Thomas Williams

Thomas Williams tells a story of two houses owned in succession by two generations of the same family. Tom and his wife Sandra inherited the houses from Tom’s uncle, Justice Williams, in 1986. Justice had bought the houses in 1959. Justice Williams was the product of a Main Line Quaker family. He grew up in Devon, PA, and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He practiced law at a prominent Center City firm, lived near Rittenhouse Square, and became active in the city’s political reform movement. Long interested in Philadelphia history and architecture, he was drawn to the redevelopment of Society Hill. Influenced by friends involved in that effort, in 1959 he bought 307 and 309 South Philip Street. Justice’s family was opposed to his involvement in Society Hill; they told him, quite frankly, that he was crazy. His mother said he was wasting money and should stay in Rittenhouse Square. (It should be noted that Justice was 57 years old when his mother offered him this advice.) Both houses were in very poor condition, with 307 worse than 309. The façades were festooned with fire escapes, as the houses functioned as tenements. There was a tenant in 307 who had to be evicted, but 309 was vacant. Justice engaged architect Robert Venturi to restore the houses, including joining them at the second and third floors. He moved into them in 1962, when renovations were complete. He lived there until he died, in 1985. Tom and Sandra were planning to move from Washington, D.C., so that Tom could attend law school in Philadelphia. It happened that Justice died that year and left the house to them. Tom was his only nephew, and he liked Sandra because she was practical and mechanical. She fixed things, and Justice admired that. They did some work on the houses when they moved in; and, in 1997, they did major work, including joining them at the first floor and putting in a new kitchen. Unlike his Uncle Justice, Tom was fortunate in that his mother thought that having Tom and Sandra living in Philadelphia was a fine idea.


DS:      This is an interview with Thomas Williams. The location is 309 S. Philip  Street. The date is October 31, 2009. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens.

Tom, tell me when did you come to Society Hill?

TW:     My wife and I came to Society Hill in 1986.

DS:      Why?

TW:     I had been a graduate of Haverford College, was working for the government in Washington, and decided to go to law school here in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, my uncle died that year and left us this house.

DS:      Your uncle’s name?

TW:     Justice Williams. I can tell you more about him, but maybe that’s a separate question, because that’s a big part of the history.

DS:      Yes. Proceed.

TW:     My Uncle Justice was a Philadelphia lawyer, a partner at Ballard Spahr, (1:00) and he was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. He had lived on the Main Line in Devon. In the ‘50s, he had moved into the city around Rittenhouse Square, and then became very interested in Society Hill. He was a cousin of Ed Bacon. [He] had a lot of friends in the redevelopment movement and the reform movement in city government in the ‘40s. It was part of his experience in the legal community. He was also fascinated with history and wanted to try to make a difference in Society Hill, so he bought these two houses.

DS:      Which two houses?

TW:     309 and 307 South Philip Street, in 1959. That was the time when Society (2:00) Hill was in a very rough state, other than a few early pioneers, but very few. His family told him, quite frankly, that he was crazy. His mother told him he was wasting money. Rittenhouse Square was always going to be the primary neighborhood in Center City, so he was very brave to buy these houses. One of the reasons he bought them is that [he] was involved with the Octavia Hill Association, which had a lot of Society Hill-Queen Village real estate, primarily because the neighborhoods at that time were not affluent, to help low- and moderate-income renters. The president of Octavia Hill [Association] during (3:00) that time was a fellow by the name of William Jeans. He was a Harvard-educated engineer [Justice was a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School] and part of the same social circuit as people who were involved in the reform movement in Philadelphia. He, along with Ed Bacon, persuaded my uncle to commit to Society Hill. Without the validation of Ed Bacon and Bill Jeans, I don’t think he would have overcome the family pressure and invested and become involved in Society Hill.

            Justice was also friends with Walter Phillips, who was very involved in the reform, kind of behind the scenes reform, leadership in Philadelphia. It was a combination of being part of the reform movement in Philadelphia, an interest in architecture, and a keen interest in the history of Philadelphia that led him to (4:00) commit to these houses. Coincidentally, he was also – I don’t know how – connected with [the architect] Robert Venturi. The restoration of these two houses was Robert Venturi’s first commercial project in his career.

DS:      Commercial?

TW:     Commercial being non-family. He did fix up his mother’s house in Chestnut Hill, but that was a family commission. This was his first – Justice was his first client outside of the family. [In fact, the Vanna Venturi House was designed and built in 1962-64. The Justice Williams properties were designed and restored in 1959-62 and are listed in the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings database as Venturi’s seventh project.]

DS:      Venturi’s mother lived here?

TW:     Venturi’s mother lived in Chestnut Hill.

DS:      Oh, Chestnut Hill.

TW:     I think Robert Venturi went to Princeton. He had Philadelphia roots, (5:00) and he certainly came back to Philadelphia [from Princeton]. Again, I don’t know what the connection was, but I suspect it may have been Ed Bacon or maybe Bill Jeans [who] put him in touch with Venturi

DS:      Do you know how much Justice Williams paid for these houses?

TW:     Yes, he paid $25,000 for the two houses.

DS:      For the two?

TW:     In 1959. My understanding is that one of the houses was vacant and the other house was [occupied by a family of] Polish ancestry and had to be evicted forcibly from the house prior to renovation.

DS:      This house [309 Philip Street]?

TW:     No, 307 [Philip Street], because the two houses at that time were completely separate. They were later joined at several stages.

            Just to take you back in history [about] these houses: we’ve looked at the chain (6:00) of title of the houses. They were built the year after Stephen Girard died, and they were part of his estate. At least the land [was] and then his estate built the houses. They were built as income properties for the Girard estate. There was only one owner between the time of Stephen Girard and the time my uncle purchased them from the [Girard] estate. That’s from 1824 until 1959, one continuous owner.

DS:      This house, 309, was vacant. Was it open to the elements? What condition was it in?

TW:     It was not open to the elements, but it was in very poor condition. We have pictures of an outhouse – not an outhouse, but a bathroom appended to (7:00) the rear. There were fire escapes, because it was basically tenement housing. There may have been different families on different floors at various times, so there were fire escapes on the front; it was very disheveled looking. My understanding is that 307 was in worse shape than 309 but both, by today’s standards, [were] in very poor condition.

DS:      Are the houses connected now?

TW:     The houses are connected now. As part of the original Venturi renovation in 1960 and 1961, the houses were joined at the second and third floor levels. We renovated thoroughly in the late ‘90s and commissioned an architect to help (8:00) us break through on the first floor. We tried to do that in a way that was architecturally sensitive and used a different brick [inaudible] for the passageway in order to create a sense of differentiation, a different style. We did that with the consent of the National Trust, because the National Trust has a historic easement on the property, both the exterior and the interior, which is very unusual.

DS:      Yes, what does that mean?

TW:     It means that we need to seek the National Trust’s consent to do any exterior modification other than maintenance. We have to get their consent if we replace any material moldings or anything like that. A representative of the National Trust visits every two or three years to make sure we are in compliance with their easement. (9:00) Initially, Justice had left us a life interest in the property, and we had bought out the National Trust’s remainder interest. As a condition of purchasing the remainder interest, we consented to these restrictions. It’s been a very good relationship with the National Trust; we’re members and we visit their properties and support their mission.

DS:      The Redevelopment Authority worked, I guess, with your uncle and the architect to bring it back to what it would have looked like, taking the fire escapes off ….

TW:     I’m sure they worked together. I don’t know [when Bea Kirkbride] joined the Redevelopment Authority, [Kirkbride was Ed Bacon’s Executive Assistant at RDA] but I know they were very tough. I have no specific knowledge of the (10:00) interaction between Venturi, the architect, and the Redevelopment Authority. My assumption is that they were pretty rigorous with everybody; my supposition is that out of necessity they worked very collegially together.

DS:      Did your uncle live here?

TW:     Yes, he did. He moved in after the renovation, in 1962. Again, there was this hold-over tenant in 307 that had to be evicted. My understanding is that it took some time to get him out. On the other hand, I think that maybe there was some grace period initially, because Justice wanted to finalize the renovation plan. I think that by the time the renovation was scheduled to start, he pushed the eviction through.

DS:      Did he own the building or was he a renter? (11:00)

TW:     He was a tenant.

DS:      Your uncle lived here from ’62 to –

TW:     ’62 to ’85. My uncle was a confirmed bachelor, and he had a wonderful housekeeper, a black woman named Jane Carroll, a wonderful Christian woman. It could have almost been a play, with these two people. My uncle was a very patrician, old school, very formal person, who sat at the dining room table by himself. [When he] rang a little bell, Jane Carroll, who was a very short woman, about 5’1” and rather plump, would bring out the food. (12:00) There was an entire three or four courses that would come out. Even when Justice was dining alone, it was a very formal situation, ringing the bell. It was almost something out of the nineteenth century. It was almost peculiar to see that in the ‘80s. Justice was a character, but in a good way. This woman enabled him to maintain this lifestyle. She had worked for Justice’s [mother] – my grandmother – for many years and [for] her mother before that. It was the last vestige of a system of family retainers. It was the end of the era, I think, when Justice died, because it (13:00) ended the family’s use of servants in Philadelphia.

DS:      You were his favorite nephew?

TW:     I was his only nephew; he didn’t have a lot of choice. We did have some things in common. Justice was on the Board of Managers at Haverford College, and that’s where I went to college. I think he appreciated in some senses the common interest there, and he knew I had an interest in history. I think that’s part of the reason that he left us our house. The other thing was, he really liked my wife, Sandra. Unlike anybody in the Williams family, [she] was very practical and mechanically inclined. When there were things that didn’t work at Philip Street, Sandra had a penchant for fixing them. Justice thought that it was so brilliant that somebody could fix (14:00) a chair or a – I forget what else. He just thought that Sandra was really gifted and practical. He left us the houses jointly, so I think that Sandra gets a good share of the credit for that.

DS:      You then moved in here, and this was a good move for you as far as your work and your going back to school?

TW:     Yes, I had worked for the federal government as an economist in Washington. I had grown up in Washington. My father, Justice’s brother, because he was Quaker, had been a conscientious objector in World War II and, therefore, [had] not felt at ease (15:00) with the corporate culture in Philadelphia at that time. He had been an executive with the Insurance Company of North America. He decided to go to Washington to begin a new career. Justice never forgave his brother, my father, for abandoning Philadelphia. He felt that was something that just wasn’t done. He appreciated that I was coming back and had an interest in Haverford. I think that was part of the family dynamic.

DS:      It’s a wonderful family story. How much would you say you put into the house, approximately, in restoration since you were given the house.

TW:     We probably put in about $50,000 initially, in terms of mechanical systems, (16:00) painting, and fairly routine, mundane things, because we lived in just one of the houses, in 309. In 1997, we had three children and needed more room, so we did a major renovation of the top floor. (17:00) At that time, we spent about $200,000 on a complete renovation of the 307 kitchen, joining the two houses together, new mechanicals in 307, new electrical wiring, and various other components. We had an architect, Walter Crim, from Steege Crim Architects, who have done a lot of restoration work.  They consulted very thoroughly with the National Trust to make sure that the renovations met their approval. They did, and we spent about $200,000. We’ve also done work to the garden in the back. We did a major renovation about four or five years ago, where we re-graded and re-set the bricks.

DS:      The gardens are connected?

TW:     One large garden.

DS:      Wonderful. Any other stories that you can tell us about neighborhood people, contractors, banks, lending people, neighborhood associations? (18:00)

TW:     Again, I didn’t have a lot of experience – just going back to the early years with Justice. One story I can tell:            I remember, when I was a small child in the early ’60s, visiting Philip Street and being amazed at the quiet of the neighborhood. I-95 had not yet been built and the neighborhood was still in the early stages of restoration. At night, it was quieter than being in the country, because in the country you hear the whippoorwills and other birds. Here there was just complete silence. (19:00) I found it eerie, as a child, not hearing any cars, not hearing any noise at all – it was a very peaceful, but almost too peaceful environment. That’s what I remember from the very early years. In terms of the financing and the banks, I have heard that it was almost impossible to get a mortgage here in the early years. Justice paid cash. He had family money, so he never needed to borrow any money.

            In terms of friends in the neighborhood, I know Justice was friends with the Batchelers (Penny and George, 314 South American Street). He knew (20:00) everybody in the reform movement, the legal establishment of the city. Bill Jeans and the Octavia Hill group of people were very close. He was also a member of the Society of Friends and a member of the Arch Street Meeting and was involved with the Yearly Meeting property committee that maintained the Arch Street Meeting House. He was involved with Haverford College. He must have known a lot of the Quakers involved with affairs of the college. He was an antiquarian. He liked to buy books. He had many friends in Philadelphia. He had season tickets to the [Philadelphia] Orchestra and a lot of the theater in Philadelphia; [he was] very engaged in the social life of (21:00) Philadelphia.

DS:      Are you?

TW:     We are less so now, because of this farmhouse in Virginia where we spend maybe a quarter or a third of our time. Having two kids in college limits our disposable income; we can’t do the restaurants and the Orchestra and the various opportunities that Philadelphia has. Maybe when our kids are through college, we will be able to partake of some additional fun things.

DS:      Are you Quaker?

TW:     Yes, we attend and are members – I’m a member; Sandra attends – of the Arch Street Meeting. I’m very involved in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. We operate something called Friends’ Fiduciary Corporation, which manages (22:00) Quaker schools’ and Quaker meetings’ endowment and pension funds. I am involved on the trust side of that. I don’t know if you know a lot about Quaker committees, but since we don’t have a paid clergy, the laity – we’re all laity and we’re all clergy – we spend an inordinate amount of time managing Quaker institutions. There are fewer and fewer Quakers, so the few of us that are left have to spend a lot of time keeping things going. It’s interesting.

DS:      Do you have any old photographs that Justice Williams took? Did he take any “before” pictures?

TW:     Yes, we do have “before” pictures. My wife has a trove of those. We can share those with you. I’m not sure I can put my hands on them right this instant. We do have pictures of the house – interior of the house – before renovation, and front and rear (23:00) photographs with the fire escapes and rear treatment and some neighborhood pictures, also. I’m sure the Historical Society has them and the city.

DS:      Fireplaces, do they work?

TW:     They all potentially work. The ones we use regularly and have cleaned are this one [in the library] and we have one in the other room that we use less frequently. We have the television blocking the fireplace. Every room has a fireplace; there must be twelve fireplaces in the house. If they all worked, we’d probably burn the place down some time. I’d like to put in a wood stove, because one thing about these old houses is they have absolutely no insulation in the walls, [just] (24:00) plaster on brick. Our heating costs for both houses are – it’s very expensive. Having a wood stove in one room would be a great way – especially as we have plenty of wood on our farm – would be a great way to heat these houses.

DS:      When you inherited these two houses, what did your family think about this – your mother, your father?

TW:     Oh, my father had died before that. My mother thought it was great, because she had been on the waiting list to move into the Crosslands, which is a Quaker retirement community adjacent to Longwood Gardens in Chester County. Most of the Quaker Meeting in Washington, of the older people, who could afford it – it’s not (25:00) cheap – decided to move to Crosslands at Kendal. She liked the idea that we would be close, here in Philadelphia, to Crosslands, much closer, obviously, than Washington would have been.

DS:      She was pleased?

TW:     She was very pleased.

DS:      Did you ever get to know any of the old people who were born and raised here?

TW:     It’s interesting on this block. By the time we moved in, everybody except for one person was either part of the initial professional group of people that moved in during the ‘60s or were subsequent professionals who, in turn, purchased houses in succession to other professionals. The one person – (26:00) Cynthia Eiseman will tell you this – there was a family of Irish descent, Dugan, who lives across – or did live across the street; sadly she’s now at Pennsylvania Hospital.

DS:      Elizabeth Dugan Mickle. (312 South Philip Street)

TW:     Mickle?

DS:      Dugan was her nickname.

TW:     Yes. [She’s] in a sad state. We never knew her too well, but we do remember when we first moved in, she lived with her brother and a sister. I don’t think any of them had ever married. I don’t know when they had moved in, but I think it was some time prior to the ‘20s or ‘30s, and they had made a generational succession at some point. (27:00) That was the one family; it’s still in their family, if she’s still living…. Are there any other people that we know that are old-timers? Not really.

[End of Interview]


©2009 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
309 S Philip Street
Interview Date
October 31, 2009
Williams, Thomas
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources