Margo and Charles Burnette gave separate, complementary interviews about their experiences with the house at 234 S. Third St.
They were renting a tiny house in Washington Square West when they went looking for a house to buy. They both reacted the same way to 234 S. Third St. when they first saw it: it was big, very big, and they wanted it. Not only was the house big, but all its rooms were big. When the Redevelopment Authority owned the house, they had torn down a rear extension where all the small rooms were located.
The Burnettes bought the house from the Redevelopment Authority in 1964. Margo describes how they renovated the house floor by floor to accommodate their growing family, and then made further changes after their children moved away from home. After the first year, the first floor, which had always been planned as an apartment, was rented out. The rent paid the mortgage.
Margo found Society Hill a good neighborhood to raise children; she cites especially Three Bears Park, the babysitting co-op, and the community garden at Fourth and Lombard. Chuck called Three Bears Park "the village well," because you could always learn what was going on in the neighborhood when you went there.
Margo's account about the griffin balcony complements Chuck's. Her research revealed that the design for the balcony was published in Cottingham, England, in 1824, 19 years before the house was built.
DS: This is an interview with Margo Burnette. The date is October 14, 2008. The interview is being held at 116 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens. Margo, why did you come to Society Hill?
MB: Well, my husband Charles, was at Penn doing a master’s in Architecture, and we were living in a father, son, and holy ghost house, or trinity as they called it, on Panama Street. We were living in a very small house, [Laughs] and we were walking around Society Hill and we saw these very large houses. They were wonderful houses, (1:00) 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. Of course it was overwhelming, it was so big. But it was a wonderful house, and we decided it was the one for us.
DS: So that’s why you came – you were looking for a bigger space, because you were pregnant?
MB: Yes, I was. We were expecting Arianne in October.
DS: And what year would this have been?
MB: I guess we were looking in ’64. We moved in in the spring of ’65, Arianne (2:00) came in October. So I guess we weren’t pregnant then, but we were planning on having a family.
DS: So describe the building when you looked at it and before you started restoring it.
MB: It was just really large rooms, because the back area, which was where the stairs were, had had an L that went beyond, but the Redevelopment Authority had taken that down. I guess that area had had the kitchens and bathrooms. But the part of the house that was still remaining was comprised of just really large spaces. It was a mercantile club before we bought it. (3:00)
DS: So it was a clubhouse. Were there members?
DS: Do you know anything about who had owned it before?
MB: No. I’ve done a lot of research, I must tell you. Between ’91 and ’95 I had sort of a work hiatus. I was still working but on a part-time basis. So I devoted a lot of time to doing research, and I have the Contributionship surveys of the house and all that information. It’s in a box in our attic, and when you asked Chuck last week about the information, I know it’s in there. But I haven’t put my hand on it, I’m afraid. But it’s a wonderful resource, because I really did gather as much as I could. And I also (4:00) have – I think I might have brought it here – the Episcopal Diocese bought the house next to us, and, since it was a public building, they had a historic structures report done for their house, and of course, ours is a match to that. So a lot of the information about it pertains to 234 [South Third Street] as well.
DS: Tell me more about the condition of the house. Had it been open to the elements? Had it been vacant for a long period of time?
MB: I think it had been vacant for a while, because it was – as I remember, it was just large and dirty. [Laughs]
DS: Large and dirty. Were there animals or anything inside?
MB: No, no, it didn’t seem to be that way.
MB: No. Of course, it’s surprising that we went up into the attic and cleaned (5:00) the attic first of all. I remember being up there with a broom and sweeping out the attic and finding an old shoe. But the rest of it was pretty open. I don’t know if the Redevelopment Authority had come in and cleaned some of it out. Has anybody else said anything about that?
MB: I just remember it as having really big spaces.
DS: And you started in the attic?
MB: [Laughs] Before we had plans or anything for it and before any of the construction happened. Yes, of course.
DS: So it had a nice big, open back yard, too, where they had torn the addition off. So you had a big back yard in addition to a big house.
MB: Yes. Right. But that was all brickbats, since it had been a demolition (6:00) area. There was no green there. It was just sort of a building site. That was it.
DS: Was there a walking path alley behind you, between you and the next properties going west, or was that done when Bingham Court was built?
MB: It was done when Bingham Court was built.
DS: But you could walk –
MB: We could have. We’re the one that put the brick wall in between the Episcopal Community Services’ yard and ours. At one point we could have driven a car right across that property and parked and used the back space. But of course we didn’t own that property, so we didn’t have a right of way.
DS: Yes. Then you proceeded – Chuck being an architect – the two of you (7:00) came to how you wanted to restore the building inside, and you restored it more contemporary?
MB: Yes, since he was at Penn. Although he didn’t study under Louis Kahn, Louis Kahn was a great influence, and when you come into our house you see there are many angled walls. But it works, because we have a space that’s just 20 ft. wide and I forget how deep it is, 100 ft. or more. And it just lends itself to that. So when Arianne was born, we had moved into the first floor. We had finished that space first. We always knew that it was going to be an apartment. In fact, from when the house was built, it had been (8:00) a separate living space. I think it was a woman who was involved in managing or – I’m not sure if she owned it – but we know that she rented that space out as an apartment; so we used it that way, too. But, of course, we had to start from scratch. It had to have a new bathroom, a new kitchen.
DS: It had been a separate unit with a kitchen and a bathroom of its own.
DS: So you renovated that space first. So that’s in ’64, ’65?
MB: Sixty-five. We’re really going to have to track these dates when we go back. Yes, because Arianne was born in ’65.
DS: So then what was your next plan for restoration? (9:00)
MB: Then to move upstairs. Our idea was that we were going to use the first floor as income. Chuck was still going to school. After he finished his M.A. he went for a Ph.D. He was in the first class of Ph.D. students in Architecture at Penn. Then he had construction plans, and we had a contractor, the same contractor who worked with us on the first floor. He was working on the second floor.
DS: How did you find your contractor?
MB: He’d have to tell you that. I don’t remember that part of it. But going back to purchasing the house, he probably told you that Ray Denworth was very much involved in helping us with the Redevelopment Authority and the financial arrangements (10:00) that we had to make to get it. We’d lived across the street from each other when we first moved into Philadelphia; so we were good friends, and we were all excited about this area together.
DS: The Redevelopment Authority – you bought it from them.
MB: Yes. As I remember, it was $9,800.
DS: Do you have any clue to the real estate taxes at that time?
MB: No, I don’t. I’m afraid not, but if I go back and find some of these papers – and Chuck would remember how much we put into it to begin with, you know, what our construction costs were. Did he tell you any of that?
DS: I think he did. Now, I interrupted you. You were about to tell me – you were in the apartment and the next space you wanted to restore was the second floor? (11:00)
DS: Because you needed to rent the apartment so that you could continue.
MB: Yes. And then Allegra was coming along.
DS: So how long did it take you to do this second floor?
MB: Well, we were living there while I was pregnant with Allegra, and she was born in ’68. She was born in May, and, as I remember, we were upstairs for a few months before she came. We were quite settled up there.
DS: So this is the second floor.
MB: This is the second floor, but that was never going to be our whole house. We were still going to have bedrooms and bathrooms and so forth on the third floor. The second floor included a small bathroom with a shower in it, so it would be usable. (12:00) It also had our kitchen. And what became our living room was our bedroom at that time. Then we always had the dining room at the back of the house. It was – it is a wonderful open space, because, since it has that east/west exposure, Chuck put the angled walls in it so there would be light coming through into the interior of the space as much as possible. It’s still dark in the library, but a library can be a little darker. But the spaces all flowed through one from the other.
DS: So this is the second and third floors. And there’s a fourth and a fifth floor? Just a fourth?
MB: A third and a fourth. Then the third floor became our bedroom and the (13:00) children’s bedrooms. The master bathroom was off our bedroom, and there was a bathroom for the girls. My laundry was up there on the third too. We put the laundry there when Arianne was born, because my brother was here to help. I had to go up to the third floor to do the laundry [Laughs], because I knew that eventually was going to be where it was most needed.
DS: In this construction or restoration, did you have to replace roofs or major, major things to the second or third floors?
MB: Well, we had to do a lot of the things that you didn’t see. For example, since they were big spaces and they hadn’t had plumbing in them, we had to put in a stack (14:00) and all the copper piping, which I resented for years, because so much of our money [Laughs] was in copper piping that no one could see.
MB: And the other big construction was – do you remember the sidewalks all had slates on them when we moved here? When did you move down here?
MB: Oh, then we’ve had parallel lives. We took the slates and put them into our garden room, and so –
DS: That had been on the front sidewalk.
MB: That had been on the front sidewalk, right. The back end was dug out so (15:00) we could make the garden room there and a small patio, and it goes up to the regular level of the garden. We have what you might call a berm out there. So it was a big construction project. We laid the slate floor in the garden room and then made a brick patio outside that and built the brick wall.
DS: So when would you say that this was all done?
MB: We’re still working on it, Dottie. [Laughs]
DS: But the major changes so that you can feel that this is your home and it’s complete.
MB: Right. Well, we moved upstairs, and we had our bedrooms and all. Then we went off to Texas in the early ‘70s, and the things that hadn’t been finished, those (16:00) that we really were sort of willing to live with and to work at as we could, then really needed to be finished. So that was the big push – getting everything plastered and painted. And it looked wonderful. We have photographs of when we walked out to go to Texas, and the house looks absolutely spectacular. So we moved in ’73.
DS: And you were not coming back to the house until –?
MB: We came back in ’77.
DS: And you’ve been here since?
MB: Since then.
DS: And when you were away you rented it?
MB: Yes. (17:00)
DS: So did you have any trouble with the Redevelopment Authority – or not – in the process of restoring or buying it from them?
MB: I don’t remember that part of it, because Chuck and Ray [Denworth] were working together on that, pretty much. So I don’t remember. But I think it went fine, really.
DS: Now the Denworths were, at this point, in the Towers?
MB: They did move from the little house that they lived in on Panama Street to the Towers. They were there by the time the twins were born, a year after Arianne, and that was ’65. But I can’t say definitely the year they moved. (18:00)
DS: Just a long friendship.
DS: Were there drawings that the Redevelopment Authority gave you saying that this is what they wanted the house to look like on the outside?
MB: I don’t remember their giving us drawings, but we knew about the balcony and knew that the museum [Philadelphia Museum of Art] had returned it to the Episcopal Diocese. The museum had ownership of the dog balcony, and since the Diocese was a nonprofit organization, they returned it to them. I don’t know what the arrangement was. They had it back here. Also there was one urn that the museum owned that was from our balcony, but they wouldn’t let us have that. They kept it in their collection. (19:00) I worked for many years as a docent, or staff lecturer, at the museum, and often I would walk down the hallway, and there was the urn to my house! [Laughs]
DS: Now the urn is now back up in front of the building next to you?
MB: No, no.
DS: It’s still at the museum?
MB: It’s still at the museum.
DS: Really. Now, your house did not have the balcony on the second floor. How did you go about finding that?
MB: Well, that’s just it. The Redevelopment Authority did know where it was, and it seemed that the lawyer who had worked in the office in the building next door had long admired it, and so when the buildings became very derelict and everybody (20:00) was moving out, he made the effort to get it, and he took it out to his property in Bucks County. So they knew where it was.
DS: And then you eventually purchased that from his children and put it back.
MB: Yes, yes. Chuck probably told you the long story of us trying to make plaster casts of it.
DS: He did. They’re still up in the top of your house, crumbling away?
MB: Right. We had a friend who was an artist, and she suggested we do this. It was the time when George Segal was doing all of his work. Do you remember how he was doing all that with the people? So we thought we could do it, too. But, thank goodness, we didn’t have to, because it would have cost us a fortune to cast those and make new ones.
DS: It certainly is beautiful now. (21:00)
MB: It is beautiful. And I guess he told you that the same iron workers that took it down put it back up. I think the firm was Hoffman, and one of the workers knew the story, which is strange, serendipitous, after all those years had passed.
DS: But a good story, a very good story.
MB: And I’ve traced the design of the balcony. As you know there is a great interest in it, and I want to do more research on it. The actual pattern was published in England by Cottingham for ironworkers. That’s the design for ours. Oh, the dogs are in this book, too. But that’s the design that was published in 1824, and our balcony was done in 1843. I haven’t been able to find who the iron workers were who made it. (22:00)
DS: But it was in England.
MB: No, no, it was here in Philadelphia. They had wonderful iron workers here in Philadelphia. But they were working from English designs.
DS: It must have been a very elegant place when it was first built. Do you have any idea when the building was originally built?
MB: Well, it was built in 1843. I should have gone back and read the historic structures report, because I think it does give some of that early history. I believe it was done for speculation. It was not done for a particular family. There were three houses, (23:00) and I’m not quite sure how they were used, if there was always an apartment or a business on the first floor of all three. I guess that leads into the idea of what the details were like. There weren’t a lot of wonderful details in our house. In 232, there was a lot of black marble and Egyptian motifs. This was the Greek Revival period, and you find all these pictures of motifs and quite robust forms. They had a lot more of that remaining than we did in our house, unfortunately. It wasn’t as though we had to restore a lot of wonderful, original details. In fact, just looking at the back areas of the two (24:00) houses, 232 has a very fine railing and balusters, whereas ours is very big and Victorian. So I think it must have been replaced at some time later. They’re quite different.
DS: When you bought your house, was the house to the north of you, the one that had Episcopal Community Services, were they in there then?
MB: Oh, yes.
DS: They were already there.
MB: There were offices in which they were working. And then they took over St. Paul’s, across the street, but I’m not sure when that happened. I think the historic structures report was done in ’81; so they were probably thinking about all those properties at that time.
DS: Tell me what it was like to have children in this neighborhood at that time. (25:00) Were you working, or were you dealing with the house and the children?
MB: I was working, but just part time. Before the children came, I was a staff lecturer in the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So I continued after Arianne was born. I did it just for a few hours each week. It isn’t as if I had to go into an office nine to five. I could choose my time. There were school groups that came in that I would give lectures to. And also I gave what they called gallery talks in different sections of the museum. I could study up for those on my own time. So the children as they were growing up always referred to it as Mommy’s museum, [Laughs] which gave (26:00) me a lovely sense of ownership. I think it was wonderful to have children in this neighborhood. Well, look at us, you know, so many years later, to have these friends that you met at those times. It was mainly due to Three Bears Park, I’m sure. When Arianne was first born, all the parks were being done, and I just loved taking her out in the carriage and sitting in the Rose Garden or the Magnolia Garden to read. To have a house under construction and a new baby as well, it was such a respite. It was just wonderful. When they were old enough to play, Three Bears Park was an amazing place for all of us. Chuck always referred to it as the village well, [Laughs] because I would come (27:00) home with all the news of the neighborhood. And he would say, “What happened at the village well today?” [Laughs] We had Arianne and her children last Christmas, and it was such fun to have those little ones crawling over the three bears, and you could see the scale – they seem enormous to those little kids. Yet as she got older, Arianne said, “They’re so small. When I was little I thought the three bears were enormous.”
DS: Arianne enjoyed growing up in this neighborhood?
MB: Oh, very much so, I believe they both did.
DS: They didn’t believe they’d been cheated out of anything their suburban friends had.
MB: I don’t think so, but Arianne did go to Shipley. (28:00)
DS: From an early age?
MB: No, no, she went to St. Peter’s, and then she went to Shipley for secondary school; so she had that taste of what suburban life was like. But she always liked living in the city.
DS: And your other daughter did too?
DS: Other stories of – were you afraid in this neighborhood? Did you ever feel you were insecure?
MB: No, I never did. The Towers were just being finished, and people were moving into those when we were working on our house. St. James Walk is right across the street from our house, and that was lit up, and there was always movement around. I love cities, and we had moved here from New York. I lived in the suburbs in Toronto, but I (29:00) went to university in the heart of the city and was never nervous.
DS: You knew how to live in the city. Reactions of your parents to your moving into the area.
MB: Well, my father had died just after I moved to New York, before I was married. But my mother loaned us $1,000 to make the down payment on our house. I think (30:00) our down payment was $3,000, and we have a wonderful picture of her here in our house on Panama Street holding a fan of $100 bills, [Laughs] which was a lot of money at that time. She came – but she thought it was a big barn. She wasn’t very happy that I lived in that big house. But she put up with it. And she was there when both children were born. But it was difficult, because things were still just being finished, and she was used to a very small suburban house. But she came to terms with it, I think. (31:00)
DS: And she saw it when you were upstairs and things were more settled and could see the results of the $1,000.
MB: Yes. She was a wonderful grandmother to the children, too. She was here quite often; she came back many, many times. Did Chuck tell you what we did after the girls left? It was just too big a house for us; so we made our second floor into an apartment. Did he tell you about that?
DS: He just kept saying it was a very big house.
MB: We decided – do you want to hear this part of the story, too?
DS: It’s interesting to see –
MB: How things changed.
DS: How the house works.
MB: It worked fine for us when we were a family, but it was a long run from (32:00) the second floor up to the third floor all the time. So when both daughters had gone off to college and had made their own lives afterwards, we decided that we would make the second floor into a self-contained apartment. And we could do this because we made that little powder room with the shower in it. So it’s small. It’s really suitable for only one person. But it’s a wonderful apartment. It’s quite separate, because of the way our stair hall works in the back of the house. And we moved up to the third and fourth floor. As far as the living space is concerned it works very nicely for us. I think it was a very good decision.
DS: I think I do remember. I asked him if you have an elevator. And he said (33:00) that was another project.
MB: Right. That’s something we talked with Penny Batcheler about, because she did that for one of the properties that she owned. And we do have the dumbwaiter space that’s used as closets now. And we could probably install an elevator in there. It’s one of those options. We feel it’s good for the heart to go up and down those stairs. But I know it will get difficult.
DS: It’s a wonderful way to get your exercise, more fun than going to a gym.
MB: And we had an agreement about the groceries. When I went grocery shopping I would get help carrying them upstairs. I always do.
DS: Have you interactions with people in the neighborhood, the old originals, (34:00) people who were born and raised here? Or newcomers? Other than Three Bears Park, how did you get to know people you didn’t already know?
MB: Well, we were involved in the Civic Association, and of course Joanne [Denworth] was president of it for a while. We were really involved in that, and we met many people through that. And then I guess our other interests were the academic world that Chuck was involved in out at Penn, and I was at the museum; so we had those different circles as well as the neighborhood.
DS: How did you find babysitters for the girls? (35:00)
MB: Oh, well, there was that wonderful babysitting coop that Joan Putney organized. That was an amazing thing to have. And it really was good. It was good for the children, too, to either go to other people’s houses or to have other women come in – or dads sometimes did it. I don’t think the dads did it so much, did they?
DS: No, but some did. You’re right. I think they were mostly working, and a lot of people used it during the day as well as at night.
MB: Yes, I can remember using it mostly during the day, particularly if I had to go tearing off to the museum, or something like that, and I had a problem with a babysitter. I did have a woman who came in who took care of the children when I went off. And I remember other things. Thinking of Joan Putney – do you remember she did the community garden, now where the Community Center is, at Fourth and (36:00) Lombard?
DS: A lot of fun.
MB: And a good learning experience with the kids. Now it’s coming full circle. All these people are starting their vegetable gardens, and we did it many years ago.
DS: Any other stories with contractors, suppliers, neighborhood people? Grocery stores? Where’d you do your grocery shopping?
MB: I go over to SuperFresh.
DS: What did you do then?
MB: Oh, what did I do?
DS: Because early 60s the SuperFresh was not there.
MB: That’s right. Isn’t that interesting. There was an Acme that we had used when we were living near 15th Street. Our house was at the corner of Panama and Iseminger. And then I used to go to the Italian Market. I used to go to the Italian Market quite a bit and get things there. I remember that. Hum, that’s interesting.
DS: But you did need a car, didn’t you, at that point to do your shopping.
MB: We did.
DS: And your building does not have a parking space, right?
DS: How has that been – parking back then.
MB: Well, it’s restricting, because you think twice about taking the car out (38:00) in the evening. But we worked around it.
DS: You never found yourself using the bus or walking?
MB: Well, Chuck was at the University of the Arts for many years, and he walked up there and back every day, which was really good exercise for him. Then I needed the car for going out to the museum. But I remember taking the bus quite often. I guess I did when we lived on Panama Street. But we made use of the buses a great deal. Now, well, the same thing. You know what time there’s a shift in the parking in the neighborhood; so you sort of plan to be moving or shifting about the same time. What about you? Do you have a parking space? (39:00)
DS: We don’t, and we park on the street, and we do the same thing you do. We’ve never had a parking space. You learn. It’s not a bad problem. Anything else you want to tell us?
MB: Well, there are lots of stories, but they pop up as you think about them at different times. I guess, coming over here, one of the things I was thinking about was, when we moved up to the second floor and Allegra was a newborn, I had to get up at those early morning hours, and it was then that I discovered that the house has the morning east light, because the sunrises were absolutely spectacular. We had huge windows (40:00) on the second floor. It was just wonderful light in that space, and I appreciated my husband’s architecture, too, because the light flowed through the house. When she was little, we put Allegra in one of those little spiders, before she could walk, and she could just careen around that place. That was really lots of fun. Let’s see, we moved in ’73; so she was about five when we left. So coming back, it was quite different in the house, and in their lives, because they both went back to St. Peter’s then. Whereas Allegra hadn’t even started preschool. But I’m getting off the point. (41:00)
DS: But it’s interesting how the children – I had heard in some of these interviews that people say the Redevelopment Authority didn’t think that there would be young families with children, and so at some point in the developing they had to rethink parks and making the neighborhood more young family oriented. Which they did do. Clearly, I think it happened, whether they wanted it to or not.
MB: Why, when was Three Bears Park done?
DS: I don’t have an exact date on it, but it must have been mid-60s. It was there in ’65, when I had my children. Again, like you, I coordinate it with the age of the (42:00) children.
MB: Well, one thing I do remember, 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.
DS: That’s a nice story.
MB: Because the house is so different. I don’t know how many people would have taken on that big a property.
[End of interview]
Transcriber’s Note: The narrator made numerous changes to an early draft of the transcript; so there are inconsistencies between the taped interview and the transcript, and the timing may be slightly off.
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