What has been most important to Franklin (Frank) Roberts (d. 2019) about living in Society Hill – and this is a point he makes several times in his interview – was the people. This includes those who were living there in 1961, when Frank and his wife Lynne bought their first house at 222 Delancey Street, and also those who came as a result of redevelopment.
Frank talks about exploring available shells in Society Hill, noting that by 1961 most of the larger buildings had been sold. They hired Urban Moss to design what needed to be done to 222 Delancey to make it livable (including removing the fire escapes) and moved in. Franklin quickly became involved with one of the several neighborhood associations that at the time were at loggerheads about who should be admitted to membership and what the groups’ missions should be. Eventually, the two groups merged into what they called Society Hill Civic Association, and Franklin was elected one of the early presidents.
He points to establishing a newsletter for the Association and to forming liaisons with three adjoining neighborhood associations. They dealt with issues as diverse as opposing the Crosstown Expressway, the design of street lights, and the nature of street paving materials. Frank and Lynne were attracted by the history of the area and wanted to learn more about it. “At that time,” he says, “People seemed to be as concerned with people as with properties. That’s changed, understandably, as the cost of these properties has escalated. Some people have come in and they try to top the next one, with a double property or a show of strength. We had interesting people, and that was one of the pleasures of the neighborhood.”
In 1968, Lynne and Franklin began building a larger house on the vacant lots at 228-230 Delancey Street. Their architect was Romaldo Giurgola, a promising young architect who had graduated from Penn.
Frank describes his association with Hobart Cawood, the Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, and how he persuaded Cawood to let him write and produce a number of original, one-act plays to be performed in the Park during the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 and in National Parks around the country during the Constitution’s Bicentennial in 1986.
DS: This is an interview with Franklin Roberts at 228 Delancey [Street], his home. The date is February 6, 2008, and I am Dorothy Stevens, the interviewer.
DS: Franklin, tell me, when did you come to Society Hill?
FR: The first time I came down this street was, I believe, late May or early June of 1961.
DS: Why did you come down here?
FR: I had been the sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania. We had a faculty advisor named Fred “Spike” Stapleford. [1:00] Shortly after Lynne [his wife] and I were married, I bumped into Spike, and he said, “Hey, how would you like to go to the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park?” I said, “Sure, that’s fine. Do you have a car or should we meet there or do you want me to pick you up?” He said, “Pick me up.” I said, “OK. Where should I pick you up?” He said, “Two fourteen – it was either 214 or 216 – Delancey Street” and I kind of looked a little non-plussed, [2:00] because I knew the general area.
We drove to the Delancey Street address. It was a nice summer day and there were urchins playing in the street, and there was a gentleman named Benny Heshkowitz sitting in front of what I believe is now 240 Delancey. It was at that time a wooden structure, at least the façade was, painted a decaying green. Benny was sitting on the stoop playing his banjo. There were other folks [3:00] moving up and down the street. I guess it looked a little decrepit, as you might imagine. Maybe one-third of the structures were vacant, and several had Formstone facades. We went to the Jersey Derby. I don’t remember whether I won or lost; I probably lost. I had asked Fred a few questions about the street and the area, and that piqued my interest.
DS: Were you married at the time?
FR: We were married. We were married in 1959, and this was as best I recall – the Jersey Derby was always Memorial Day. I think it was May 30, 1960.
DS: You and Lynne decided to come back down?
FR: Oh, I wouldn’t quite put it that way. [Laughs]… Lynne had only been to Philadelphia once in her life. She was here with the [Robert A.] Taft group when they went for the Republican nomination in 1948. She had been a kid…. I was born and raised in North Philadelphia, and the family later (late ‘40s) moved to East Oak Lane. I knew the city.
We had a common interest, which was theater, and I said, “You know, where are we going to live when we are married?” We ended up in an apartment, a sublease, [5:00] in the 2000 block of Locust [Street], so Lynne could get the feel of the city. She had to set aside her desire to live on the Main Line and ride horses just like Katherine Hepburn [Laughs] in The Philadelphia Story… After about a year or so, we started to talk about, “You know, maybe Center City is a good place for us.” It had what interested us, and it was convenient to Rittenhouse Square and the theaters.
We started to look around. We looked on Lombard Street, the 2000 block… We looked around Camac Street, which was, I think, the first street really to be gentrified, sometime in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s. I remember we looked at Alfred Bendiner’s house. He had been a very prominent cartoonist, but that didn’t work out. After we had been down in this area, we started – I started – to talk about it. I was familiar with this part of Philadelphia, because my dad used to take our family to Atlantic City on the ferry trains. [7:00] We would walk down the hill on Market Street to the ferries, and then go across [the Delaware River] and take the ferry train from Camden. I remember vividly the delicate aroma of the Delaware [River] in mid- summer.
We also – there were few restaurants around here – used to go out for family dinner on Sunday. One of the restaurants we would go to occasionally was Shoyers, which was on Fourth and Arch [Streets], and Arthur’s Steak House – which later moved uptown – was on the corner of Sydenham and Walnut Streets, opposite where Helen Wilson’s restaurant was. There was a well-known Jewish restaurant, Uhr’s Restaurant, which was on Fifth Street, [8:00] south of Lombard or south of South.
I had a general familiarity with the area and in talking with friends – one friend was in commercial real estate – I mentioned the visit to Delancey Street and wondered what was going on. “Oh, there’s a competition to build towers and some townhouses down there. I’m kind of involved in it. He joked about it, and I began to think about the possibility that maybe there was something to it. We came down a couple of weekends, and one weekend we ran into two other young couples…. [9:00] One couple was Peggy and Rody Davies, and one couple was Mike and Ann Erdman. We would talk about the shells [of houses] down here. The area had been fairly well picked over – the larger houses. Rody would say, “Well, we were in 239 Delancey [Street]. That looked like it might be interesting. We went through there, and we looked at maybe a couple of other places.”
There was one little grocery on Fourth Street where you could buy a can of tuna and a roll or sliced bread and a pickle, and on occasion we had a sumptuous feast sitting on one of the stoops eating a tuna fish sandwich [10:00] and talking about these properties. Gradually we developed an interest in 222 Delancey Street, which was one of three houses owned by a speculator. Two of the houses, 222 and 224, were twins with fire escapes across the front of these three-and-a-half-, four-story properties. I went into one. I don’t know whether Lynne ever got above the first floor. The aroma there was reminiscent of the Delaware River on a muggy summer night. Six families had been living there. Both properties were vacant and, ultimately, we purchased the shell, 222 Delancey Street. [11:00]
DS: Do you remember how much you paid for it?
FR: Yes, it was $8,000…. Since 222 and 224 [Delancey] were the same properties, the same design, the same spaces, I talked to a number of people, saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about this. If we bought both of them we’d save $1,000.” I couldn’t interest anyone in my circle – advertising, broadcasting and public relations. They didn’t think it made any sense…. At [12:00] Locust Street, Twentieth and Locust [Streets], where we were living in the apartment, we belonged to the Rittenhouse Swim Club, and we’d met a number of people. One couple was Tom Van Arkel of Van Arkel & Moss. They had done some rehabbing in Tryon Court, which was on the west side of Broad [Street]. We started to talk about our plans, and he said, “You know, that’s what I do.” We ended up retaining Tom and Urban Moss, his partner, to do a very basic clean-up of the property, remove the fire escapes, and make it livable, or at least what we considered livable, and in either late ’61 or early ’62, we became residents of Society Hill. [13:00]
DS: You bought it from this man who owned these three –
FR: He owned three properties, yes.
DS: You didn’t have to go through the Redevelopment Authority?
FR: We had to go through OPDC [Old Philadelphia Development Corporation]. OPDC had to approve the façade, and we had some contact with Redevelopment Authority. Basically it was a matter of cleaning up the front.
DS: How long – you then hired an architect and he laid out the plans?
FR: Well, I don’t remember whether either Tom or Urban were architects by [14:00] license. Urban – I think Urban probably was. What we did was very simple in terms of cleaning the place up, including removing the fire escapes. We lowered the dormer to conform with the adjoining properties.
DS: Do you remember the price of redoing this in a very basic way?
FR: As best I remember, it would be somewhere around $25,000.
DS: Now, you did more in there. It took you six months? A year?
FR: To do the property?
DS: Yes, to do the property.
FR: It was not a year. No, it was done in pretty quick order…. I occasionally wrote articles for Philadelphia [15:00] magazine. Alan Halpern, the editor, was interested in what was going on, and he asked me to write an article about coming in and converting the property, complete with photographs of what it looked like on the interior. [Laughs] Instead of Italian marble, there was a lot of cinder block, and I have pictures of Lynne and me sitting on the cinder block piled in what became the living room. They probably paid me $25 or $50 for the article, [Laughs] so I got an immediate return on the property. [16:00]
DS: Do you have the article still?
FR: I think I do. I know I have the photographs.
DS: I’d love to see it.
FR: If not, it would be in Philadelphia magazine’s morgue.
DS: That would be in what year?
FR: Well, it’s either the end of ’61 or the beginning of ’62. I’ll look for the issue. I may have it around here.
DS: You moved in and lived there –
FR: We lived there [Laughs] – we joined one of the two civic associations…. That was [17:00] bitter battles, bitter battles. The SHARA group, the Society Hill Area Residents’ Association, was very concerned with details, exactitudes. Again, I’m sure it’s been covered. Fortunately, no blows were struck, no blows that I know of, but we had pretty animated civic association meetings. Actually, we had AHO, which was, I think, the Associated Home Owners.
DS: In addition to SHARA?
FR: Yes. I think they were the originals, and we were the Society Hill Area Residents Association, because not all of us were home owners; most of us were. They – AHO – wanted home owners only, and [18:00] they wanted everything restored either to its original if it were Colonial or Federal if not. That’s what they wanted.
DS: They wanted you to imitate it?
FR: Everything alike.
DS: SHARA did not necessarily?
FR: No, not necessarily.
DS: The arguments would be about what people were doing with their houses?
FR: Yes, whether they were violating the sanctity of the area, or whether they were conforming. I’ve never been a good conformist. We didn’t set out [Laughs] to flaunt what we were doing, and the property was restored with the dormer roof line, in character with the neighborhood.
DS: They had no issue with you?
FR: No, except that I was one of the newbies.
DS: Right. [19:00].
FR: I was one of the young smart-asses.
DS: How did the [Society Hill] Civic Association develop?
FR: Well, eventually cooler heads prevailed. Peggy Walsh, Margaret Walsh, was one of the people who was here already, and she was a reasonable and sensible person. After a while it became obvious that two civic associations wouldn’t work. We didn’t have that many people here. There was a merger, and I think I was second or third president. I don’t remember exactly – somewhere around ’64.
DS: Was Bill Eiman the first one?
FR: Bill – I followed Bill, I believe.
DS: Peggy –
FR: Yes, well, Peggy – [20:00]
DS: – was the first.
FR: Peggy Walsh was the first of the merged group, and Bill may very well have been the second.
DS: Peggy restored a house on Spruce Street.
FR: Well, Peggy Walsh, her family business, Walsh Real Estate, had its offices at –
DS: Fifth and Walnut [Streets].
FR: The corner of Fifth and Walnut [Streets], so it made sense for her to live here. She had done a pretty fair job with the property she had, which was in the middle – the north side of Spruce.
DS: In the 400 block?
DS: When you became president, what issues did you tackle?
FR: Well, I remember having the members of the board over one evening [21:00] early on, at 222 [Delancey], which was quite small, sitting around a card table, because we never had any furniture there. I suggested two things: one, that we should have a newsletter, which became the Society Hill Resident, and two, that the indigenous population on all sides of us had concerns about this new crowd coming in and that we should develop liaisons with the adjoining civic associations to the west, to the south and to the north, because they existed. I asked Paul Putney to [22:00] take that on. Paul, who was a very superior fellow, grabbed it and ran with it. That was the very first time we established association – a liaison with our fellow associations and tried to beef up the area’s political muscle….
I also had the pleasure of presiding over the Civic Association when we had two rapes, one following the other in fair order. I got word of one of them as [23:00] I was walking home, around Eighth or Ninth and Locust [Streets]. It began to sound to me very much like it was pretty near to 222 Delancey. Thank goodness, it wasn’t, and we lived through that one.
Generally, we didn’t have many problems – crime problems. [Our] block and the immediate blocks were distinguished by vacant property, derelict property. Most of that changed over the period of the next five, ten, fifteen years. [24:00] The kids, lot of kids, as you know, grew up on the street. That’s how I grew up in North Philadelphia. We had interest in people. One of the attractions to me of the area obviously was the background of history, and learning more about it, but also the diversity of the people who landed there. In those days, we seemed to be as concerned with people as with properties. That’s changed, understandably, as the cost of these properties has escalated. Some people have come in and they try to top the next one, with a double property or a show of strength. We had interesting people, and that was one of the pleasures of the neighborhood. [25:00]
DS: Did these people from the other two civic associations join the Society Hill Civic Association or did they –
FR: No, it was not a matter of joining. It was a matter of opening up lines of communication with them, discussing through our representative – Paul, I think, handled it for a year or two – discussing common problems. We had the issue of the [Crosstown] Expressway, which came up within a matter of a few years. We had the question of what kind of [street] lights, paving –
DS: Crosstown Expressway?
DS: Did you, back when you were living in 222 Delancey, interact with the people who were living here originally? Or was it mostly with the people who [came] into the neighborhood when you [came] into the neighborhood? [26:00]
FR: It was mostly the people who came in with the exception that one of the people – as I understand it – who had an awful lot to do with the neighborhood coming to life, or regeneration, was a man named Harry Batten, the president of N. W. Ayer, the national advertising agency.
Now I don’t know whether Harry Batten’s name has come up in any of your conversations. Harry Batten was president of N.W. Ayer advertising, which was the first advertising agency in the United States, which grew out of a fellow named N.W. Ayer, who bought space from the newspapers and sold it and earned a commission. Over [27:00] a period of time, N.W. Ayer became one of the country’s – perhaps the world’s – five leading ad agencies…. The [N. W.] Ayer building, which is now being converted into very luxurious condos, is on [west] Washington Square. Batten was one of a group of movers and shakers – I don’t know when it started, in the ‘20s and ‘30s and into the ‘40s – arguing and trying to generate the rebirth of the entire area, which would have benefited him and also the city. He was a very strong-minded man…. He was hard-headed and [28:00] very energetic, and he obviously influenced what happened. What also happened was that some of the first people who came into this neighborhood to buy property, improve it and live here, were people who worked with or for N.W. Ayer., so that we had, oh, maybe a half dozen or so folks. Maureen Murdock worked for N.W. Ayer, and she lived on the north side of 200 Delancey. There was [29:00] …. Let’s see, who else? In this block on the south side, we had Leo and Kate Reardon.
DS: Georganne Mears?
FR: They came in a little later. The Mearses came in the 100 block [of Delancey] I can’t remember exactly, but I’ll guess ’64 or ’65, somewhere in there. Fred [30:00] Stapleford worked at the Inquirer, and I guess his being down here was generated by some of those other folks who were here. I think Bill Surasky, who lived around Seventh or Eighth [Street], the photographer, I think he was involved. And maybe there were a couple of other folks who were in the ad business or newspaper business and had glommed onto this idea that it was convenient to live here and that something historic was happening or going to happen.
DS: What did Mr. Batten do to promote the area?
FR: As I understand it, after World War I, some of the leading citizens of Philadelphia got together and started to talk up the idea of regenerating, renewing the [31:00] Independence Hall area. One of whom is legendary – and of course I’ve forgotten his name. Judge – the fountain’s named after him. [It was Judge Edwin O. Lewis.]
FR: No, not Judge Williams. The fountain’s named after him at Market Street…. He was a force, and a member of this group [along with] Charlie Peterson, who was sent in the late ‘30s by the National Park Service to determine whether taking over Independence Hall and the area was practical. [32:00].… He had an apartment in the Girard houses on –
DS: Spruce [Street].
FR: Spruce Street.
DS: The 300 block.
FR: So, we had a smattering of people, and then, of course, you had [Richardson] Dilworth, who, I think it was in ’56, came to Washington Square and had his home built. I remember fondly going out the front door on a Saturday or Sunday in the early ‘60s and walking down the street – in the middle of the street, because there [33:00] wasn’t that much traffic – was our mayor or our former mayor, as the case may be, walking his two white poodles down the middle of the street, wearing a Hawaiian flowered shirt, looking at what he had created or instituted with pleasure and pride. It was a great sight.
DS: It was. I remember it, too. Now, you eventually sold 222 [Delancey]?
FR: Well, we’d come here because I liked the sense of the neighborhood and the people and what was going on. Lynne [34:00] liked the idea, too, and she started working at the Theater of the Living Arts on South Street, when it was established, I believe, in ’63. She was coming home about 2 o’clock in the morning which, when I would mention this to people I knew, family or otherwise, there was a gasp. Walking, from South Street, here, middle of the night? We survived it and we thrived on it. I don’t know that we had any idea of permanently staying in the area. But gradually, the thought of a four-story house…. [35:00]
[Sound of a telephone ringing. the tape is turned off, then on again.]
FR: First of all, I was embarrassed by the folks moving in at the same time or shortly thereafter, because there was Rody Davies on a scaffold, putting two little houses on American Street together, doing every kind of work known to man or architect and establishing his house. People like Bill and Jane Eiman, doing floors, painting the house, and doing other manual labor. And that’s not my thing. [Laughs] After a while I said to Lynne, “You know, this is embarrassing. We’re in here, and it’s pretty simple, and here are all these people around us doing this work with their own hands. I don’t work with my hands. I play sports with my hands, but I [36:00] don’t wanna work with my hands.” At one point, I said, “Let’s paint the second-floor bedroom,” which needed a paint job. And we painted the second-floor bedroom, the master bedroom. I remember it was yellow paint, a light-yellow paint. We also bricked our back yard at 222 when one of the warehouses came down on Front Street. We went over there and did battle with the indigenous peoples for the [37:00] bricks, and got enough bricks to have most of the back yard paved. It wasn’t a very big back yard.
I was saying that I’d never given thought to whether this was going to be a permanent home [but when] we started thinking of children [we began] thinking of a [larger] house. …. I looked in the Sunday paper one day. It was early ’65 and I saw an ad for a double lot in the 200 block of Delancey Street, and I said, “There is no such [38:00] thing. I know every property here; there is no double lot.” We had regretted the fact that [when] the first people who came here in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, there were some rather nice, large shells, some of them in decent repair, handled by OPDC, Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, and we were too late for that. I said, “Double lot?” I called the fellow and I met him. He was an assistant or an associate professor at Drexel [University], and the double lot was one vacant lot and one junker. [39:00] He had put a deposit down on the junker and he had gotten approval [to purchase] the lot through OPDC. [That’s how] he had a double site. He said, “I love the idea of building a house down there, but my wife has changed her mind. She doesn’t want to live here.” I said, “What do you want for it?” He told me, and I said, “You’ve got a deal.”
DS: It was that good a deal that you took it right away?
FR: Well, I wanted it.
DS: Oh, I see. [Laughs]
FR: It was a fair deal.
DS: It was?
FR: It was fair.
DS: Can you tell me how much?
FR: Oh, no, I can’t tell you how much.
DS: All right.
FR: However, I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll give you a deposit, [40:00] whatever you want.” He called me later that night and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it.” I’d been a bad buyer, a little too eager. He said, “I really don’t think ….” The price went up, you know, maybe 8% or so. I begrudged it, but I’d made up my mind. We took the property, at which point, we had this double lot, 228 and 230 [Delancey Street]. We pulled the junker down, and we had a common alleyway to our east. The alleyway ran back 55 feet; the property was 80 feet. It was a shared alley with the property at 226 [Delancey], which at that point was an empty lot. We [41:00] had at 222 Delancey Street, our property. Five properties had the right of passage over the back three feet [because of] part of a fire code that went way back
DS: It was a 3-foot strip in the back of all these houses?
FR: [Laughs] There wasn’t a strip.
DS: People had built over it?
FR: It was what became our garden and I put a cedar fence up, figuring, OK, if worse came to worst, I could pull the cedar fence down. [However] for fire purposes, the properties on Pine Street had a right-[of-way] across those back three feet as well as the [42:00] property to our east, and ourselves. I would think about that, saying, “You know, someday somebody’s going to come in here and say, ‘We have a right to cross that three feet.’” I didn’t want to deal with that, so I tried very diligently to find somebody who would be interested in the property to the east of 228 Delancey Street. We had 37 plus feet in width. I was perfectly willing to sell a couple of feet to such a property owner, which would have been great for that property. Each year that went by – because we had selected an architect –I realized the cost of construction was going up. [43:00]
DS: Just let me clarify here. 226, the house next door was not there?
FR: No, it was not there.
DS: No house there.
FR: Which is how we got these plate-glass windows that you’re sitting in front of here, in our living room. [Laughs] This is one piece of glass from floor to ceiling. We were able to bring them in over a wall and install them. They’re custom-made pieces of glass. If we had a nice, raucous party, and somebody went through one of those windows, we would need a helicopter to bring in the replacement glass, because there now is a house at 226 [Delancey]. We hired our architect, Romaldo Giurgola, who is now [44:00] recognized as a great architect. His partner, [Ehrman Mitchell], I found out, was a classmate of mine from Penn, which I didn’t realize until after we had made the commitment. Giurgola did the design and we are delighted with it…. We broke ground in December of ’68, if I remember correctly, at which point, I was running a movie company in New York and commuting [45:00] two or three times a week. It was an experience, because it’s a big job [to build a house] and I wasn’t here. I was having my fun in New York, in show biz.
DS: Lynne was dealing with the contractors?
FR: Well, we didn’t – I made one thing clear to my beloved wife. I said, “Look. You get into trouble – I’ve never done a project like this – but I know you get into trouble when you make plans and then change them. That’s when your costs go up, and that’s when you have headaches.” I said, “What we’re going to do is, after Giurgola designs it and we approve it, that’s what it’s going to be.” Mitchell and Giurgola assigned an architect to work with the contractor in detail, and [46:00] there are a lot of things I’d do differently. I think anybody who has ever done a property probably feels that way, but it worked.
DS: You raised two sons here – I mean, a son and a daughter.
FR: A son and a daughter. Right.
DS: It was worth doing?
FR: Yes. It was worth doing. What started as a kind of adventure –
[End of first side of tape. Beginning of second side of tape]
DS: This worked out well, to be here?
FR: Yes. It’s worked out well. I’ve always been a city boy. [1:00] I like cities, big cities, little cities. Cities have problems; any city in the world has problems. I know Mexico City almost as well as I know Philadelphia. Mexico City has enormous problems, but it’s a great city. And I enjoy living here, and I enjoy wandering around Mexico, South America, somewhere else when I go on a trip, and so does Lynne.
DS: Tell me, how did your family react to all your investments?
FR: [Laughs] Well, I had an uncle who was in the real estate business, had done well in the real estate business, and he thought I was a little nuts. My father said, [2:00] “You know, we had a relative who lived on South Second Street. He got out of there. What are you doing going there?” [Laughs] There were questions. I remember that after 222 [Delancey] was more or less cleaned up and done, I had a cocktail party. We had a cocktail party. I invited friends and people I worked with in one way or another, to this Sunday afternoon cocktail party at 222 Delancey Street. I guess that was ’62 or ’63. [3:00] I thought I would do it when we still had light in the summer. I invited people I worked with in television and sports, and it was interesting to see and get reactions. Things [were] developing in the neighborhood, but this was not where “in people” would normally come visit. There were people on occasion that I invited who didn’t really want to come down, particularly [Laughs] in the evening.
DS: Your mother was all right with it? [4:00]
FR: My mother grew up at Seventh and Poplar.
DS: There was nothing –
FR: When my father and mother were married, in the early ‘20s, they moved to a new development, Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia with Fairmount Park as the back yard. It was a great place to grow up. The neighborhood was a modest, middle class neighborhood, adjoining lesser areas. So they accepted it because, one, they had to. But My father worked [5:00] at Eighteenth and Federal [Streets]. And he was very conversant with the city and with a deteriorating section of the city. That’s how he grew up. So….
DS: Any other stories that you would like to recall?
FR: Well, Lynne wants me to be very sure to mention Benny Heshkowitz, who was a man, I guess, in his 50s. The story was that he was a slightly retarded son of, if not a prominent family, a well-to-do family, and they put him down here. He had his own little wooden house, and he sat outside and played [6:00] the banjo, which was nice.
DS: Did he live at 240 Delancey?
DS: He did live there?
FR: Yes, but not in what is there now.
DS: Tell me, was Benny sort of a neighborhood friend? I mean –
FR: [He was a] pleasant man [who] sat there and played the banjo, and he was happy, or he seemed to be happy. We had a property next to us where we live now, which was a rooming house, and some men who worked on the docks rented there, and maybe some amateur, professional women. One never knew. The owner, [7:00] who was a slum lord – he was a landlord, but his properties probably were not in the choicest areas of the city –but he would come down in his beat-up pickup truck to collect the rent. [There was] a large property on the south side of the street, which Jim Kise later bought and restored.
DS: North side.
FR: North side, yes. I have always been under the impression that it had been a police substation, maybe it was a fire station. I don’t know. When we came down in ‘61 it was a rental hall [an American Legion], where occasionally [there would be] Polish dances or black [8:00] weddings, and that would liven up the neighborhood. Occasionally on a weekend, a rather bedraggled gentleman would come down the street asking where the Breakfast Association was, which was in the Mariners’ Church at Front and Delancey at that time. [As it happens] because people I dealt with in the entertainment business said, “Boy, your neighborhood would be great for a motion picture house, an art theater.” I said, “I know just the property.” One day a New York theater owner and [9:00] I went down there, we looked at it, and he said, “Yes, that would do.” I bought the property from OPDC. They didn’t know what to do with it.
DS: Do you remember how much you paid for it? You’re saying this was early ‘60s?
FR: Well, my partners and I got the property. My partners and I put up the cash [for the purchase].
DS: All right.
FR: It was probably somewhere in the area of $15,000 to $25,000. It didn’t work out, and Rody [Davies] ultimately built, what, three houses, I think. Before being vacated, the Seamen’s Church and the Mariners’ Church collaborated to serve breakfast to [10:00] the indigent on Sundays, and guys would come marching down the street to get their breakfast. I never tried their breakfast; I guess I should have. I didn’t own the property then…. A year or two after our purchase, there had been a fire . Some homeless person or [11:00] persons had gotten in there and I guess were cooking something, and there was a fire. Now, my wife is a firebug; a nut for fires, and there are a number of people in this category, [and some] of them live here. You’d hear a fire engine, and people would race out the door to see where the fire was. Well, the Daily News covered this fire, which started in the evening, and printed a photograph of maybe a half-dozen to a dozen locals, in Bermuda shorts, holding gin and tonics, standing by this decrepit structure… [12:00]
DS: Can we go back to –
DS: You owned the Mariner. Then what happened?
FR: There was a fire there.
DS: You sold it?
FR: Yes, …my partners who said, “Yes, we can do this,” [now] said, “No, you can’t do it. Costs too much. The [Redevelopment] Authority wants certain things done; they want this saved, they want that saved. The wall is coming down.” We sold it to Carl Massara. Do [13:00] you know the name?
DS: I do, indeed.
FR: I believe we sold it to Carl for about what we had in it. Whether Rody did the houses for Carl or the property was resold again, I don’t know.
DS: When the Mariners’ Church fell down, Carl Massara owned it?
FR: I believe so.
DS: It was after the church fell down that Rody was able to build the houses.
FR: I believe so.
DS: You were going to tell me the story of the six pack?
FR: Yes, well one day, I needed a six pack of beer. There were not a lot of neighborhood facilities; our ladies used to drive down to Second and [14:00] Oregon, where there was a ShopRite. Jane, Lynne, you. I took Andy [Roberts, his son], who must have been four or five years old, so it was late ‘60s, and I said “We’re going to go to Fourth and Lombard. [It] was an old, knock-down bar, rather decrepit, outside and inside, and had a few locals who hung out there, not our Society Hill [locals]…. We got inside, and there was a [15:00] pool table that took up most of the room [except for] the bar and a couple of small tables. There were, oh, maybe five or six black gentlemen and I remember vividly one of the fellows, who must have been fiftyish. He came over and greeted Andy and went and bought him a package of potato chips, and said, “Here, young man.” It was very – what I’m trying to say – it was very comfortable, the neighborhood, [16:00] the people, the old people, the new people. Well, some of the new people you had to – [Laughs] that might be another story.
We had, as you remember, the block parties. There were maybe a dozen women who would get into it, and it became the neighborhood thing, a very comfortable neighborhood thing for people from different backgrounds and different areas. That [was] one of the considerable pleasures of the [17:00] neighborhood. Somebody would say, “Oh, come on over for a drink.” You’d go to somebody else’s house for something, and you left your doors open. You would recount this to people who didn’t believe you, that this is how it worked. This is what was going on here, not every night, but we were pretty loose and friendly, and with rare exceptions, it was a very good neighborhood.
It’s still a very nice neighborhood. The real estate is more expensive, and the people, particularly those who come in now or who have come in within the last few years, are concerned with the value of the properties. I understand that, [18:00], but people are more important than real estate. If you’re lucky enough.
DS: The feeling has changed?
FR: Well, you know, people have their friends, their little cliques, their little groups. Occasionally there will be something in Three Bears [Park]. One thing I did enjoy: I dedicated Three Bears Park.
DS: While you were president of the Civic Association?
FR: While I was president, I [also] dedicated the Baskin statues.
DS: They’re at the [Society Hill] Towers?
FR: At the Towers. I always referred to myself as the “Lord Mayor”. I did not want to be simply the president of the Civic Association. It was much more satisfying to be the “Lord Mayor.” [19:00]
DS: Were you the instigator to get the city to make Three Bears Park into a park, rather than to make it into housing?
FR: No, I was not, and I cannot recall exactly how that worked…. I certainly argued for the fact that we had a lot of young kids, a lot of children, which again folks outside the area, who never came into it, would never believe, that you would have young children and they were growing up on the street, and most of them were going to the neighborhood school, which Lynne put a lot of effort into, and you put a lot into it. The mothers of that period put a lot of effort into McCall School…. [20:00]
DS: The feeling your children have about their growing up in this neighborhood, is it good?
FR: It’s good. They both turned out to be kids who like the idea of living in suburbia. Fortunately, they are in a nice part of suburbia, Wallingford, which is a nice area, without the billion-dollar houses or the horse corrals. They’re close to the city. I don’t know how that happened, [Laughs] because this is pavement. Bricks.
DS: Their feeling about growing up – do they feel like they were cheated in any way?
FR: No, I don’t think so. They both had a number of friends here, and I know Andy has retained fairly close contact with the Glockner boys and John [21:00] Fayer. Laura [Roberts] has just been invited to the Zeldin wedding….
DS: Other stories, Franklin?
FR: Well, I think I now pick up a thread. When my brother, who is a serious collector of historic documents, and I started going in different directions, I was getting involved with theater. I had an idea in the early ‘70s about a play form that could be done in historic sites. I [22:00] pursued it [since]…. I had gotten to know Hobie Cawood [Hobart G. Cawood].
DS: Who was…?
FR: He was the [third] Superintendent of Independence [National Historical] Park, and he was a great benefit to the neighborhood and to the Park Service. You don’t find many Park Service superintendents who are comfortable in the cities or know how to work in an urban area. [23:00] Hobie, who was a country boy, had that adaptability and was very good for the area. I went to him in ’72 or ’73, and said, “ I have an idea, to create original, one-act plays that would be done in the park without any of the appurtenances of theater: no lights, no sound, no sets. The park will be the set. The plays won’t be re-creations; they will be original, one-act plays. I’d like to try one here. What I’m proposing is that I’ll get the play written. You’ll have approval of the play and your historians will have approval. I’ll [raise] the money.” I kind of made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
I involved Temple University’s Theater Department [24:00] and used some of their people as directors, as costume designers, as actors, because they had, and still have, a very professional theater program. They produce pretty good people. I had a play written and Hobie approved it. I got the money from Bell of Pennsylvania. It was the time when Philadelphia was talking about the Bicentennial and what we should do. I was on the Bicentennial committee, and Bill Cashel, who was then head of Bell of Pennsylvania, was also on the committee. I said, “Bill, let’s start the Bicentennial. We can do a play in Independence Park. The play’s been [written] and approved by Hobie Cawood, and I think it will cost about [25:00] $25,000 to run it through this summer.” He said, “OK, you’ve got it.” We did our first play at Independence [National Historical] Park in the summer of ’73. Ultimately, I provided twenty original plays and musicals in Philadelphia, Gettysburg [National Military Park], Federal Hall [National Memorial] in New York [the site of the Zenger trial about freedom of the press], and Morristown [Historic Sites]. I also was asked by the [National] Park Service in Washington to create a play that could tour the country, as one of its Bicentennial activities. I did that and did four more national tours of the Park Service system in ’75, ’76, and in ’86 and ’87 for the [200th anniversary of the ratification of the] Constitution. [26:00]
FR: I didn’t have to walk far to work.
DS: Do you remember what your [real estate] taxes were back then?
FR: I don’t, because when we decided to buy 222 Delancey, I had to get a home loan. I was told there were only two federal savings and loans in the city that would give home loans down here. One, I’ve forgotten the name, was in Upper Darby. The other was Ben Franklin Savings and Loan, which at that time was in the 1500 block of Chestnut Street. I got the home loan from there and taxes were part of the monthly [ 27:00] payment, so I honestly don’t remember, but I would guess that the tax part of the monthly bill might have been in the $150 area, maybe a little less, maybe a little more. They’ve gone up. I can say, without putting a specific price, that our present annual tax bill is greater than the price that I paid for the shell in ‘61. [Laughs] But …
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
DS: Bertha von Moschzisker?
FR: One of the new residents of Society Hill was Bertha von Moschzisker, whose [28:00] brother was one of the movers and shakers of the development of the area. He was a civic-minded guy, a lawyer. Bertha was head of the Print Club and a great provider and stimulator for young artists and young print makers and a stalwart of the neighborhood. There was a couple who were new residents and who lived in the Hail Columbia House [338 Spruce Street], Gus Griswold and his wife; Gus was head of the aviary section at the Zoo. There were two guys who lived in the 300 block, Ray [29:00] –
DS: Three hundred block of Delancey?
FR: Yes, Ray – and I can’t remember the other fellow’s name, living down here at the time. There was a woman living in what I think was the west side of Lippincott Court, who was in graphics. I know she did some work for my brother and me once; she did free-lance work.
DS: A lot of talented people.
FR: People associated with either graphics or advertising or printing.
DS: There seemed to be a lot of architects. [30:00]
FR: They started to come in, because, as I understand it, the University [of Pennsylvania] in its architectural courses had programs where you designed what could be done with this area…. People like Rody [Davies] and Mike Erdman, who were both graduates and were young enough and adventurous enough to say “This is worth taking a shot at. This is an interesting experience and experiment.” We had those, and we had the lawyers.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
FR: The first [new] development, if we can call (31:00) it a development, was Society Hill Towers, and the twenty or twenty-four houses around it [on Third Street, St. James Place, and the north side of Locust Street that he [developer William Zeckendorf] built. There was (32:00) another section built [on Philip Place from St. James Place to the north side of Locust Street] at a later date. There were two things about that: the Towers were designed by I. M. Pei as were the houses, but they couldn’t sell the houses…. They finally had four of the twenty-some houses sold. This is ’64, ’65, and I think the price was like $44,000 to $46,000. They finally got those sold. Bill Sells worked for Aluminum –
DS: ALCOA. [ALCOA took over Society Hill Towers when Zeckendorf, the original developer, went into bankruptcy.]
FR: ALCOA. He was put in charge of the Towers, managing the Towers, stimulating rentals for the Towers themselves. Bill had been a navy man, and Bill made some kind of arrangement with the Philadelphia Naval District here, [so] there (33:00) would be navy officers who took apartments for [short-term] periods. What also happened was folks who thought they might be interested in the area would take an apartment in the Towers to test the area before committing themselves, so people like Stanhope Browne and others first had apartments in the Towers and then bought property in the area.
DS: The Denworths?
FR: The Denworths. They started looking for properties [to renovate, restore or build new]. A number of these folks were lawyers. First artists [Laughs] and advertising people, then architects, and then lawyers, and finally, business people. (34:00)
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
FR: … I can’t remember who – it might have been more than one person – (35:00) suggested that we really didn’t want to go [to Society Hill] because [it] wasn’t for young people. We were getting friendly advice from one or more people at OPDC and maybe Redevelopment Authority as well. I don’t want to misrepresent anybody. They said, “Society Hill is for older people, wealthy people, who live out in the suburbs and want a town house and can afford it. It’s not for young people. It’s not for young people who might have children.” If I wasn’t [already] committed, that kind of talk committed us. [Laughs]
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
FR: Before Alex’s Lemonade Stands, to raise money back in the ‘60s, early ‘70s, I would (36:00) take the kids down to Federal Pretzel Baking Company at Seventh and Federal [Streets], and we would buy twenty-five, thirty, fifty soft pretzels, which you could get for 10 cents or so. Get ‘em right out of the ovens and take ‘em [to our house]. We’d set a little table out front, and the kids could sell the pretzels for a quarter. I thought of that the other day when I went to Wawa to pick up something, and at the checkout counter there were soft pretzels for sixty-five cents. I said to myself, “Well, they aren’t as warm as the pretzels coming out of the oven, which I much prefer, and I don’t think, buying them in bulk, that (37:00) they’re paying much more than we paid for them back then – that’s a nice profit margin.” [Laughs]
[End of Interview]
Transcriber’s Note: The narrator made a number of changes to the transcript when he reviewed it; it does not conform exactly to the recorded interview.
©2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.