Sara (Bomie) Halpern

Sara Halpern, known as Bomie, and her husband Alan, had no interest at all in restoring a historic house. They wanted a house with a fireplace, and Bomie wanted to live near a swimming pool. They had seen plans for the development of Newmarket, between Front and Second Streets, Pine and Lombard Streets, that included a swimming pool. They built a house of contemporary design on adjoining lots at 113-115 Pine Street, which they bought from the Redevelopment Authority in 1966. They hired David Wallace, a social friend, as their architect and Bomie’s father, a builder in Reading, as their builder. They were required to follow RDA regulations, some of which Bomie understands and appreciates, and others not so much. Planning and design took a year, building took another year, and the house was not finished when they moved in. Some delays occurred because the builder’s crew and subs, all from the Reading area, took time off during deer-hunting and bear-hunting seasons. Bomie describes the neighborhood as “Deserted, desolate. Empty lots and houses waiting for buyers,” and relates a story of the theft of their shiny, new, beautiful, custom-made, expensive copper downspouts. She speaks briefly of the lifelong residents, with whom she had little contact; the controversies over the Crosstown Expressway, I-95, and low-income housing; and places where she shopped for groceries. She describes getting to know neighbors as more people moved into the area and built or restored houses. She says, “It was an exciting time to live, being young and doing something.”


DS:      The date is April 4, 2006. This is an interview with Sara Bomberger Halpern [known as Bomie]. Sara is spelled S-A-R-A. Bomberger is B-O-M-B-E-R-G-E-R. Halpern.

            Bomie, tell me about why you came to this neighborhood to build a house on 113-115 Pine Street.

BH:     We really wanted a house with a fireplace. And the house that we were in we owned outright, and tried to put a fireplace into it. And it was very complicated and expensive to do. And we sort of looked at each other and said, “Well, gee, for very little more money we could build a house.” And we thought let’s try that route and at that point discovered that (1:00) they were selling building lots and old houses to be restored in what was being called Society Hill. We came down and looked around at what was available. We saw a Van Arkel & Moss sign of what they planned to do at what became Newmarket. They had this wonderful sign of what their plans were, and right in the middle was a swimming pool! And it would be wonderful to live across the street from a swimming pool. It seems to me a lot of our decisions focused around swimming.

            It seems strange to think of it that way, but it had to do with our becoming charter members of the Society Hill Club at Fifth Street and also buying an apartment at Society Hill Towers. So I can go swimming. And right now I’m waiting for the season (2:00) to start. [Laughs] So I can swim again. Anyway, we did not ever think of going as far as the 100 block of Pine Street, but – because it seemed so desolate. There was really nothing there. A few standing houses. Nothing looked very good from the outside. In fact, a lot of it looked pretty bad. But we did discover that there were I think four building lots in a row available. And then one went with the Masons’ house to the east –

DS:      That would have been –?

BH:     That would have been 111 [Pine]. We discovered that 113, 115 and 117 [Pine] (3:00) were available. And we put in a bid on 13 and 15, which we were able to get. And then we started – we had to find an architect, and we asked a guy whom we knew socially who he would recommend, because we didn’t know anybody – anything about architects in Philadelphia. And we didn’t have a clue where to start. We just knew things that we wanted. We were not particularly interested in restoring an old house. In fact, we had no interest in that at all. We wanted a contemporary house and asked my father if he would be willing to build it. He was a builder in Reading, a small builder, not a development builder. And you know what that comment is about. (4:00)

DS:      Sure.

BH:     We showed him the land that was available. And I said, “Well, what do you think of this area?” He sort of looked around and smiled and said, “Well, as far as I can see it has only one way to go.” It was really at bottom. So, with that encouragement, and the fact that he was willing to come and be our builder, and our friend the architect said, “Well, our firm is really in city planning essentially, but we like to keep our fingers in all the pies,” or something like that. He said, “We’d like you to consider us.” While we had looked to him to advise us (5:00) about something other than – somebody he would not be competitive with, he did want to be. We never looked any further. We decided to go with him. And it took at least a year to plan the thing. We would have these meetings about construction and design and so on. We did have to meet Redevelopment Authority requirements. They want us to maintain a roofline. It makes me laugh now – they’re talking about the Dilworth House, which is this tiny little thing between a couple of big buildings. And they’re talking about tearing it down and making something still bigger. I’m wondering how important roof lines really are in the space of a block. Because I think instead of uniformity it’s the variety that gives Society Hill such charm. Anyway, what we designed was essentially a two-story house, but from the outside it had the appearance (6:00) of a three-story house. Because we had to go so high to maintain the roof line of the block. Where are we?

DS:      Well, you had an architect, and your father was going to be the builder.

BH:     Yes.

DS:      And you got approval from Redevelopment. They approved your plans.

BH:     Yes, they did require some changes. I have sort of forgotten what they [were]. They had to do with being – since we were not an old house, we were building something that was completely different, they required that we set the house back from the building line of the rest of the block. I never quite understand that, but I think it was a plus, because we put a planted area – a little outdoor garden out front of the 113 lot and just a narrow strip of planting on the 115 [side]. (7:00) I think it softened the lines of what was otherwise a pretty severe house. Anyway, making a few changes at that point was not too complicated. We still had essentially the same house that we wanted, a large back yard by city standards, which we loved and used.

DS:      Tell me the story of your father building the house.

BH:     He lived in Reading, and he and my brother-in-law, who worked with him, and another worker named Sam Fritz, an old Pennsylvania Dutchman, would drive down (8:00) from Reading on a Monday to the construction site and would work all day and then come to our house. We were living at 24 th and Spruce at that point. And they would board with us all week. And then on Friday they would leave early and go back to Reading for the weekend. I think it must have been – well, it was kind of tough on everybody, but it did work. I was running a boarding house plus working full-time. It was a tough year, but we seemed to all be talking at the end. We got the house that we wanted, and that was that. It took about two years, a year of planning and a year in construction.

            The house wasn’t finished when we moved in. We told our movers if they needed to use the plumbing at 24 th and Spruce they ought to do it, (9:00) because the house we were moving into had no toilet installed at that point. By the end of the day, there was one working toilet, which [Laughs] – So living in construction was a challenge. It was even challenging to move into an unfinished house, which we certainly never expected, but we had sold our house and were obliged to get out. We were caught in one of those crunches.

            But during the construction, we started out with a very rainy September, and when they couldn’t work because of the water in the basement, general soggy conditions, and then when it was time to start laying block and laying brick, it was either deer-hunting or bear-hunting season. I don’t remember which, and all the masons went hunting. So we had to wait until hunting (10:00) season was over so they would start building our walls. [Laughs] A lot of strange things happened. Maybe it’s that way with Pennsylvania Dutch builders.

DS:      At this point, you were working. Tell me what you did.

BH:     I had a children’s clothing business and I pretty much had to be there. I was the designer and pattern-maker and helped do some of the cutting. The building which was our factory is now a little theater in Northern Liberties. That’s another story.

DS:      How would you get there from Pine Street?

BH:     Well, I worked with a man who picked me up in the morning. I guess I came home on the Fourth Street trolley. I think it was a trolley at that point.

DS:      What did the rest of the block look like?

BH:     Deserted. Desolate. Empty lots and houses waiting for buyers. Or the buyers (11:00) would arrive and there was a lot of construction going on all the time. There was never any problem parking, because there were so few people in residence then. Mostly it was just workmen. A few neighbors, like the Stevenses with their little boys. I remember one day finding them in a car that looked like it was abandoned, and I went to the Stevenses and said, “Do you know where your kids are?” [Laughs] I was afraid if I would go talk to the kids they would look like deer in the headlights.

DS:      Were there other people living on the block? The Masons, you said? (12:00)

BH:     The Masons were under construction when we started, but they then were already in residence while our house was being built. And they were quite helpful. Oh, there was one really disappointing thing that happened. When the house was finally – the shell was up and they were putting on the roof and also the spouting, and the architect had specified this beautiful, built-on-site copper spouting, which was square, and beautiful, shiny copper. They finished installing it this one day and we got back to the construction site the next day, and it had been ripped off and stolen. The Buells, who lived on Lombard Street, saw people running across the (13:00) open – what is now Newmarket, or what became Newmarket. It was an open field at that point. And they saw people running across the field with our copper spouting. And they chased them. I don’t remember if they called the cops. Anyway, the spouting was ripped off. That was a blow. It was very expensive. Anyway, the other unpleasant thing that happened during construction was, after the house had been plastered and we had – I think ours was the last plastered house in the area –

DS:      Inside plastering.

BH:     Inside plastering, yes. It was wonderful to watch these guys work. They were very good. And instead of working with ladders, the plasters were on stilts so that they never had (14:00) to come down for plaster. They could just keep everything up – I mean, to do the ceilings, they were right up there. It was wonderful to watch them. They were so fast and so good. And our architect had this rather unusual design. The walls did not meet the ceiling. There was about a half-inch space that was left. It was a construction detail that I guess was being done in some places, rather unusual just having this notch where the walls meet the ceiling.

DS:      For what purpose?

BH:     I’m not sure. It’s just a detail which they found important. And I liked the look of it. As it turned out, I was the painter of our house, [Laughs] because the painters who were (15:00) supposed to come were by that time otherwise engaged. It seemed to me the timing of all the construction was never quite what was anticipated. It took much longer, like everything else. The building costs more, it takes longer, no matter how close you figure. Anyway, it was time for the painting to start, and there was not painter in view. I wound up being the painter, for the most part.

DS:      What was your impression of the old, original people who were there? Did you know any of them? Did you ever talk to any of them?

BH:     Not really.

DS:      You did realize they were there? That in amongst all this rubble there was –? (16:00)

BH:     No, we had very little knowledge of what you might call the original people.

DS:      The original community. It seemed to be pretty much destroyed?

BH:     Well, they certainly weren’t on our block, and at that point, you know, we were not there by day. We were both working and came home at night and had a lot of work to do on our own house. I guess through the Civic Association and people taking walks, neighbors taking walks, I don’t know that the old, original neighbors did much walking around and socializing.

DS:      Tell me, you were very close to the river. Did you walk down there, or – you (17:00) didn’t have a lot of free time, I realize.

 BH:    There really wasn’t much to walk down to until they built Penn’s Landing for the Bicentennial. And at that point I guess we started walking down to the river. The river was something you kind of looked at from a distance. It’s amazing to think about just how much time we spent on our own house, working on finishing it, furnishing it, decorating it. The house was such a big part of our lives. South Street was happening, and we did go to the TLA at that point, when it had –

DS:      When it had actual theater, after the Crosstown Expressway had been defeated?

BH:     Yes. South Street seemed very exciting. Lots of creative people moving in, doing interesting things. (18:00)

DS:      The community that was developing, that had moved in, were much involved in the Crosstown Expressway and not wanting it to happen. The other battle seemed to be the elevated I-95, which came later. Do you have any memories of those events?

BH:     I personally was not involved in that at all. Of course, we were interested in what was going to happen there, because it seemed to me that an elevated highway was what Ed Bacon had proposed. But I think that was horrifying. That was maybe one of the reasons we were (19:00) a bit apprehensive about buying – building a house that close to what was undecided. I think it would have – I don’t think Society Hill would be today what it is now if an elevated highway had gone through there. And I forget the name of the woman who worked so hard to have the I-95 depressed and covered.

DS:      Stanhope Browne was major.

BH:     But there was a woman. [It was Martha Schober]. She died of cancer, as far as I remember. And she worked very hard. And everybody’s sympathies were with getting the highway depressed, and somehow we would be told that this I-95, which went from Maine to Florida, and here was Philadelphia holding up the whole construction. [Laughs] It was – the entire country was waiting for (20:00) us to get off the case so that they could build this thing. We were tying up the whole transportation with the country. They gave everybody a guilt trip.

DS:      I’d forgotten that.

BH:     And, of course, we found that that wasn’t so. There were communities all up and down the east coast that didn’t want this thing in their back yards.

DS:      So, Bomie, where would you do your shopping?

BH:     Oh, at that point I think there was – I believe it was the A&P on 12 th Street, across from the Reading Terminal Market. I would go there once a week on my way home from work and do, really, a week’s marketing, I think. But that was before we lived down here. Saturdays (21:00) Alan and I went – walked to the Reading Terminal Market. It was a nice walk. And we would have lunch there. And it was while the construction was going on, turning the railroad – what was it called? Anyway, they were getting ready for the Bicentennial and making the – what was that called?

DS:      The Reading line?

BH:     Well, it was no longer a railroad; so the building was then – I guess it was part of the Convention Center. You know, I’ve lost the timing. But it was terrific. We’d go to the beer garden in the Terminal, and here were all these construction workers knocking off (22:00) for lunch. And they were working on Saturdays! I think later they were working on Sundays to finish on time. But it seemed like such a neat place to go and to have lunch. And they would push the tables together – the workers – and we would sort of sit nearby and just watch and listen. There was something so wonderful about that. We would finish our lunch and do our shopping and find our way home, I guess usually by cab. Because there wasn’t anyplace to buy stuff, at least no place to do a big shopping. There were isolated stores. There was a seafood store on South Street. I think it was Ralph’s. And we used to buy five-pound boxes of shrimp. I forget what they cost, but it was very inexpensive. I was sad to see him go. And of course there was the corner grocery store at Front and South. (23:00)

DS:      At Front and South?

BH:     Front and South. No, it was at Second and South. And Sam was the owner. I think his sister was the cashier. And then in the back of the market was the butcher. I forget his name.

DS:      Young’s Meats?

BH:     No, I don’t think so. I only knew him by his first name. I remember going in there to buy a brisket, and he said to me, “What would a shiksa know about cooking brisket?” [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs] A shikoku?

BH:     Shiksa. You don’t know that word?

DS:      No.

BH:     Oh, that’s a non-Jew. [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs]

BH:     I don’t know if it’s derogatory or not. Anyway, I did know about cooking brisket. [Laughs] And, of course, he was the one who introduced me to Tannenbaum’s strudel. [Later she said it was Teitelman’s.] That (24:00) was wonderful. I used to buy that a couple of pounds at a time. And I would freeze it so that in case we had drop-in visitors I could pull it out and defrost it in a hurry and have something to serve for unexpected drop-ins.

DS:      They were on Second Street?

BH:     They were on Second, just next door to the corner grocery. And it wasn’t a store. I think they were wholesalers, and they delivered their stuff to bakeries and organizations. They had this wonderful strudel. Even a shiksa knew that.

DS:      In the ‘60s, would you go out to eat in the area? Were there any restaurants (25:00) in the ‘60s?

BH:     There just wasn’t much of anything.

DS:      So you pretty much had to go into town.

BH:     Yes, I guess so. I really can’t remember dining out very much. Alan seems to think we did, but I don’t remember that. I know that [Laughs] the first night living in the house we had a little table in the kitchen. I guess you would call it a breakfast area. Anyway, Alan came home, and I had that table set for dinner. And he sat down and said, “I thought if we had a dining area we would eat in the dining room.” So, the next night, he came home and I had set the table in the dining room. I had put the two extension boards on the dining table so it was stretched (26:00) out to its full length. And I sat at one end and he sat way at the other end. It seemed like a football field length at the time. So that we could have an elegant dinner in the dining room. And so he picked up his placemat and moved it over to where I was sitting. [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs]

BH:     That was funny.

DS:      Well, it sounds like good times.

BH:     They were good times. One thing Alan didn’t mention was the building of the Society Hill Club. That was another place where we were charter members.

DS:      Do you remember a year on that? Would that have been in the 70s, you think?

BH:     Probably. Yes, because we moved in in ’67, and we were here for quite a while before anything happened there. But that really was quite wonderful. On Saturdays – (27:00) on Sunday mornings, actually, we would – we and a bunch of other regulars would go there to play paddle tennis. And there was someone – her name was Linda Snow White – a wonderful name – and she would cater lunches, I guess. We would play paddle tennis in the morning. And then we would have lunch there and sort of hang around and socialize until mid-afternoon, when we would go home. I remember walking home thinking, “This is as good as life gets! It’s just wonderful.” And then, of course, the Society Hill Club started failing and the paddle tennis courts started disintegrating. And instead of going there early on a Sunday morning to play paddle tennis, we would go there with our tools and do carpentry work on them, try (28:00) to maintain them. The floorboards were coming up and the nets were falling apart. I remember sitting there hand sewing the nets back together. That was a mess, but it was also really fun. It was good and social, and everybody was working on a joint effort. I even became a lifeguard there.

DS:      I didn’t know that.

BH:     Yes.

DS:      On the weekends? Because you were working during the week.

BH:     Well, I guess by that time I had quit. I had gotten out of that job. I retired from the children’s clothing business for a lot of other reasons. But then I worked as a – a restaurant called Cobblestones opened on the premises of the Society Hill Club and I got a job (29:00) as a seating hostess. [Laughs] That was funny. I was seating hostess.

            I also ran the coat check. One day – what was his name? Prominent lawyer, who used to be a neighbor when we were at 24 th and Spruce. He came to have Sunday brunch. It was big in those days. He came to check his coat, recognized me, and it was embarrassing when he went to leave because he didn’t know whether to leave a tip. [Laughs] Or how big a tip. Oh. That was funny, Oh, what was his name? Begins with an S. [Later she said it was Dick Sprague.]

DS:      So any other stories. Your father. Did he have trouble?

BH:     You were going to ask about unions, probably. I remember someone, maybe (30:00) it was the architect, who told him the name of the union guy in this area. And one day when they were here working, this car pulled up and parked outside and the driver looked around. And finally he came in and started talking with my father. My father realized that he was the union leader in the area. And my father reached into his hip pocket to get his wallet, and the union guy sort of smiled, understandingly, and as my father opened the wallet, he was searching for the piece of paper on which he had written down the guy’s name. [Laughs] So instead of reaching for a – what – a contribution to the union? – he was just looking for the name so he could (31:00) call this guy by Mr. So and So. At any rate, the guy left in a huff, and nothing much more ever happened. But the union was aware of this house that was under construction. He was also, I think, satisfied that it was not a developer who was going to put up something massive in the whole neighborhood. It was one house and done. So that came to nothing. Oh, you had asked about Sam, the beer drinker. [Laughs] He was funny. There was a little tavern on the corner down at –

DS:      Sam was one of the workers.

BH:     Yes. My father, my brother-in-law, and Sam. And Sam was really – he looked (32:00) a little like Willie Nelson, actually. And maybe that’s why I’m fond of Willie Nelson. He had a twinkle in his eye, and he really drank a lot of beer. And he would go down to the corner to buy his beer for the day, and he realized that the beer delivery truck made daily runs to the tavern on the corner [later she said “of Pine Street and Delaware Avenue”]. And somehow he made a connection, and the beer truck would stop and deliver a case of beer to our construction site.

            And all the empties, the empty bottles, were tossed into sort of a pit in our basement, which later got walled up. If ever they – like in Pompeii where they excavate the ruins – but if they ever get to excavate our basement, they’ll find a pit of (33:00) beer bottles. Because I think it may have gone through a case at least every other day. Somehow I feel it was a case a day, but that seems – I don’t know. He did drink a lot of beer.

DS:      Any other stories about the neighbors. Their construction or memories of ….

BH:     There were so many people moving into that neighborhood within a short period of time, and I guess everybody was pretty much interested in what was going on and getting to know each other. There was a sort of pioneering spirit, I guess. Gradually we just got to (34:00) know people by seeing them, by talking houses, talking politics, seeing Dilworth walk around with his poodles. It was kind of thrilling, ‘cause I think everybody respected him a lot, unlike mayor politics. It was an exciting time to live, being young and doing something.

DS:      Did you get together with these other – I mean, were they mostly architects or builders?

BH:     No, they were lawyers, medical people. And there was a nice youngness about it, a common spirit of becoming a community. Joining the Civic Association, going to meetings, (35:00) having some – I remember one meeting that almost came to fist fight. I have no idea what the issues were at the time. But everybody seemed young and bright and enthusiastic. Maybe that’s why they talk about the good old days; maybe it was the good old days.

DS:      Bomie, we all call you Bomie. Explain to us how that name originated.

BH:     Well, obviously from Bomberger. My mother-in-law’s name was Sara also; so it seemed just easier to distinguish between the two Sara Halperns if I was continued to be called Bomie.

DS:      Let’s talk about what the Newmarket area looked like, the area between Lombard and Pine, Front and Second, in the ‘60s. (36:00)

BH:     From our house, we looked over onto some old houses which – when we got our land, they were empty and waiting for reconstruction, and they belonged to Van Arkel & Moss, who were the, I guess, builders. And they were turned into quite handsome houses. One of them – that would have been 112 – they were rebuilding that and doing the reconstruction on that, the first story had a commercial front. There was a loading dock, a loading platform there. I don’t remember what the building itself looked like, but they were rebuilding it with (37:00) brick and windows in the style of the original construction. And one day the whole front fell off, meaning they had to rebuild the entire front wall, which was done but was probably a better job that way. You asked about the whole block. It was just an open field for the most part, behind that row of houses. And it was used by the neighbors to walk their dogs and kids to play. And then one day some Frenchmen appeared and they started playing this game which was called pétanque, which I think is also called boule, and it’s an Italian game which they play – what’s that called? [It’s called bocce.]

DS:      Can you spell these names?

BH:     I cannot. [Laughs] But they were the guys that opened Champignon, Rene, Rene, (38:00) he had a Polish last name. I cannot remember that name, either. But Champignon was a really nice restaurant. They were like the rest of the neighborhood, young and working hard, and they had a vision. It was a good restaurant for a while. It met with a sad end, though.

DS:      It met with a sad end?

BH:     Rene shot himself.

DS:      That was on the south side of Lombard in the 100 block?

BH:     Right. I think it’s still there. I think it’s still called Champignon. And it’s as if it were in another country, because I haven’t been in that block for years, I think. isn’t that terrible? So close. (39:00)

DS:      And then across the street were Duncan and …. [Sal Buell].

BH:     They were across the street from Champignon. They were on Lombard. And right across the street from us, Bill Hollenbeck, who was a friend of the Masons, our next-door neighbors. Every Sunday they would get together, and the Masons gardened and cooked what they called ginburgers. [Laughs] They were very jolly. Bill Hollenbeck was a very social guy. He used to have parties occasionally. He’d have this big tent put up next to his house and – yes, I guess Van Arkel & Moss owned that land. Bill Hollenbeck and the Van Arkels were good friends, until Van Arkel fell out of favor in the neighborhood for wanting to put in this commercial thing called Newmarket. He would slink around. It was sort of like Richard (40:00) Nixon [Laughs]. He would slink around, out of sight. You would never see Tom Van Arkel any more. That was sad, because he was such a fair-haired boy for the longest time, until this thing called Newmarket surfaced. That really split the Civic Association. Well, there were a lot of issues. Low-income housing also got to be a big fight in the community.

DS:      Yes, that was at, what, Sixth and Pine.

BH:     Two locations. One was on Sixth; one was on Pine. I forget what those houses were called.

DS:      So, tell me the charming story about the Buells and their animals. About the rooster that used to wake you all up.

BH:     I tell you, I was with Sally when she got that rooster. We had gone to the Italian (41:00) market. That’s a place we would shop at occasionally. The Italian market on Ninth Street in South Philly. Anyway, Sally and I had gone there for – I don’t remember what. Here were roosters or game hens, I guess, of several varieties. She saw this colorful little bird and just fell in love with it. And before I knew what was happening, she had bought the thing and [Laughs] had it in the car and brought it home. What on earth is she going to do with the creature? But it became a character in the neighborhood, because he would get up quite early, as roosters do, and he would make his presence known by crowing. I remember Sally saying that this visiting – I think she was Chinese – architect, was staying with them, and she was asked what she thought of the neighborhood. She said she thought it was sort of third world. [Laughs] (42:00)

DS:      The rooster’s name was –?

BH:     Clem.

DS:      Clem. And then they had two dogs.

BH:     They had Ree , a Doberman and Snoopy, a dachshund.

DS:      And two sons.

BH:     And two sons. And of course their back wall opened into this open field. It was a social little field, and everybody would be out there with their dogs, their kids. The rooster didn’t make it out into the open field, but you could hear him.

[End of interview]


©2006 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
Society Hill Towers 220 Locust Street
Interview Date
April 4, 2006
Halpern, Sara (Bomie)
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - New Construction
Oral History Sources