Thomas Guglielmo

Thomas (Tom) Guglielmo (1928-2017) began working in real estate in Center City Philadelphia in 1953. His agency affiliated with Jackson Cross in 1955 or ’56, and by 1959, Jackson Cross represented Webb and Knapp, the developers of Society Hill Towers and the Pei houses on S. Third Street. Tom says that, at that time, Jackson Cross was the only real estate agency handling residences that operated in Center City. That is how Tom came to be the agent selling for the Pei houses. He describes the nightmare that was the first open house of the model Pei house. He talks about his role in selling the Pei houses, Bingham Court, the Wright-Andrade-Gain houses at Third and Spruce (NE corner), and the Alex Wolfington houses at Third and Spruce (SW corner). He says that Society Hill first started to deteriorate after World War II. The trend everywhere in the country was to move to the suburbs, and that happened in Philadelphia. Most of the people that redevelopment displaced, he says, were home-owners who chose not to keep their houses and rehab them following Redevelopment Authority regulations. But anyone willing to abide by RA regulations could buy a historic house and rehabilitate it. He describes what Society Hill looked like before redevelopment: “packed with warehouses,” large storage buildings. There were a lot of historic houses here, but they were in disrepair. Some of them were occupied by owners with families, but they really did not enjoy the benefit of a residential community. They might have been in a lovely house with a big warehouse next to it. As far as displacement, it was his understanding that those who lived in their own homes had the privilege to return and buy the place. Whichever agency – whether it was the federal government or the state (7:00) whoever – his company was not involved in the acquisition from these owners who lived in Society Hill. As can be seen in the interview with Buddy Plumer, the realtors’ point of view about redevelopment differs considerably from that of the residents.


DS:      This is an interview with Thomas Guglielmo. The address is 226 South Street, Philadelphia, PA. The date is April 22, 2009, and the interviewer is Dorothy Stevens.

            Tom, would you tell me your full name?

TG:      Thomas J. Guglielmo, Jr.

DS:      When were you born?

TG:      I was born July 16, 1928.

DS:      Where were you born?

TG:      I was born in New York City.

DS:      Where do you live now?

TG:      I live in the Society Hill Towers.

DS:      How long have you been there?

TG:      About fifteen, sixteen years.

DS:      Why did you come to this area?

TG:      There was a young lady – I went to school in Pennsylvania – and there was a young lady that I met back in the ‘40s, and we got married in ’51. We lived up in (1:00) Abington, but I always worked in the city. I started working in real estate in Center City in January of l953.

DS:      Who did you work for?

TG:      I worked for my father-in-law, C. Harry Johnson – it was his daughter that I married – and I was very new at what I did. I had a lot to learn, but I was there for five years. Then I suggested to him that maybe we should go with a larger company, so we started working with Jackson Cross Companies in Center City; that was about 1955 or ’56. It was about 1959 that Jackson Cross represented one of the original – I think there (2:00) were four or five – developers competing to do the work in Society Hill. We represented one of the losers, but we were in the city. None of the other representatives were in the city. We convinced, at that point in time, Webb and Knapp and their group – Bill Zeckendorf, I think – that we should represent them in the city. That’s how I got myself started in the Society Hill area, which was about 1959, 1960.

DS:      In the article that was written about you, I.M. Pei  and Society Hill, the 40 th anniversary celebration, you talk about trying to sell the Pei houses. Could you tell me about that?

TG:      Yes, well, the first new houses in Society Hill, as I understand, – there might have been a lot of houses in Society Hill, but I don’t think any new ones were built in almost one hundred years. The first new houses, there were twenty-five of them, designed by Pei, (3:00) and they front on Third Street, below Walnut Street, between Walnut and Locust Streets. They were priced at the staggering price of $45,000. We had a big opening and big promotion, and I sold four very quickly. It took me two years to sell the fifth house. We sold them all over a period of time, and I have a variety of pictures to show you of the very first day we opened up.

            One of the city papers gave us a big splash about what was going on . I left there Thursday and came back on a Sunday, and the city [had] dug up the street. It poured rain. It was terrible! I went to my open house, and on top of that, the plumber had been in. He was checking the pipes. He had drained all the water – it was in the basement – (4:00) so we got off to a very bad start. All the rain couldn’t get across the street. They’d [open house visitor] go inside and see six inches of water in the basement. Very difficult start, but we got over that. I have a picture of that street – a picture in the paper, the Bulletin or the Inquirer. I’ll show you that down the line, but it wasn’t a very happy beginning.

DS:      In your opinion, when do you think this neighborhood started to deteriorate?

TG:      Well, I’m not a Philadelphian. My first exposure to Philadelphia was [when] I started the real estate business in ’52. I would guess that a lot of inner cities – they started to move out to the suburbs, probably right after the war. Society Hill, you know, was an old part of town, and Dock Street had the merchants there selling the produce. (5:00) Philadelphians for the most part lived in the suburbs and they were moving out to the suburbs certainly after the war. I have some aerials [photographs] of what Society Hill looked like, I mean, just packed with warehouses, large storage buildings. There were a lot of historic houses here, but they were in disrepair. Some of them were occupied by owners with families, but they really didn’t enjoy the benefit of a residential community. They might have been in a lovely house, and a big old warehouse next to it. The Redevelopment Authority – it’s my understanding that for every dollar that the city put in, the state doubled that and the federal government doubled that; for every dollar the city put in, they got five dollars with which to get rid of all that was there. There are (6:00) aerials [photographs] that show it was packed with houses and how it looked after they pulled them out. As I said, there were four groups that went down to the wire to develop this area, and as I said, I.M. Pei won. That was the beginning. I can remember standing on Third Street looking towards the river, and [seeing] absolutely nothing. Everything was taken down.

DS:      Do you remember the other three groups?

TG:      I do not. I’m sure that information is out there, but I do not.

DS:      Tell me about the people who were displaced.

TG:      As far as the displacement, where people for the most part who lived in their homes, if they were there, it’s my understanding they had the privilege to go back there and buy the place. Whatever agency, whether it was the federal government or the state, (7:00) whoever, we weren’t involved in the acquisition from these owners that lived in Society Hill. At some point they [the agency] said, “This is the price.” Now, if they [the owner] didn’t like the price, they could challenge that and –

DS:      If they owned the house – I’m confused. If they owned the house –

  1. If they owned the house and they wanted to stay there, that was – I’m talking about houses that some of them owned, some of them lived in there that didn’t want to stay there. The ones that owned the house, and maybe had fixed them – some of them had been fixed up, they had a right to buy it back. I was not involved in that particular part of the transaction. That was – most of that was done – now, of those houses, there might have been a bunch of houses that were acquired – just let me – $10 for example, that we ended up selling for $2. They were historic houses. There was a list of them. I have a list of them in one of my pieces of information I brought here. Originally, there were one hundred seventy-nine shells [houses needing restoration]. They were historic by reason of age, not that so-and-so lived there or (8:00) something was done there. That might have been, too, but by reason of age. We were putting them on the market at staggering prices[Laughs], $800, $1200, maybe $2,000, that type of stuff. And the people that bought them – this is the old, historic houses – they were responsible to restore those houses to the specification as set forth by the [Redevelopment] Authority, primarily with the façade – had to restore the façade to its original appearance, as set forth by the Authority.

            Now those houses were a couple of hundred years old. Didn’t know exactly each and every case, but where they were – all the different brickwork that was on and that was a requirement. That was a tough road to follow, because people come in and say, “But I want to do it my way.” “You have to do it our way.” In the long run, it benefited all, I believe. One of the (9:00) houses I had was the Hill Keith Physick House. I never did sell that. It was priced pretty high, like $25,000, something like that; not so high today. I remember showing it. I have a book somewhere that has one of these – I have it at my desk – and it has a front cover of the Hill Keith Physick House. Couldn’t miss it. I couldn’t miss it, anyway. There were then various plots that were available, but as far as the housing that was sold, the historic housing, all you had to do was buy it and agree to do it their [the Redevelopment Authority’s] way. There were instructions, by the Authority, by whoever was the architectural responsibility and authority. You could contact them, review what you had to do. Most (10:00) people who were doing houses like that would engage an architect to rehabilitate their house.

DS:      You didn’t see any problems with the people who were displaced or the breakup of the neighborhood –

TG:      I was – only once, only once, somebody came into the open house, the Pei House, and he and his wife – it was a nice Sunday afternoon – and he had an edge. I think the company I was with did a number of appraisals on a value [of his house]. Jackson Cross did appraisals of property. They were known for their appraisal acumen. Apparently, he – several years before – apparently, he was very angry. He didn’t come in to look at the [open house]. He had the dialogue with me, and it wasn’t very pleasant. He caught me short (11:00) on it. I said, “I don’t know how I can help you. It was established that this was the value.” It looked like he was ready to do battle. His wife was with him and pulled him away.

DS:      Tell me about the type of people, the people who came in in the ‘60s to restore or to build new. Any experiences with them, or any opinions, thoughts?

TG:      Well, I think the push to move back into town didn’t really begin until some time in the ‘80s. This is a new happening. We’re creating something new out of an area that’s 300 years old. This is where it all started. It was a great idea, and look at it today, a job well done. It’s not without its problems, but I’m glad it’s here. We have this most historic square mile in the US of A. At that time, the war was over, fifteen years before that, (12:00) and everybody was moving out of town, raising children, wanted the wide-open space. Myself included. I’m an old city boy. I lived up in Abington. I never had a lawn before. I had a nice apartment in New York City with the folks, but I wanted my kids to be able to play in the back yard and that kind of stuff. I think that was on the mind of – the push – we managed to sell the houses in the ‘60s. It was a slow – but once there was a little momentum and we got some publicity, little by little it worked. Now, today, it’s second nature. People like coming back into town. It’s my understanding, [in] Center City, the population’s increased considerably in the last fifteen years, as far as people living in town. We don’t manufacture anything in town any more. Warehouses, churches, schools, synagogues, all being converted to condominiums. Anything that we manufactured, at least in Center City, just isn’t done any more. Somewhere along the line – in the (13:00) course of the day, I’ll show you some aerials of where all these warehouse buildings were built to store and build and do things. Like clothing, manufacturing.

DS:      Manufacturing. You’re feeling that [in] the ‘60s and the ‘70s it was still kind of –

TG:      Well, no, it was moving. It was always moving forward.

DS:      The neighborhood wasn’t getting worse.

TG:      Oh, no. No, no. It was getting better each day. It had a beginning, and it was a struggle, but in the days that I – the next seven or eight years that I was with Jackson Cross – we sold all the Pei houses, all the Bingham Court houses, and all the ones at Third and Walnut, the Wright-Andrade-Gain houses there, plus a bunch of historic (14:00) houses. They weren’t – the high market then was $45,000 to $50,000. Then I got involved with the southwest corner of Third and Spruce, when Alex Wolfington built those houses, and I sold those. Then Penn’s Landing was converted. We sold those. Those $100,000 houses today are selling for $1 million. Maybe not today, but yesterday. We hope they go back up again.

DS:      Yes. Right. Did you ever have any interaction with Ted Newbold?

TG:      Oh, yes.

DS:      Tell me about that.

TG:      He’s a nice fellow. I like him. Of course, his father-in-law was mayor. I would see him walking down [to Society Hill] every once in a while and say hello to him. Everybody came down – and when Kennedy spoke on the 4 th of July, 1962, I opened the house. I said (15:00) – it was a beautiful, sunny day. I was down with the family at the shore. We came back up that morning, opened the house at 9 o’clock. I didn’t close it until 9 o’clock. I must have had twelve hundred people go through it. Nobody was buying. They just wanted to see. The mayor came in, Mayor Tate.

DS:      Which house?

TG:      That was the sample [Pei house], right in the middle, right across from the Powel House. That was my sample. But, I didn’t sell a house. [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs] What are your thoughts about how the Redevelopment Authority handled this whole event in the ‘50s and the ‘60s?

TG:      Well, looking at what we have today, I would say it was handled pretty well. It wasn’t going to be smooth. It was going to be a difficult project, and it was going to take time. You weren’t going to see promise the next day, the next couple of months,           (16:00) maybe the next year. It happened. We all know that it happened. I was the only agent selling down here in those years. Jackson Cross was the only office involved.

DS:      Really?

TG:      Absolutely. We sold of all the – I think – of the sixty-five original houses, the Pei houses, Bingham Court, and Wright Andrade – I think there were about sixty-five houses – I don’t think I had more than one, maybe two, cooperating brokers in any of them. There weren’t that many agents. Now there are ten to one, maybe twenty to one in town, compared to what it was before. Most of the agents in Center City were commercial and industrial agents. Jackson Cross had a big industrial – and all of the offices – and there’s always a handful – maybe there were as far as residential agents, maybe there were a total of twenty-five, maybe thirty or forty, and they were all across the city. They were focusing on that. This is new – (17:00)

DS:      You were selling the shells, also.

TG:      I was selling the shells. I have a sheet here, to give you an idea of some of the things that I had. This was put out by Old Philadelphia Development Corporation. This:

DS:      [reading] “Houses for sale. January 1, 1964.”

TG:      Right. Now there were one hundred seventy-nine to begin with, and this is what the group – all those had been sold, I’m sure. What’s the date on that? ’64? ’65?

DS:      1964, February. Wonderful. Were you involved at all with the Crosstown Expressway?

TG:      No. I’m glad it didn’t go. (18:00)

DS:      How about I-95?

TG:      Are you talking about I-95 or this one?

DS:      Well, Crosstown first.

TG:      This one. I’m glad that didn’t happen, because it would have been a terrible division. They fought it, which is great. I-95, I can remember, that came in about 1970. They were digging – I can remember walking – you know where Penn’s Landing is, where Front Street is. There was nothing – there was a big hill. You walked down to get to the waterfront. They started on that probably in the mid to late ‘60s.

DS:      Clearly you think that the way they did I-95 was good?

TG:      Oh, yes, I think that they depressed it there was smart. They realized it – I think one of the examples was San Francisco. I think they built one up, and it blocked (19:00) everything. They should have dropped it more and spread it out more. I mean, they’re recognizing that today. It should have been down and then …. But I think I-95 is an important part of the country, and we’ve overcome some of the problems. It was a big decision to make. At the time, I think that one mile cost $50 or $60 million to build way back then. Probably cost a lot more than that today.

DS:      I think so.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

TG:      This is another person interpreting what I said.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

TG:      I think one of the interesting features about Society Hill is that we have a (20:00) nice blending of old and new. Everybody doesn’t like one style of architecture or the other. That they all sit here and blend and work well together is a big plus for us. We enjoy a unique situation with a number of historic houses of any city in the United States. We’re way ahead in that department. Of course, I can wave the flag and tell you about the Liberty Bell, and that’s a pretty important spot, where it all started in, what was it, 1684, or something like that, when Billy Penn landed on Dock Street. I was never much of a history buff until I got down here and started to enjoy some of the things that I see and I understand. I am a city dweller, being from New York City. I like Philadelphia.

DS:      You like the mixing of the old and the new.

TG:      Oh, absolutely. There were some that [said] you had to save everything. That (21:00) didn’t work. I mean, there were some things that had to be taken down, unfortunately.

DS:      For safety reasons?

TG:      Well, for efficiency. I mean, I’m sure a lot of buildings were taken down before all this started that shouldn’t have been. The Slate-Roof House. There’s a whole bunch of other things that were taken down that shouldn’t have been. There’s some grand old buildings that should still have been standing. What was the Seamen’s Church Institute at Front and Delancey, wasn’t it? That was crumbling. I had that for sale for $20,000. They had a terrible snow storm or something, and the roof caved in. That was the end of it, and you have those new houses there now.

DS:      It had a fire, too.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Another story about the Towers when they were under construction.

TG:      When they first started the construction, they dug a hole, a huge hole, on the (22:00) site which is now where the Towers are. They dug a hole to support some of the columns and the garages below. They dropped 1700 pounds down to support all this weight, and it took a long time to get to the ground level, and [to] one of the officials of the Webb and Knapp company whom I’d meet regularly, I said, “You’re taking such a long time.” He said, “Just wait ‘till they get [to] that first level. It’ll grow like a mushroom.” And it did. Once they got to that level, it sprouted every – if you’d turn the other way, there were two more floors that were there. It’s still there today, 40-odd years later. It’s a very – like a lot of the high-rise apartment houses, they were built to rent and they were converted in 1980 to condominiums. Like anything else, the prices are out of sight today.

DS:      When were they built?

TG:      About ’62 or ’63 they started the groundbreaking. They celebrated their 40 th anniversary I think 2004 or 2005. (23:00)

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Go ahead.

TG:      When the first group of Pei houses were built, they were built by Jackson Cross Company, and the groundbreaking was attended by Boyd Barnard, who was president of Jackson Cross, handling the sale; Bill Zeckendorf, who was the developer; and four presidents of the savings and loans that handled that [the financing]. Their names escape me, but they were representing their agencies at the time that this deal was set and they started to build the Pei houses.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Another story about Mr. Haas, Otto Haas. (24:00)

TG:      Otto Haas [and] I met quite by chance in one of the weekend promotions of Society Hill. I had the Pei [sample] house open. There was a program in the city going on, to see what was going on, as to what the development was, try to encourage people to move down there. It was about 1964 or ’65. I met with him; we got talking. I said, “There’s a lovely, old house on Delancey.” He said, “Really? Can you tell me something about it?” I said, “Well, I think it was built about 1760 – ’80 odd.” He said, “I’d like to take a look at it.” I said, “Well, I have a key.” He said, “Fine, let’s go take a look.” He liked the house. It was the Barclay House, a lovely, historic house. It was very well restored. That was a Saturday. The next Monday, I had his representatives looking to buy it, and we agreed on a price. He said, “But I’ll only buy it if I – I want to put a garden on the side.” There were two old houses that were going to be torn down. They were owned by an individual; I contacted them, and we made an adjustment on the price, and settled, and he (25:00) bought the house. As you know, the Barclay House, lovely house on Delancey Street, and had that lovely garden there for 25 years. It was gorgeous, and he maintained it in great shape. He was always a nice gentleman; he was always interested in what was going on, always took the time to say hello.

Transcriber’s note: The tape continues to run, and a faint conversation can be heard, but it is not loud enough to transcribe.

[End of Interview]


©2009 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
226 South Street
Interview Date
April 22, 2009
Guglielmo, Thomas
Narrator Type
Oral History Sources