Ute Simons

In 1959 or ’60, when Ute Simons was a student at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), she attended a symposium of architects and city planners who described grand plans being made for the city. As a city person living in the suburbs, she was excited by the plans. She and her husband bought 209 Spruce Street in 1960 from the Redevelopment Authority. It took them a while to get the house; there was a lot of paperwork to do, they needed to get a loan, and banks would not make loans for houses in the neighborhood. The Redevelopment Authority also imposed a considerable number of restrictions on them, among them that they would not make the house a multi-family dwelling and that they would not buy another house for ten years.

The house had previously been a rooming house for seamen, with sixteen small rooms; prior to that it had been a single-family house. It was in poor condition when Ute and her husband bought it, and it took them three years of work before they could move into it. Some of the contractors they engaged took advantage of their youth and inexperience. There was little historic fabric left in the house, as it had all been looted. It had a large fire escape on the front façade, which they had to remove. Society Hill Towers were under construction when they bought the house, and that caused some problems.

Ute tells a story about giving herself a birthday party, to which she invited ladies from the neighborhood. She did not realize that there was bad blood between some of them. She also tells a story about some of the neighbors’ less than savory involvement with controlled substances. But her best story is about a neighbor who was evicted from her house because the buyers of the house next door wanted space for a garden, and the only way to get that was by eminent domain. She relates stories about other neighbors, some newcomers like the Ingersolls and the Wattses, but also life-long residents of the neighborhood. She also describes friendships that she formed with newcomers, such as the Putneys, the Stevenses, and the Schalls.


DS:      Ute Simons. The date is March 4, 2008, and I am Dorothy Stevens.          

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Ute, you restored a house. What was the address?

US:      209 Spruce Street.

DS:      Why did you come to Society Hill?

US:      Because I attended a symposium when I was at Philadelphia College of Art, which used to be the Museum School. They changed it to the College. They had a symposium of architects and city planners. It was a part of my curriculum to go over there, and I think it was in the building – it was in a big building – it might have been in the Academy of Music. It was a big presentation and I learned about the plan of the city. (1:00) At the time I was living in the suburbs, and I’m a city person; I was interested in being in the city. I talked to my husband [Stephan Oech] at the time about it. We kind of investigated what the corridor would be between the museum and here, and we found that house on Spruce Street.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      Ute, tell me when was this?

US:      ‘59, ’60. I was a young woman at the college, with a child at the time. I think there were 22 of us in class. I was the only one who had a child. It was very interesting to learn about a huge, big plan about the city, what they were going to take out so that the Liberty Bell could be seen. That was already done. More buildings were being taken out. I remember there was a big building on the corner that (2:00) was Old St. Joe’s on Fourth and Walnut. It was a big Indian – I actually drew it at one point – it was a big Indian face over the entrance at the corner. American Indian face out of sandstone, and they took that down, because it didn’t – it wasn’t the right period. It was Colonial, I think, that they were kind of wanting to elevate out of this area. So, what else?

DS:      The corridor that you’re talking about, and the plan?

US:      Ed Bacon’s plan. He was presenting at that symposium that we attended. It was very exciting. I was like, “Wow!” you know. It was a real plan for the city. (3:00)

DS:      This was in ’59. You bought your house?

US:      We bought our house, I think, in 1960.

DS:      In 1960. Who did you buy it from?

US:      [The] Redevelopment Authority.

DS:      You went to them?

US:      I think we didn’t move in until two years later. It took a while to get it.

DS:      Because?

US:      Paperwork. Running around, me going to school, my husband having a job and only being able to do certain – it took a while. Oh, and we had to get a loan. It was $8,000, which we didn’t have. Nobody would give us a loan. We had to go to the suburbs to some weird little bank that would allow us to get a loan in that – I think it was a bad area, considered a bad area, a bad investment. Only because my husband at the time was a doctor did we actually get it. [Laughs] It sounds amazing today. (4:00)

DS:      Once you decided you were interested in the neighborhood, you went to the Redevelopment Authority to –

US:      Actually, we started looking –

DS:      Yourself?

US:      Then we saw that there were little signs, “Redevelopment.” There were also, of course, people who sold it – I mean, real estate people. We decided to go with the city, and the city also recommended an architect, because we knew almost nothing about these things. We felt a little bit more secure going through the city.

DS:      You bought it from the Redevelopment Authority?

US:      With all kinds of promises that we would never make it into a multi-layered, you know, condominiums or whatever, and never buy another house. We had to (5:00) live there ten years before we could buy another house. There were restrictions on it. I don’t know if anybody remembered that, but for us, there were restrictions on it.

DS:      Well, you were very early. 1960.

US:      Yes.

DS:      What was the condition of the house when you bought it?

US:      It had numbers inside, and the numbers were for each room. There were about 16 rooms. It was little compartments, and it was an old seamen’s house. Before that, apparently, it was a family house, one-family house with a servant quarter in the back. There was a circular stairwell in the back and, in the front, there was a regular stairwell. By the time we got it, it had had a fire, so the circular stairwell was no (6:00) longer there. It was boarded up. There was only a sink in the hallway. There was no toilet; it had an outhouse. [There were] a lot of boarded-up windows. People had a wash basin you could see on the floor; you could see how it was worn. It hadn’t been used for a long time. It had been empty. 

DS:      The house had been empty. Was it open to the elements?

US:      No. It had been boarded up. There was a leak in the roof, but it wasn’t very bad.

DS:      The last people who had lived there were seamen who had rented rooms?

US:      Seamen rented rooms. Somebody came to my house and said, “I grew up here.” It was a gentleman who said it was a one-family house at one time. He was an old gentleman when I was a young woman.

DS:      He was there before – (7:00)

US:      Before the seamen.

DS:      Interesting. The condition of the house was such that you had to do pretty much everything?

US:      Yes, everything. Everything, and that also took a while. We didn’t move in until ’63, and the floors weren’t finished. We had one bathroom working and sort of a kitchen, but it took us another five years [Laughs] to finish it and live out of boxes. That was pretty tough, actually.

DS:      By that time, you had how many children?

US:      Well, I had – one was born from that house, and then I had a third one in 1966. Three children.

DS:      Three children. Now, you were a photographer. You are an artist, but you have gone into many different –

US:      Yes, yes.

DS:      You were taking photographs at that point in your life.

US:      Yes, I did.

DS:      You have many photographs of this neighborhood? (8:00)

US:      I do, actually. Shame on me that I never do anything with them, except you ordered some, so you have some.

DS:      I do. They’re wonderful. Tell me, how much do you think you put into the house? You paid $6,000 for it—

US:      No, no, $8,000.

DS:      $8,000 and then how much approximately?

US:      In the beginning, we had to take another loan, and I know how much it was, because you got an estimate. I think it was a $40,000 estimate to get a roof, to get bathrooms, and get some floors. Very minimal. It was not a deluxe finish. Unfortunately, I was young and inexperienced, so when the plumber (9:00) came and said, “Well, we can’t have the heating system you have, but we have something really similar.” I said, “Fine.” I never imagined that he would really kind of cut corners. He did, so I have this awful thin copper pipe. When I clean the fins, you hurt your fingers and the dust sticks in them. I regret that a lot.

DS:      Fins?

US:      The little metal fins that are lined up on the copper pipe; they’re supposed to distribute the heat. [I have copper] instead of having the nice cast iron, which I had wanted. That’s the reason I’d advise somebody to keep their old, cast iron, I would. It’s so much better. Since then, since it was finished when (10:00) my children were little, I have done more over the years. I have new windows. For the first time in forty years or so, I have new windows now. All the windows are finished, and I can open them and close them.

DS:      You couldn’t open and close the windows before?

US:      No.

DS:      Did you have air conditioning?

US:      No, we had only a few windows that opened. We had fans. It was poorly done; they said they couldn’t make the windows work.

DS:      You have a back yard, right?

US:      We have a wonderful back yard.

DS:      A basement?

US:      Yes. The outhouse [is] why it [the basement] goes over to the neighbor and then out. It’s wider than the neighbor’s. It was in the deed, you know. I didn’t finagle for it. I just got what I got. When I moved in, the [Society Hill] Towers had dug (11:00) a hole in my back yard. It was like [makes a whistling sound] going down, all the way down, because they were building the garage. [I] had no back yard in the beginning, because they had taken the ground away, and then they filled it up. I have a lot of settlement there.

DS:      Did you not fear that the house might fall into the hole?

US:      Yes, I did. I have settlement from it, but forty years later or fifty years later, who can I have to do something about it? [Laughs]

DS:      When you were living in the house, the Towers were being built?

US:      Yes.

DS:      You were already in the house?

US:      Actually, it was very sad. We were actually working on the front steps when the poor guy caught his foot in the machine that carried things up. He stepped on it.

DS:      The crane?

US:      The crane. Remember that horrible thing?

DS:      I don’t.

US:      Oh, yes, I wish it hadn’t happened. Instead of doing it the right way, he (12:00) stepped with his foot in it.

DS:      In the crane?

US:      On the cable that came down to pick up the load. Instead of putting the load on, for a moment he stepped on it, and it took him up. It threw him against the Tower, and he was killed.

DS:      Oh!

US:      We heard the screaming from him. My children were here. It wasn’t pretty.

DS:      That must have been when?

US:      Well, I had two children by that time, so it was after ’63. I didn’t have my third child then. It was when the Tower that’s closest to you was built. It was the last Tower that was built, closest to the water and closest to you.

DS:      The South Tower? (13:00)

US:      Yes. I think it was later that we heard it on the radio that he died in the hospital. That was one of those things that I wish we hadn’t seen.

DS:      Terrible.

US:      Yes. [inaudible] It was negligence [inaudible]. Oh, we were remembering when [you and I] could still see each other. I remember Christopher [Stevens] saving the tree. Remember?

DS:      No.

US:      Oh, Christopher, your son. There was a tree on the other side from your street – the tree kind of fell down in that hole. He said, “The tree was so beautiful.” He actually watched the tree that was now on my side of –

DS:      The street tree?

US:      The street tree, because they had, you know, dug –

DS:      Oh, so it sunk?

US:      It sunk down. Christopher was so upset. You don’t remember that? (14:00) Oh, I love that story. It’s now planted in that little triangle that’s at Spruce and Second Street. There is a triangle, and one of the trees is the tree that Christopher –

DS:      Christopher pulled it out and planted –

US:      No, he complained about it. He said, “It’s not right.” You and he and I don’t know – but you made sure that tree was going to survive and not just be thrown out. Really nice. I like that story.

DS:      You have a basement?

US:      I have a sub-basement. A sub-basement and a basement. It was always a really low sub-basement. We dug it out a little bit more so that we could actually stand up. We could only go hunched over like little people. We dug it out, and the heating system was in there. It was coal, and we changed it to oil at the time, and later I changed it to gas. I have the basement, which has an entrance from the street, and then (15:00) I have our entrance, which has the little half-circular steps.

DS:      Elevated. You re-did the whole house then?

US:      Yes.

DS:      Were you able to save anything from the original, or was there really nothing inside?

US:      No, it had been looted.

DS:      Oh, it had been looted. Tell me about that.

US:      Well [Laughs], there were fireplaces there, and the fireplaces had been removed. By the time we got it, they were gone. It was like dark marble with white little veins in it.

DS:      You had seen the fireplaces?

US:      I had seen them, yes, and they were gone. They were chiseled off. [Laughs] That’s the way it was.

DS:      You restored it. Do you remember what the taxes were in the (16:00) beginning?

US:      I think maybe a couple of hundred dollars. I remember it was in the hundreds in the beginning, and it rose and rose and rose and rose.

DS:      Tell me what your family and friends thought of your doing this –

US:      [Laughs] Crazy. Yes. I must say the best part for me was the children had so much room. They loved being on their own upstairs, so I couldn’t always tell quite what they were doing. That was a good thing, because they got to be working by themselves. They weren’t always under my nose. We talk about it, now that they’re grown up. It was a refuge for them. My marriage wasn’t the easiest one, (17:00) and so they didn’t get the brunt of, you know, their Dad coming home upset about something and blah, blah, blah. They could just climb up and disappear, which they really liked. I never had that as a child; I grew up in an apartment. It was hard to make use of a big house. I had no idea how to make a living in that big place. It was huge, huge ceilings, everything huge.

DS:      How tall?

US:      Much higher than yours. I would say maybe fifteen feet. That’s pretty high.

DS:      Is that true on the second and –

US:      The second is a little lower, and the third even lower. It becomes less. The first floor is the highest. It was daunting to figure out where it would be cozy. (18:00) We decided to have the kitchen in the back and have like a living room-kitchen, going into the garden.

DS:      You said the back, where you have the kitchen now, was the servant’s quarters?

US:      It was the servant’s quarters, yes, separated from that.

DS:      Was the kitchen there, do you think?

US:      It might have been there. The stove was connected to a chimney, and the chimney is still there, but we didn’t find a stove.

DS:      It was gone?

US:      Yes. What I did find, when I dug up the sub-basement, was old bottles. They used it probably to get rid of stuff. They had – I still have them – they had beautiful patina from being in the earth. They have like mother-of-pearl shimmerings (19:00) on the glass. And it has PhilaDa or Phila. It has –

DS:      City.

US:      Yes.

DS:      There is a second floor above your kitchen?

US:      And a third floor.

DS:      They would have been able to live in that section?

US:      Three little rooms. That [section] doesn’t have a sub-basement underneath. It just has a little crawl space. The big house has a basement and a sub-basement. Interesting.

DS:      It is a big house.

US:      It is a big house, and when they changed the height of the street in back of me, I had a lot of trouble. The water just gushed into my basement. I had to wake them up at night – the maintenance people from the Towers – because they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. It was running in, and I said now was the time to get them. They did do something. They made it so the water (20:00) would run in the middle of the alley and not into my house. It was a [inaudible] kind of thing, something we had to deal with.

DS:      Before the Towers were built, that wasn’t a hill, right?

US:      No.

DS:      It was flat, with houses.

US:      They tore down the houses. It was as flat as my garden. It went straight. Now my garden is still the same height, but it goes up three feet behind my garden. They built a wall to make it higher. The cars are all higher than my garden. On the side, the alleyway goes by my house toward Spruce Street, so all the water runs down it.

DS:      It still does now?

US:      It still does. It runs a lot in the garden, but not as much in the house any more. It’s a fault line from doing all that. That’s the way it is. (21:00)

DS:      Do you remember what it looked like before the Towers went there? Did you see it before the construction?

US:      I saw it before the Pei houses were built and before the Towers, but the Towers excavation had been started. They had been – there was equipment there. I didn’t see – Ah, I lived here – the first year I was here was ’58. I lived at Fourth and Spruce, and I remember there was a big, huge fruit market there.

DS:      Food produce center.

US:      I remember that. Early in the morning, horses would come, horse and wagon, which I didn’t see, but I heard them. It was dark. They must have come from the stores, maybe the Italian Market, to pick up produce. (22:00)

DS:      You lived at Fourth and Spruce?

US:      Yes, in Bertha von Moschzisker’s house – apartment.

DS:      Her apartment?

US:      In her apartment, yes, because she went to Europe for something, and she wanted somebody to live there. I was so poor that she said, “All you have to do is pay the cleaning lady.” Cleaning lady! It took my whole savings! [Laughs] It was terrible. She had no idea, you know? I mean, I was a student, and I was on scholarship, and to pay a cleaning lady! [Laughs]

DS:      This was before Bertha bought her house on Delancey?

US:      Yes. We had looked at her house before she bought it, and we decided it was a little too small for us. We liked her house a lot.

DS:      Bertha lived in an apartment?

US:      She [bought her house] after us. We [bought] before her. Then, of course, we became friends with her.

DS:      Now, how did you find her in the first place to live in her apartment (23:00) while she went to Europe?

US:      She was in the Print Club, the head of the Print Club. My godmother knew her; they weren’t friends, but she knew of her – and she showed me the Print Club, and I got to know her, and she asked me. She just asked me would I do it. I was a young person, healthy, maybe even reliable, so I did that. It was right next to the house that the ministers for Christ Church always occupied. Her apartment was right next to that, on Fourth and Spruce.

DS:      On Fourth and Spruce?

US:      I mean, a little bit – between Third and Fourth on the south side that is still, I think, apartments. It might still be apartments. I don’t know, but there were apartments there. She had a third-floor apartment

DS:      What connections! (24:00)

US:      Yes, it’s amazing.

DS:      You were a student then, and single.

US:      When I met Bertha, when I was single.

DS:      Right.

US:      Then I –

DS:      Married and moved to the suburbs.

US:      Worked at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, as a nurse’s aide, and someone tipped off Stephan [Oech]  to tell him there was a German woman. He came up in a blue scrub suit, and I thought he was an orderly, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody in German anyway. [Laughs] I just told him I was going to be a nurse among other things. I left there and started working with Koga.

DS:      Koga?

US:      Dick Koga, who had built the Japanese House in the Art Museum. (25:00) I worked in his basement on his furniture. From there I went to the museum school, and from there it became the [Philadelphia} College of Art and now it’s the University of the Arts.

DS:      Let’s get back to the house.

US:      The house.

DS:      The Redevelopment Authority had all these specifications that you had to do, and you had to sign these papers saying that you would do it.

US:      Yes, yes. Ten years before we did anything else, I mean, ventured into buying another one. We never did. We never bought another one through them.

DS:      Why do you think that they wanted you not to buy another house? (26:00)

US:      I don’t know. I guess they didn’t want to have people speculate. That’s what I understood. They didn’t want people to buy ten houses and then sell them for more.

DS:      Did they also tell you what to do to the outside? The front?

US:      Yes, it had to be certain brick, certain mortar. Yes, all that.

DS:      Did you have to re-do the front?

US:      Yes. There was a huge metal structure, a fire escape, in front.

DS:      A fire escape in front?

US:      Right in front of the whole house. A fire escape. It had to be removed, which we did. Of course, the mortar was falling out of the cracks between the bricks and around the windows. Yes, it was in bad shape. You don’t see that when you’re young and new. You see that when you’re working on it. [Laughs] (27:00)

DS:      You picked the house because of the size of it? The location? The beauty?

US:      I think I picked it because I knew I was going to have a back yard. That’s why I picked it. [Laughs] Stephan picked it because of location. At the time he was working at PGH, Philadelphia General Hospital. It was really easy.

DS:      To get there? Commute?

US:      Yes. One other thing – it was because it was available, and we could get it. It wasn’t that easy to find out about the house, to find out about which house was actually available. There was not just a big house somewhere where you could go in and say, “Now, let’s see what’s available.” It was sort of like you had to find it.

DS:      Did you deal with Ted Newbold at all? (28:00)

US:      No, but I met him at Koga. He was interested in the woodwork that Koga did. I met him, and he was not married then. He had Deborah as a friend or future fiancée, and she told me later that she was jealous of me. I did not have my eye on Ted Newbold. [Laughs] I told her that she didn’t have to worry.

DS:      [Laughs] The difficulty in the time lapse between when you decided you wanted the house and you actually bought it from Redevelopment was purely paperwork?

US:      And our difficulty getting a loan.

DS:      Your difficulty getting a loan?

US:      We didn’t have cash available. We had bought a farm in Maine before that, (29:00) and that was – we had saved a year or two for that. We had saved enough [for] the down payment. The [sellers] wouldn’t deal with a bank. They were Finnish people. It was another difficulty. We could not talk easily with them. So, we were already stretched.

DS:      That was the problem?

US:      To get a loan for the area, because the area was blacklisted. Is that called blacklisted?

DS:      Red lined.

US:      It was not a good deal for the bank.

DS:      Now your mother did get to see the house, did she?

US:      Yes, yes. My father and my mother got to see the house.

DS:      Your father, too. They were both in Germany, right? They came over to see the house, and they thought…? (30:00)

US:      They were impressed.

DS:      Impressed!

US:      Very impressed, because by that time we had a kitchen, where we could sit. They came in ’65 probably.

DS:      Came over in ’65, and they were impressed. They didn’t think you were crazy to do what you were doing?

US:      Well, they thought it was too much.

DS:      Too much?

US:      It was. Every day we had to work on the house. Every day, something, whether I had a child or not; it didn’t matter. One thing had to be done. Yes, they could tell it was a lot to do. Not easy to keep – since the floors weren’t all finished, it was hard to keep the dust down.

DS:      You had wood floors?

US:      Yes, wood floors, but we then put another wood floor on top of it, it was so worn from the washing and the fire. We took out the first section of the steps– from the first to the second floor. We took out the steps completely and put see-through (31:00) steps in because they were really damaged, those steps, rather than trying to reproduce them. We looked in the catalog and we found steps, and we found railing. We installed it. No, we had it installed. I didn’t do that myself. Upstairs we restored what was there.

DS:      You restored what was already there. You have the floors and –

US:      The railing from the steps.

DS:      The old floor’s still there?

US:      Yes.

DS:      You did wood working, and you did painting –

US:      And pottery and jewelry. (32:00)

DS:      [Laughs]

US:      Photography.

DS:      In the house you did …?

US:      I had a darkroom in the house.

DS:      No, I mean, to restore the house. To make it livable, what else did you do?

US:      Oh, the baseboard, I put the baseboard on the floor, when it was finished. I painted and tacked them on. I did some plasterboard, spackle, sanding. Like Peggy [Davies]. Yes, same thing.

DS:      Now your – Stephan’s parents, Stephan’s family –

US:      They never came here, no.

DS:      Your friends that you –

US:      My cousin came, my friends came. Over the years many friends have come. (33:00) They love it. They just think it’s exquisite. They can’t get enough of it. They think it’s the best, and so close to the water there, and how lucky I am. They can’t get enough of the space and the light, the atmosphere. I had guests just last year, a couple; they just love it. [inaudible]

DS:      Your children growing up in this neighborhood had good memories?

US:      Yes.

DS:      Growing up here they don’t feel they were deprived?

US:      No. I mean, I think my oldest one might have that feeling because there weren’t that many people to play with, and there was no supermarket in the neighborhood. She had a hard time, I would say, because there was nobody her age. (34:00) I was so busy trying to find somebody for her somehow. The beginning wasn’t easy. My second one had more friends. There were the Putneys and you all. There was much more [inaudible], the Schalls. Andy [her third child] was on his own. He could find friends by just walking. It was a big difference between the oldest and the youngest, six years.

DS:      A big difference in the neighborhood?

US:      Right. No more ruins, no more broken-down houses. It looked like after the war when I first came here. Half torn-down houses, buildings opened up, gutted. I might as well have gone to Munich right after the war. It was like, you know, empty places, flattened by the bulldozer and trash on top. Wonderful to play in when it (35:00) was snowing, All the way down to the Sheraton [hotel on Dock Street]; it was flat. You could make big lines in the snow. It had its plusses and it had its minuses.

DS:      Any other stories that you can tell me about the neighborhood, the house, that would be of interest?

US:      Well, my first birthday there I invited everybody on the street to my house, and I could tell that wasn’t done; not everybody did that. I had no railing on my outside steps, because they were out for repair. I didn’t think much of inviting people. It was a big deal for them. Mrs. Luz, Mrs. Koss, I had everybody together. (36:00) I found out – I was so naïve. I was not aware that not everybody liked each other. [Laughs]

DS:      Those two ladies didn’t like each other? [Laughs]

US:      [Laughs] I had painted. I had enough to sit down. I had a wooden box as a table. I was kind of enthusiastic about getting to know the neighbors. They live here. They must know each other. It never occurred to my little young brain that maybe I could have inquired first. [The party] was successful. They all were glad they were there. Later the relationships, I found out, were not ideal.

DS:      Tell me who Mrs. Luz is.

US:      Mrs. Luz is my neighbor. She has the house two doors further west from me. And she was from a family across the street – (37:00)

DS:      It’s Guz, isn’t it? Mrs. Guz?

US:      Mrs. Guz, yes, sorry. She got difficult in her old age. It was hard. There was a brother, and there was another sister. The brother died. Then the house went to a daughter from her sister; then it was sold. It changed hands quickly. I remember her mother. She used to clean and sweep all her steps and then sit and rest. She worked in the sugar factory. She had the babushka on, a scarf around her head. The babushka, you know, from the back to the front and then a roll in front. She sat with both legs and both (38:00) hands on her legs, very satisfied, on their clean steps. I have a picture of her somewhere. I liked her the best. We couldn’t talk, but we made really nice gestures to each other.

DS:      Why couldn’t you talk?

US:      She didn’t speak English.

DS:      What language did she speak?

US:      Polish. She came from the boat and settled here.

DS:      Mrs. Koss?

US:      Mrs. Koss. You know, her husband was such a big figure. He was the one who talked. He was the one you noticed. She was very much in the background. (39:00) I visited her the other day. He had a loud voice, and he was a generous barber, and he entertained my daughter in his barber [chair] His son was – you have a picture of his.

DS:      They lived …?

US:      They lived west of us, and they have this little barber pole – they were allowed to make a little sign to be a barber.

DS:      They live in the 200 block of Spruce?

US:      Yes. Spruce, on the north side.

DS:      These two ladies came to your party, and you did celebrate. Anybody (40:00) else from the block?

US:      Only the women. No, let me see. There was somebody who has died since. She died from swallowing beans; she choked and later died. She lived in that little house on American Street. [Janet Lewis, who lived on the southeast corner of American and Spruce Street.] She came.

DS:      She came to the party, too?

US:      She came. [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs] Other stories?

US:      It was funny, because they all seemed – I thought they’d know each other. I just thought [if] they lived here, they’d know each other.

DS:      Yes. Other people who were here when you came, whom you got to know?

US:      There were the Ingersolls, who had a big, very fancy house. Very nice people.

DS:      In the 200 block? (41:00)

US:      Yes. I liked them, because they had a sense for art. They hosted artists and musicians in their house, and conductors and such. I liked that about them. I got to see somebody I would not have seen otherwise. Sometimes, because of the Print Club, I was with Mr. Ingersoll in close contact. I liked that he came down here, as a statement, to make it happen. They moved in –

DS:      They moved in from the suburbs.

US:      Yes.

DS:      And restored a house?

US:      Right.

DS:      Were they there when you came or did they come after you?

US:      I wish I could remember. I don’t want to say. I remember them as making a statement. “We are here.” I would say in the circle they (42:00) lived, it was a strong statement.

DS:      Now, how about the Wattses? They also came about the same time?

US:      They came afterwards.

DS:      They rebuilt?

US:      They rebuilt.

DS:      The house that had been there was torn down?

US:      Yes, they rebuilt everything. There was nothing original in the house. They made the same statement. They came from the suburbs, and there were more.

DS:      There were more on that block. Wasn’t there –

US:      Bodine Lamont. Dr. Lamont and my husband used to work together. I remember a lot about that. Oh, I had the job of photographing her house. She gave me a dollar a picture. [Laughs]

DS:      A dollar a picture? [Laughs]

US:      God, if I didn’t like it so much, I would, I would …. I thought it was (43:00) so funny. Somebody so wealthy, a dollar a picture. I just said, “I love doing it.” I mean, you can’t be serious about something like that, and I wasn’t. I loved taking pictures of the progression of her house, so I did. It was so funny. They repaired, restored, rebuilt, all of it. They – Lamonts – they did everything.

DS:      Interesting. Other stories? Did you have any trouble with the contractors? Other than the furnace man who –

US:      Well, the plumber also managed to hook up the plumbing the wrong (44:00) way, which I actually figured out, because of the arrows. He pumped the water back into the heating system, instead of pumping it up [through] the house. There was a pump that – I could see the arrows on it, and he had it backwards.

DS:      This was somebody that the city, the Redevelopment Authority, had recommended?

US:      Graverson was the architect, and he did – he had, I don’t know who. I mean, we didn’t know anybody.

DS:      So that Graverson was the architect –

US:      From the city. His oversight was really poor, but I didn’t know that at the time.

DS:      When you say the city you mean the Redevelopment Authority?

US:      Yes. Graverson was supposed to sign when something was ready – sign (45:00) to release the money. You know, it was all tied up. I thought he was at the house and he checked, and I trusted him. I thought, “Oh, he’ll check it.” You know, but that didn’t happen. These things I just didn’t know, but I’ve become very savvy now. [Laughs]

DS:      [Laughs] Haven’t we all?

US:      Yes.

DS:      That’s interesting that they would recommend people that gave you bad advice.

US:      Well, I think it was just a little job. It was not a big enough job. I mean, he wasn’t a bad person. He just wasn’t diligent. He wasn’t giving his full attention, on top of everything else he might have had to do,

DS:      Any other old, original people that you got to know in the neighborhood and how they felt? The McCloskeys or the Mickles? (46:00)

US:      Well, the woman across the street – yes, the Mickles – the woman across the street whose house got torn down so the Friedmans could have a garden. She washed her windows before it got torn down. It was a beautiful house.

DS:      The Friedmans live at the corner of Second and Spruce, on the southwest corner. They wanted a garden, so they tore the house down?

US:      Right.

DS:      And what happened to the lady who …?

US:      I have no idea.

DS:      She sold her house to the Redevelopment Authority?

US:      Yes.

DS:      Then they tore it down? (47:00)

US:      Yes. It was heartbreaking. I was thinking of Fiddler on the Roof, when they had to leave and the woman swept the house. She had that kind of – she had to leave it intact, and she disappeared.

[End of side one of the tape; beginning of side two of the tape]

US:      There was the longshoreman, Bill. Once in a while he drank. Quite often, when I saw it, I took him in and gave him chicken soup. He was shaking, you know, and, of course, we’d put him to bed, but otherwise he was fine. He used to play checkers with my eldest daughter, on our steps. He always stood on the corner where the Friedmans is, looking east and looking south and looking north. Just standing there looking, with his little hat with a visor and cigar. All day long, he would stand and look, surveying the neighborhood. He was like a fixture.

DS:      She lived in the house and rented out rooms?

US:      Yes. Him I got to know because of his good heart and his troubles, you know? I saw him in trouble, you know, one day when they got evicted, (1:00) but I didn’t know – having little children, having my own little life – I didn’t know how to follow people.

DS:      How to follow them?

US:      How to find out where they lived after eviction, where they went to. That’s my limitation. At least, today I would know more. I would know how to make phone calls. I would say da da da, but then I didn’t really know what to do.

DS:      People were moving out if their houses were being condemned? They were then sent to the Redevelopment Authority?

US:      Right.

DS:      Did these people speak English?

US:      Yes, they did. Both spoke English, because he was American.

DS:      They just could not afford to fix up the houses?

US:      You know, I don’t know why she sold it. I really don’t know. She just – my impression was that she was told she had to give it up, and Bill only rented a room,

DS:      How old was she at this point?

US:      Old. She was maybe in her 70s already. Maybe she figured she’d take the money and go in an old-age home. You know, maybe that’s what she did. I don’t (2:00) know. I never saw young people with her. I don’t remember her name. She was a good lady; she kept the house clean. It was really touching. I mean, I cried when I saw it. She washed the windows, knowing it was going to [be torn down]. She just refused to believe that they would tear it down.

DS:      Other people like this?

US:      Oh! People came and took the door and took some floor boards. I saw people coming and taking things from the house.

DS:      During the day?

US:      Yes, once it was condemned. I said, “Oh, that’s how my things got taken.” [Laughs] It was very quick. The floorboards were very valuable. The big piece of wood that was at the corner of the steps was a valuable piece of wood that held the railing; a turned piece of wood. I didn’t sit there (3:00) and watch, but I saw something as I came and went.

DS:      The other houses across the street from you – they were all occupied?

US:      Yes. They were not as nice as hers. Hers was the nicest. I wished we could have moved them; torn down the one and pushed them down. You know what I mean?

DS:      Yes. Were all of the houses on that south side boarding houses? Renting out rooms?

US:      No, one was the sister of Mrs. Guz; she was blonde and she had a daughter. As far as I know, she didn’t rent out. Her brother’s [house] was being rented out – still is being rented out to different people. It’s still a multiple dwelling. I don’t know how they kept it. I don’t know how they can do it. Right in front of my nose they have a house with many people.

DS:      Apartments or –? (4:00)

US:      Apartments. The door was being broken in because there was some dope dealing going on. Very shady. To this day. A few years ago, someone came and started a fire there. Yes, exciting! [Laughs] Like the old times. You know, Mrs. Guz’s sister’s daughter – who was being bad. She was in jail. [Laughs]

DS:      More people that were there then, more people – Did you feel threatened?

US:      Never.

DS:      You didn’t feel that your life was in danger or your children were in danger.

US:      No. [Not] even when the woman, apparently somebody got hurt really bad on Delancey Street. I just don’t know fear. In the beginning, we had our front door open (5:00) all the time. [When] my oldest daughter got [tall] enough to open it herself, I put a little chain on it, so if we wanted to open it, it wouldn’t open all the way. Not for other people but for her, so she wouldn’t walk out.

DS:      You yourself did not feel –

US:      No. I just didn’t. I think as a result of that incident on Delancey Street, I think I was pregnant with my third child, and I think I took karate, to be prepared.

DS:      Right. I remember that. Well, it is very interesting to hear your memory of these older people, the ones who were born and raised here or who immigrated here.

US:      I think that they didn’t quite understand what Redevelopment meant. That’s my impression. They figured that they are going to – like some people who (6:00) are not fully informed or cannot be fully informed because of lack of understanding – [get] the shorter end all their life.

DS:      They got the short end all their life?

UA:     That’s sort of what I got out of it. It’s all over the world like that. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s how people feel sometimes. They sort of [have] a victim position: “What can I do?”

DS:      Other people on your block, were they being evicted that you know of?

US:      No, that’s the only one I know of. The only one I actually know and saw. There may have been more, but I didn’t know.

DS:      Oh.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

US:      … [M]oved there in ’61, I think it was. In ’61 we bought the house. Maybe (7:00) by ’62 or ’63 we actually moved in. There was Mrs. Holly diagonally towards Third Street, on [the] south [side of] Spruce Street, between American and Third.

DS:      All on Spruce Street.

US:      On Spruce Street. One of the small houses, and her daughter was also small. Her daughter was a granddaughter, I found out later. I think she might have died because the house was sold after a while, and she was not evicted.

DS:      This – you were telling me –

US:      Her granddaughter, I met her in front of the Towers, and she said that her grandmother had died, and she had moved away. It was striking to me that it was all either evicted or had to be renovated. I think she was a lovely person from (8:00) the old times, and she didn’t get under the hammer. I was glad. She didn’t have to move.

DS:      Right. This was a black woman?

US:      Yes.

DS:      Right.

US:      What I also remember is Mrs. Luz and Mr. – Guz. I always say the wrong name. Guz?

DS:      Guz.

US:      Harry. Now he was a character. He had this big arsenal of tools, and next to him was Walter.

DS:      Where are we now?

US:      On my side, on the north side.

DS:      Of Spruce [the 200 block]?

US:      Yes. Walter and Harry were working together on their houses. Harry was the one who showed me my house and showed me that behind the boarded-up windows were actually windows, because I couldn’t see it. He sort of (9:00) pried it open a little bit –

DS:      Before you actually bought it? [Laughs]

US:      Before we had actually bought it, yes. [Laughs] We just saw the place, and it looked formidable to fix – it was daunting. Huge and dilapidated. Next door was a store, which was even worse than dilapidated.

DS:      This is going west?

US:      This is going west.

DS:      That was a store?

US:      It was a storefront. The Russells finally bought it. They fixed –

DS:      Who?

US:      The Russells.

DS:      Russells?

US:      They fixed it, and they also fixed Mrs. Guz’s front, the steps, you know, the marble top. They went for the authentic marble and had it fixed. Now my steps are really all worn out [Laughs]. They were always worn out, because they – (10:00)

DS:      They were original?

US:      They’re original.

DS:      Who were the Russells?

US:      The Russells were people that I think bought it – let’s see, Andy was born in ’66, so they were not there yet in ’66, because I have pictures. I was on scaffolding on my house and looked over there and took pictures from the – after ’66 they fixed it.

DS:      Do they live there?

US:      No, they sold it to the next people and they [the next people] sold it to the next people. This is, I think, the sixth time it has been sold. Yes, what else do I remember? I remember I couldn’t plant anything in my garden except sunflowers. The garden was such bad – it was fill, just fill.

DS:      The soil was no good.

US:      The soil was just terrible. I also had in the front sunflowers. That was one thing that was attractive and easy to grow and successful. Now, of course, I have (11:00) a colonial garden. I can’t come up with any immediate, big stories. There are stories, but I would have to dig – probably would have to sit around the table with other people. As people came in, like you came, and we had our children, and Liz Schall and the Putneys. We had this little play group. It stopped looking like World War II [Laughs], although your house fell down one night, I remember.

DS:      The house next to us.

US:      You see, we heard a bang, and we couldn’t figure out where it was.

DS:      That was in 1966. I was pregnant with Gregory. (12:00)

US:      And I was pregnant with Andy.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

DS:      The fourth part, when you first bought your house?

US:      After two or three years, I finally had my godmother visit. Lo and behold, she started scratching on her knee, and I saw something little, black, jumping. We had human fleas in the house because they can stay dormant in the dust in the bottom of the house. They came up. We had fleas! We had to go overnight into a hotel and have the whole house fumigated. It was just so embarrassing! [Laughs] Human fleas. Not dog fleas. Human fleas! Apparently, we had a dusty basement; no bricks.

DS:      It was a dirt floor?

US:      A dirt floor. It was a crawl space. You can walk with your head pulled between your shoulder blades. There was a heater, and once the heat came on, we started – (13:00) and they said, “Ooooh, yesss!” [Laughs] I was so embarrassed! At first, I thought it was the dogs. Anyway, that’s my secret.

DS:      That’s your story.

[End of Interview]

©2008 Project Philadelphia™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
209 Spruce Street
Interview Date
March 4, 2008
Simons, Ute
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources