234 S 3rd Street

Francesca Russello Ammon

Built in 1834, this is one of three (but now, only two) 4½-story Greek Revival row houses built on the 200 block of S 3rd Street by Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capitol dome. The first floor of the façade is notable for its marble facing, while the second floor has a cast iron balcony running along its width. Louvered shutters adorn the 9-over-9 and 6-over-6 double hung windows, each with marble lintels and sills. A molded wood cornice with dentils tops the façade, above which a paired dormer with pediment marks the final half-floor.

Charles and Margo Burnette had been living in a trinity on Panama Street when they began exploring Society Hill in anticipation of starting a family. Margo recalled, “We were walking around Society Hill and we saw these very large houses. They were wonderful houses, and when you’re young, you dream big. I saw the house that I loved, and I said, ‘Oh, I’d like to live there!’ My husband, being an architect, said, ‘Well, we’ll look at it.’ And we did.” Charles added to this story, “No one wanted the house, because it was too big and even though the Society Hill Towers and the Pei houses were already built across the street, this house was one of the last to sell. It was kind of amazing, because it had a wonderful location and was a wonderful building.”

Charles was studying architecture at the time as a master’s student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Design. He would next go on to complete his Ph.D. there in architecture at well. At 234 S 3rd Street, he would put his design skills to use in rehabilitating his own house. With the help of some money from Margo’s mom and a loan from a local savings and loan association, the pulled together the necessary funds to purchase the vacant building in 1964. They moved in one year later.

Prior to urban renewal, the building had housed the Mercantile Club of Philadelphia, before later becoming a warehouse. When the Redevelopment Authority acquired it, they tore down the rear portion of the building, which had contained the kitchens and bathrooms. This created a large backyard to complement the large interior spaces—although its length was somewhat limited when the Redevelopment Authority shortened the overall lot to make way for I. M. Pei’s Bingham Court development to the immediate west.

The Burnettes started their renovation work on the first floor, which had previously contained a stand-alone apartment. They kept this layout, but just updated the interior, and initially lived in that unit with their new baby. They completed a large portion of the work themselves, but also hired a contractor. Next, anticipating the arrival of their second child, they renovated and moved into the second floor. They then rented out the first floor apartment for income to fund the mortgage. Over time, they expanded their own residence into the third and fourth floors as well, each time swapping out bedroom spaces for living rooms, etc. They also created a garden room located a half level down from the main level. For the flooring in the garden room, they used the slate that had previously served as the building’s front sidewalk. Since the Redevelopment Authority was in the process of replacing all of this slate with brick, their garden room renovation provided an alternative use for these materials. By 1973, as they prepared to rent out the building while their family temporarily relocated for Charles to become Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, they managed to complete the final plastering and painting work. Upon their return, Charles also operated his architectural office out of the basement for a while.

The reintroduction of the cast iron balcony was one of their greatest adventures in their restoration process. Each of the three original houses had a cast iron balcony of a unique design. In the pre-renewal years, when the house was in a state of disrepair, an iron worker removed the balcony from the building. The Burnettes managed to track it down to a Bucks County man who had purchased it from the iron worker. After the man’s death, his children agreed to sell the balcony back to the Burnettes; and the local iron worker who had originally removed the balcony wound up being the one to put it back in place.

The Burnettes fondly recalled city living. Chuck was able to walk to the position he held for many years at the University of the Arts. Margo could take the bus or drive their car to her position as a staff lecturer in the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Meanwhile, back in Society Hill, they developed a close-knit community through social interactions at Three Bears Park, Margo’s leadership of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, the neighborhood babysitting co-op, and the community garden that occupied the corner of S 4th and Lombard Streets before the construction of the Old Pine Community Center on that site.

After their two daughters moved out, the Burnettes consolidated their own living space into the third and fourth floors, and they made the second floor another separate apartment. They continue to occupy the building today, while renting out the two bottom floor units.

In addition to being a part of today’s walking tour, this property was also included in earlier walking tours of the neighborhood during the urban renewal era. Margo recalled, “Ed Bacon was so involved in this restoration of Society Hill, and he was so excited by it. We were on one of the Society Hill tours, and I remember he was just so thrilled to come into our house and to see how we were living in it. It was really very heart-warming.”


This narrative draws upon oral history interviews with Charles and Margo Burnette contained within the Project Philadelphia 19106 collection at the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries and Preserving Society Hill.