out a listing near 22 nd and Locust. It was a corner property that cost $42,000, which was a huge amount of money in 1961. We continued east (2:00) and saw a for sale sign on a house at 11 th and Pine, right on Pine Street. We toured through that house, and all it had going for it [was] just a fresh coat of paint on very bad, rough plaster walls and a very minimal Pullman kitchen, cheap cabinets and appliances. The listed price was $17,000, which still seemed like a lot of money to us.

I must add that we knew very little about Philadelphia, which is embarrassing to say, being an architectural student. Having been at Penn only for one year, we didn’t know about the projected plans for Society Hill. We continued due east and started looking around the neighborhood [of Society Hill]. The first house we looked (3:00) at was 239 Delancey Street, which is where Bill and Jane Eiman eventually lived for years. We were turned off – and a little nervous about that house, because the basement had been filled in. There was a concrete slab poured at the sidewalk level, with huge garage doors at the front of the house, since it was being used as a storage facility for somebody. Upstairs was a shambles. It just looked like a lot of work, because we are DIY – Do It Yourself – people, which was the only way we could afford to do the type of project that we had in mind.

Days later, on a very hot day, we looked at another house in the 300 block of Delancey. It was dark; it smelled awful. The curtains were drawn, and there (4:00) were old people sitting around staring at us! It was scary and depressing.

We finally happened upon 303-305 South American Street, two trinity houses, side by side, with a price of $11,000. It was a distress sale because the owners at the time, a dentist and his wife, were going through an ugly divorce. They just wanted to unload the property.

The size of the two houses on American Street seemed to suit our (5:00) pocketbook and my ambitions as an amateur carpenter. It took us weeks to find a bank that would even listen to us. But finally we were able to go to settlement, where the former owners and their lawyers argued over details and money.

DS: Were there people living in the house at the time that you bought it?

RD: No.

DS: The house had been empty?

RD: The house was empty. And like the house on Pine Street, there was a coat of institutional green paint smeared on the 305 side. The 303 side was a shambles, I mean, disgusting. There was an outhouse in the back yard, since there was no plumbing (6:00) in the 303 side. There was one bathroom on the third floor in the 305 side. The back yard was completely covered with a shed, except for a slot about two feet wide back against the back party wall, and it was rat infested. It was really awful.

The former owners had taken all the junk and stuff from the 305 side and had thrown it into the 303 side. They had 305 painted, mainly because it had a bathroom. Most of the stuff that they threw into that other house was old Mummers’ (7:00) costumes, feathers and headdresses and junk, and it was just smelly and moldy and awful.

After a month-long search, we finally found a bank that would even consider lending us money to buy a house in that “shaky” neighborhood. Most of the commercial banks would only lend you 10% of the value of the house. 303-305 S. American Street was appraised at $3,000, meaning we could have only borrowed $300, which hardly paid for the trash stasher to clear away the debris. We were finally able to borrow $13,000 from Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan.

This meant that there would have to be a lot of sweat equity on our part. So instead of trying to find a job in an architect’s office for the summer, our rehab became my summer job. Peggy at the time was starting to work for IBM, and many weeks her paycheck financed the project. We had the chimneys relined first, (8:00) which was a joke, because the mason came with his son as a helper, who must have weighed 400 lbs. He couldn’t even get out of the pickup truck. He just sat in the front seat, in the middle of American Street, the entire time his father worked up on the roof, lining our flues with terracotta liners, with me as the helper. Then we hired a roofer who put on what we thought was a very expensive roof. It cost $700, and that was also a lot of money back then. But that roof lasted close to 30 years, and it is still a great roof.

Before all of this, I talked Peggy into helping me rip the old roof off. We tore off God knows how many years of roofing material, right down to a very old cedar shake roof. It must have been six to eight inches thick with several layers of tin and rolled roofing and tar and junk. And all of this material ended up in the back yard, which created a mountain of debris back there, which eventually had to be hauled through the house and into a truck by a wonderful trash stasher, whose name I forget. But he was a great old guy.

[Sound of telephone ringing. Tape is turned off, then on again.]

RD: This new roof – I’ll never forget it – was white marble chips cast on (9:00) hot-mop tar. That white roof reflected the heat, making the third floor livable. It was just wonderful. I had ripped the ceiling out on the third floor, creating a cathedral ceiling, and because the joists were only two by sixes, we couldn’t get that much insulation in there. Since the third floor was where Peggy and I slept – the children later were on the middle floor – the white marble chips was worth the cost. I’ll never forget, nor will Peggy forget, her coming home from IBM on a Friday evening with her paycheck and basically handing the entire paycheck over to this roofer.

So I spent the summer gutting the house. We chipped all the old horsehair reinforced plaster off the walls and made a lot of amazing discoveries (10:00) about the construction of these houses. There were four of them in a row on the east side of American Street – they must have been built for servants’ quarters or slave quarters or whatever, because each trinity house was only 13 ft. wide and 16 ft. deep. The beauty of our two houses, as opposed to the two that were south of us, was that we had a decent back yard, 12’ x 26’, which was a real feature of our future home. The combined footprint of the two houses was 26 by 16, but it had a 6-ft. by 6-ft.(11:00) masonry wall that went up through the middle, allowing for a fireplace in every room. This massive hunk of masonry thing really cut into the floor area of the habitable space. So needless to say, we were in compression even before we had children, and more so after we had children, not to mention our wonderful Labrador, Skorsten. Skorsten is worth a tape by itself.

DS: Where did you find out which houses you wanted to go through? Was there a list that the Redevelopment [Authority] had or were you just looking for signs?

RD: We were just looking for signs. Financially, we didn’t quality for the Redevelopment Authority requirements, but we somehow got hooked up with a wonderful old realtor, Mr. Graham, who was half deaf. And I have to add here that we were so naïve about this whole thing, especially when we went to settlement. (13:00) The sellers were in the middle of a divorce. Both parties – a dentist and his wife – each had a lawyer, and they were bickering back and forth, and it was the first time they had seen each other in months. It was tension filled, and dear old Mr. Graham would say, “What did you say?” He couldn’t hear anything that was happening. And he was representing us. So it was really a joke. But somehow we muddled our way through and ended up with the house. So, as I said, my summer job actually stretched into the fall, because I was on thesis – doing my thesis at Penn – but I was doing more (14:00) deconstructing and constructing than I was working on my thesis for a while. That’s another story.

DS: So when did you move in?

RD: We moved in in May of the following year, because we just didn’t like paying $60 a month rent and a mortgage payment of $123. That just didn’t make sense to us. That year in May, and there was a cold snap. And I mean really cold nights. And we didn’t have any heat in the house. We were sleeping on a mattress on the floor, on the top floor. The old windows that had been put in the house – old double hung windows (15:00) with sash weights – most of which were missing, so that when you tried to raise a window to let air in, the sash kind of fell out of the frame. Once it got warmer, I would take the sash out of the frames and stack them on the wall next to the opening. We had a mosquito net over the mattress. One night I heard a noise and I woke Peggy up and said, “Look at that wonderful sight.” Several bats were flying around our mosquito netting, then in and out the window openings. Peggy wasn’t too happy about that. But we somehow survived the ordeal.

DS: Did you see all this as fun?

RD: It was a great adventure, for me at least. Peggy wasn’t too happy about (16:00) it, because she grew up in Baltimore City and wasn’t tuned into “nature.”

These two houses had flip plans; one was the flip plan of the other. So there were back-to-back tight wooden spiral stairs in the back of the house behind this fireplace monolith. After taking out the party walls, I ripped the stairs out, and I’m glad Penny Batcheler didn’t do this interview, God rest her soul. She would have been upset at my disrespect for the historical stairs. One of the spiral stairs was removed in one piece, and we were able to corkscrew it through the door. It wouldn’t fit through the door, but once you got it started you could just turn it like a corkscrew. And we walked it across the street to John Burris’s house, where it was installed and used, I think, as a (17:00) basement stair.

Anyway, by taking both of the stairs out, and knocking the party wall out between that section of the house, and I was able to build a bridge between the two houses right next to the fireplace. That created a bigger stair opening than we had before. It was the same width but longer. And that began the saga of the famous Davies’ stairway.

But before the new stairs was designed and fabricated, I dismantled an old wooden extension ladder and put them between the floors going from the bridge to the back wall and then from the bridge to the back wall upstairs. We went up and (18:00) down those ladders, Navajo style, for many, many months. And Peggy, as I mentioned, was working for IBM. So she would come down the ladders in the morning dressed in heels and fancy clothes. It was quite a picture. I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures at the time. Eventually, I designed this stairway, and through the generosity of a neighbor of ours in Maryland, from our home in Maryland, who was in the whiskey barrel business in Baltimore, I acquired material for the stair. A casual question to our neighbor one weekend, when we were down there, concerning the biggest slab of red oak that one could get, was answered, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” Many weeks later he delivered to my millwork guy in Glenolden, Frank Panna, a truckload of

kiln-dried (19:00) white oak slabs that were just absolutely gorgeous. They were rejected for the whiskey barrel business because they had tiny little worm holes in them. You could hardly see them, but it was obvious you couldn’t have a whiskey barrel with a worm hole in it.


Peggy and I had made full-size butcher paper templates of every stair tread, and there were 33 stair treads from the basement to the top floor. Each one was a different size and shape because of the difference of floor-to-floor heights and the number of treads. It got very complicated. I had done a large-scale drawing of the different runs of stairs. But when this lumber was delivered to the Glenolden lumber yard, (20:00) Frank Panna called me up very excited and said, “Where did you get this beautiful lumber?” So I told him to surface two sides and one edge of each slab. Then Peggy and I went to the lumber yard the next Sunday, and Frank let us crawl around his shop when no one was around. We spread all this lumber out on the floor, and we slipped and positioned the pieces of lumber with the good edge edge-to-edge so that they could later be glued up.

By putting the paper templates on top of these slabs of wood, and by slipping and sliding the pieces, we got the most economical use of the material. We drew the outline of the template on the wood, and Frank later glued them up and cut out these treads for us. We were so economical about it that we had enough oak left over that (21:00) I had my kitchen countertop made, three coffee tables, and I still have oak slabs left over down in my shop in Maryland. So it was a real windfall.

The design of this stair featured ¾-inch thick treads, floating in the stairwell, with the narrow ends of the tread supported by stainless steel cables – sailboat rigging, quite frankly, and with sailboat rigging fittings. It’s important to note that this was back in the days of slide rules – pre laptop computer, pre hand-held calculator days. I was working with a set of known dimensions – I knew the floor-to-floor heights, I knew the (22:00) height of the risers, and I knew the dimension from an imaginary center point line that went down through the stair at the narrow end – a fan effect of stair treads – so it was going to be 33 Pythagorean theorems, A squared plus B squared equals C squared. The main reason for this was that I had to locate on these cables the exact location where this little rigging fitting was going to be swaged to the cable. And it had to be exact and precise, because that’s where the tread was attached to the cable. There was a clip fitting that I put on the end of each tread that hooked onto this ball – called a ball (23:00) and sleeve fitting – and that’s what supported the stairs at the narrow end, while steel angles were attached to the surrounding walls, supporting the wide ends.

There was a wonderful sail maker, sail rigger, out in Germantown by the name of Mr. Wright, who was going to help us assemble the cable system once we had all the necessary dimensions.

Thirty-three Pythagorean theorems got very cumbersome, and with a very shaky slide-rule person trying to do square roots by hand, Peggy said, “The computer could handle that.” So she asked her boss at IBM if she could learn a computer language called FORTRAN. This is back in the days of punched cards and really at the beginning of the computer age. FORTRAN was a new language that IBM was developing and her boss graciously let Peggy learn on her own. Peggy programmed the 33 Pythagorean (24:00) theorems, and this computer spit the information out in about a minute.

We took this printout to Mr. Wright’s sail loft out in Germantown, and he got so excited he could hardly stand it. We rigged all the cables that went through steel plates with the necessary holes that I had drilled. These steel plates were attached at each floor. We had to slide on the required ball and shank fittings, then go through another plate, then another shank and so forth. So you can imagine the confusion of trying to locate these things and trying to keep each cable separate and in line and in number. We pre-stretched the cable, and Mr. Wright used a hand swaging tool. We used a steel measuring tape and measured exactly where this ball and shank should be located on (25:00) each cable. He crimped the ball and shank fittings and then later swaged them on more securely with a bigger machine. I have to tell you, the day when I finally set those treads and hooked the narrow ends of the treads to those shanks and then put a level on each one, observing they were all dead level, it was one of the highlights of my life. [laughs] I’m going to take a breath here.

[The tape is turned off, then on again.]

RD: Before this stair saga, we lived in a condition that is really comical now when you think about it. When I was working on the house that first summer, I framed up all the new partitions around the bathrooms and closets. There weren’t many of them because the house wasn’t that big. On the top floor and the second floor, I framed (26:00) in the bathroom, set the cast iron bathtub and had a plumber hook them up. We had running water up to that tub, but the studs were left exposed, so that someone sitting in the bathtub could look through the stud wall, through clothes bags which were in the framed-up closet, at the person in the other room – the bedroom.

The only working toilet in these early months was in the basement, where there was also a deep sink, a laundry sink. We had no kitchen sink, and the stove was sitting on a packing crate in the kitchen. The refrigerator was free-standing in its final (27:00) location but just sort of standing alone. I think we had a card table and milk cartons – wonderful Abbotts milk cartons. I hope you guys remember the orange Abbotts milk cartons. I still have some. They’re priceless. I would take the rack of dirty dishes down the ladder and wash them in the deep sink in the basement. That’s how we lived for many, many months until I was able to build the kitchen cabinets, fabricate the oak counter top and set the kitchen sink and the stove.

I wasn’t the fastest contractor around. But the bathtub incident was funny, and we laugh about it even today. But going up and down the ladders! Peggy (maybe (28:00) she could tell the story better than I), when she was pregnant with Kert, our first son, was coming down the ladder, and her heels caught on one of the rungs and she fell down half the flight of the ladder and hit the wall of the fireplace, which had been newly plastered. She claims I was more concerned about the crack that her knee put in the plaster than I was about the baby in her belly. But there are so many stories that we could tell.

DS: What part did the Redevelopment Authority put on you about the outside of the house?

RD: Well, it’s interesting. At that end of American Street there were four of (29:00) these trinities in a row on the east side of the street, and there were two of the same design on the west side of the street. Peggy Walsh Kelly, prior to us, had bought those two houses across the street and had painted them white – she had renovated them and combined them into one house, She’s long gone now. Our houses had a red paint on the bricks, and – I can’t remember the guy who was the Redevelopment Authority architect at the time – but we brought him down to our house and showed him where I had taken a little bit of the red paint off, only to discover to my horror that this paint was hiding a very soft salmon brick. I was very nervous about taking the paint off for fear (30:00) the brick would disintegrate. And he agreed and allowed us to paint our house. So we eventually painted our house that off-white color, which lasted for 40-some years. Of course, it had something to do with the fact that we bought our house from a private individual.

The Redevelopment Authority wasn’t that involved, with the exception of the windows and doors. We had a copy of the original insurance policy that said [the windows were] 9-over-12s on the first floor, 6-over-6 on the second floor, and 6-over-6 on the third floor. And this original insurance policy even gave the size of the glass. So we had Liberty Lumber Company down in South Philadelphia build our double-hung windows, replacement windows for the original ones, and the glass size was (31:00) exactly right.

We had them duplicate a piece of the interior trim, which was unique. Liberty Lumber had never seen anything like it before. So we had them run off a huge amount of footage of that stuff, which we used for all the interior window trim and door trim.

Speaking of doors, we didn’t have any doors inside the house except to the two bathrooms. The two bathrooms were in the back of the 305 side on the second and third floors, with a small bedroom in front. And on the 303 side upstairs on the second floor was a big bedroom, and on the third floor, again on the 303 side, was a big space like a family room. Peggy and I slept in the small bedroom on the 305 side, third floor, with the aforementioned closet and bathroom configuration. So finally I designed and (32:00) fabricated, and Peggy painted beautifully, very contemporary doors that I put on the bathroom, mainly because my mother vowed she would never come back until there was a door on the bathroom. But the bedrooms never had doors. Never. And we sold the house without doors on those rooms. The current owner has put doors everywhere, I understand.

DS: Tell me, what was the reaction of your parents and friends?

RD: Our friends thought it was a hoot. Mainly, because they were all architects from Penn, I was able to discover – quickly – which ones of my friends were (33:00) wusses, because the ones who wouldn’t climb up the ladder and get on the roof to see the view, were designated as sissies. Because even Peggy was up there throwing the roof material off the roof when we were first starting.

But as a matter of fact, I remember Michael and Ann Erdman were classmates of mine at Penn, and they had bought a house on [312] Cypress Street. I had finished my thesis and gotten my degree and started working for Stonorov and Hawes. (34:00) And Dan Cathers worked in that office at the same time, and he and Jill soon after moved into the neighborhood.

Parents were a different story. I can vividly remember Peggy’s mother coming up and walking in the front door of 305 – we didn’t take her into 303, because it was still a shambles. She walked in and walked out and didn’t call us for a month, she was so upset. And my mother and father were horrified, really horrified, that we would be doing this. But somehow we survived.

And a funny, motivational thing that we had when we first started (35:00) this thing was that Peggy had gone to Europe before we were married, with a girlfriend of hers, on a Swedish liner, the Gripsholm, and had met some wonderful Swedish people, one of whose father was a contractor in Stockholm whose best friend was an architect with an office on a huge schooner in Stockholm harbor. And that just thrilled me [to] no end.

And so our original plan for this venture in Society Hill – and again, not knowing what Society Hill was all about – was to flip the house quickly and move to Stockholm.

I have to say, when we first came here, it was a pretty rough neighborhood. There were bars on every corner, and where the Kises lived on Delancey Street was the renovated American Legion Post, next door to the Eimans’ house. The Post (36:00) was wild on weekends with loud parties and many fights. And we were told that this part of Philadelphia was called the “Bloody Fifth Ward”. There were so many bars and fights it was just unbelievable.

But our big plan was to fix this house up, sell it and make a fortune and move to Sweden and live and work there for a couple of years and then buy a sailboat over there and sail it back. Peggy now thinks that was the worst idea anyone ever invented. But suddenly Peggy was with child, with Kert, our first born. And a year later, Kert’s godfather arrived on Kert’s first birthday with a Labrador puppy with feet (37:00) as big as tennis balls. He quickly grew into those feet and was a monster. Needless to say, our plans for Sweden went down the tubes. We were such Swedophiles that we named our dog Skorstenfaejer, which is Swedish for chimney sweeper.

[The sound of a telephone ringing. The tape is turned off, then on again.]

DS: OK. So tell me, how many children did you have?

RD: We had three boys: Kert, Eric, and Geoffrey.

DS: And you raised them all in this neighborhood, in that house?

RD: In that tiny house. We were in that house for 42 years. I went into private practice in 1965, and my office was initially in that third floor family room that I (38:00) mentioned earlier. At one point, one of the tenants in Peggy Walsh’s [Kelly] house across the street, Mel Richmond, who was a creative director for a big advertising agency on City Line Avenue, decided, along with two other people from that firm, to split off and form their own advertising agency. They asked me to find them some space in this area that we had discovered north of Walnut, now called Old City. But at that time it (39:00) was just a different area of the city. So I found a building on Bank Street that was for rent. They looked at it, and they loved it. All four of us moved into this building. I was trading office rental for architectural services, because they wanted to renovate the building, with the idea of buying it eventually. The partnership of these three advertising people came unglued very quickly, and I was forced to move out of that building very suddenly, on a Sunday morning. So I went back to American Street and set up my shop in the living room of our house, which was not healthy at all for the family. [laughs] (40:00)

Shortly after that I was taking two young, potential clients through Old City. They were part of the stage crew of the old TLA [Theater of the Living Arts] repertory theater over on South Street. They wanted to start their own repertory theater group because TLA was also coming unglued and was going to close shortly after that. As we wandered north of Walnut Street we saw a realtor nailing a “for sale” sign on 32 Strawberry Street, and the three of us, my two clients and I, asked permission to go through that building. It didn’t suit these theater people, because of columns and the physical size of the building. But I went home after that meeting and told Peggy that I found the perfect (41:00) building. It was 32 Strawberry Street. So we purchased that building, and still own it. It’s been a great investment for us.

DS: Tell me, did your children enjoy growing up in this neighborhood? Did they ever complain, or…?

RD: They loved it. They still talk about it. They absolutely loved it, and all three of them went all the way through McCall, K through 8 th grade. Peggy was very involved in the Home and School and the PTA of McCall and fought desperately for a (42:00) better school there. But the teachers’ strikes were brutal, and it seems after every teachers’ strike more and more neighbors would bail out and send their kids to private schools, which we eventually did with Eric, the middle son, and Geoffrey, the youngest son, after a terrible run of teachers’ strikes.

Eric had finished his freshman year at Central High School, where Kert went. Kert went all the way through Central High. Eric had finished his freshman year at Central. Kert, at this point, was a senior and was about 6’ 4”, which was a comfort to Eric, who was my clone and a late bloomer and looked like he was 12 when he was a freshman at Central. It was a great comfort to Eric to ride up the Broad Street Subway with Kert and his buddies. (43:00)

When Kert graduated, Eric was not too sure about Central, because he had been mugged two or three times his freshman year on the subway. Luckily, we found an opening at Germantown Friends School, and that was the nicest thing. So when Geoffrey finished 8 th grade at McCall that year, he went right into Germantown Friends, which was a stretch for the commute end of it, but it worked out great. We loved that school.

Yes, our kids loved Society Hill, and they especially loved it when they would walk into the kitchen in the evening and smell liver cooking on the stove, and they would make some excuse and slip off to Jim’s Steaks on South Street.

DS: Tell me about some of the people that you got to know in the neighborhood.

RD: There was a family that lived immediately next door to us. The mother’s (44:00) name was Mrs. Cannon, and her daughter was June McCloskey, who I think was born in our house. We became very close to that whole family. June’s children, Joan and Susan and their two brothers all lived in a single trinity at 307. It was extended to the rear; so it worked for them. Then there were Al and Ann Koss, who were very close friends of ours.

DS: Who lived on Spruce Street.

RD: They were on Spruce Street. He was the neighborhood barber. We never used him as a barber, since Peggy cut my hair, and all three boys’.

And there was another woman on our street whose name was Mrs. Kelly. (45:00) She weighed about 250 pounds. I could never tell whether she liked us or hated us, because she didn’t seem to be very friendly. But years later, Peggy ran into her in Queen Village or South Philadelphia someplace, and it was like she was a blood relative. She related to us then.

I remember one terrible incident when I talked a buddy of mine into helping me unload all the plaster that I had stripped off the walls and the ceiling of the third floor. I’d rented a truck but was unable to rent a dump truck. All I could get was a big (46:00) panel truck. We were throwing this plaster out of the third-floor window of the house, and the dust went everywhere. It covered the entire street, and we kept throwing it and throwing it, never going down to the street. I had rigged up what I thought was a wonderful device. I put pipes – all the pieces of pipe that I’d cut out of the plumbing and heating systems of the house. I laid those pipes on the bed of the truck and then put plywood down on top of the pipes and the plaster on top of the plywood, thinking that I could roll this whole load off when we got to the dump. That same day, my friend Dick Nolker and I tried to manhandle the old claw-and-ball, freestanding cast iron bathtub from the third floor bathroom in 305 to get it down the spiral stair. But it got (47:00) wedged. I mean, it was really wedged in there tightly.

[End of first side of the tape. Beginning of side two of the tape.]

RD: The only way out was to break up the tub with sledge hammers. A big (0:00) chunk of the tub went flying across the room, broke through the window, landed on the street, and nearly hit Joan McCloskey, who was outside. It was a nightmare. So I toned my actions down a little bit.

That trip to the dump was another nightmare. I’m sure Dick Nolker won’t ever forget it, and I won’t either. We got there, and I found a huge pile of debris, a mountain of debris, and rode this panel truck up on this pile and practically had it standing upright, and that load would not roll off the back of that truck. It wouldn’t budge. Suddenly, a thunderstorm hit us, and it was a torrential downpour. Dick and I jumped in (1:00) the cab of the truck, along with about 8 million flies who were seeking refuge from the storm. Finally the rain stopped, and we literally had to claw that soggy, wet plaster dust off the back of the truck. Dick has never helped me since. [laughs]

But we like to feel that we had a great bond with the old neighbors. There was a black woman around the corner who babysat for us for a long time. There was an old lady who lived across the street, American Street, who, every day, would walk across Spruce Street to a bar and come back with a pitcher of beer. There were several others who were friendly and good neighbors. There was a guy further down the street, named Baldy, who was writing numbers in the neighborhood, because every day you’d smell the smoke of him burning his receipts in the fireplace. You could smell the paper (2:00) burning.

There was a wonderful candy store directly across Spruce Street where American Street used to cross. American Street was closed off [north of Spruce] when we arrived in the neighborhood, and there was a wonderful little candy store there. Peggy might remember these names. You might ask her when you talk to her. They were nice.

It was kind of an awkward feeling for us in a lot of ways to see what was happening to these old neighbors, these original people here. The gentrification of the neighborhood must have been really an awful experience for them, to see all these rich people coming in, and I used that term advisedly as far as we were concerned. (3:00) But I think the fact that Peggy and I gutted the house and rebuilt the house ourselves had a lot to do with our kind of bonding with these older people, because when Kert was born the neighbors – all of them – came to the house and gave us silver dollars as good luck pieces. We still have those silver dollars.

Our neighbor, Mrs. Cannon, was the one who was born in our house, I think, and she was in her 70s or 80s when we moved there. June McCloskey, her daughter, was in her late 50s, I guess, maybe not quite that old but she seemed old. She’s passed away, and of course Mrs. Cannon passed away first. But it was interesting, because there (4:00) were no husbands involved in that family, just the women. Joan and Susan and Mrs. McCloskey and Mrs. Cannon all lived there. When Tom [McFeeley] and Susan got married, Tom moved into the house, and he was the first male that lived there in a long time. The McCloskey boys kind of disappeared. We don’t know what happened.

DS: Did you get the feeling then that these people who were born and raised there were suffering?

RD: I think they resented a lot what was happening to the neighborhood. It was hard for them to comply with the Redevelopment Authority’s standards. There (5:00) was a great contractor that I worked with in those early days, named Carl Peterson. He did a lot of houses in Society Hill. Carl helped our neighbors with the windows and front door.

DS: This was so that they would comply with Redevelopment.

RD: Yes. And then there was a young guy on Spruce Street, who was a teenager (6:00) back in these days, in the early ‘60s. John Burris, an architect who lived at the corner of Spruce and American Street facing Spruce, was an avid collector of architectural artifacts and stuff. The city tore down the whole block of houses and buildings where the Society Hill Towers and the Pei townhouses now stand. All this happened before (8:00) we arrived there. Before the demolition, John Burris and this young kid would go through these houses and collect paneling and doors and hardware and mantles. John had a garage or warehouse somewhere else in the city where he stored this stuff. He taught this young boy the value of these things, and this kid started collecting stuff on his own and ended up financing his college education by selling these artifacts.

DS: To people who were restoring houses.

RD: Yes. Right. And collectors.

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

RD: Incidentally, one more interesting fact about these four little houses 303 through 309 American Street, on the east side. When I gutted our two, I discovered to my (9:00) horror that the party wall between the houses was only one brick thick, 3 ½ inches. And the floor joists from one house projected through this party wall into the basement or the room of the adjoining house. We were aware of this early on, because we could hear the neighbors very clearly at night. The noise transmission between the houses was unbelievable, through the party walls and transmitted through the floor.

I did two things to hopefully alleviate this. I drove a wedge between (10:00) each lapped floor joists and put a layer of cork between them, to try to dampen the noise. Then on the party walls, I floated a new wall, independent of the party wall, to try to deaden the sound.

Another horror was that the attics all ran together. You could look up from our attic three attics away. This was really scary. If a fire had broken out, it would have raced through the attics. So I built the brick party wall between 305 and 307 to seal our attics off from our neighbors’, in an attempt to meet code.

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

RD: I’d like to tell you one more little item about the renovation of this house.

The house had the original wide pine floorboards in it. I mean, (11:00) some of these floorboards were 14 inches wide. It was just unbelievable. You can’t get this size lumber any more. Former owners of the house had introduced central heating, in the form of radiators, at some point, so the contractor who installed the radiators just made a horizontal cut across these floorboards, along a joist line, to drop in the piping. So I discovered that if I cut the old cut nails that held the floorboards to the floor joists, or drove them all the way in, I could slide the boards in their tongue and their groove. So Peggy in her mathematical way went around and cataloged all the scrap flooring that I had lying around, where we had taken the flooring up to put plywood down (12:00) where the bathrooms and the kitchen were to be located. This meant we had lots of scraps of flooring around. Peggy cataloged all the widths and lengths of these boards, and I was able to drop in and slip and slide these boards to stagger the cut lines, so that the butted floor board joists were staggered. When I think about it now, it seems absolutely incredible. [laughs] But it was a labor of love.

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

RD: A love affair that lasted 42 years, because it wasn’t until virtually a day or two before we went to settlement, when we sold our house in 2002, that I actually (13:00) finished the house. It was a work in progress that entire time. And again, it was a labor of love. We think about 303-305 American Street often and truly miss the neighborhood, our friends and all the memories. Living now on the Severn River, a few miles north of Annapolis, is like a dream, but Society Hill was, and is, a special place.

[End of tape.]

Transcriber’s Note: Time designations are only approximate because the narrator made many changes to and some deletions from the narrative when he reviewed the transcript.


© 2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
April 21, 2008
Davies, Roland (Rody)
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources