329 S. Lawrence Court was called a Trinity, or a Father, Son and Holy Ghost house, when John and Susan Smith bought it in 1970. At thirteen and one-half feet wide by twenty-five feet deep, it was small but not unusual by Society Hill standards. But from Susan’s father, a New Hampshire farmer, it elicited the observation that he had chicken coops bigger than the house. The Smiths lived in the house for about eight years, and when they were expecting their third son, the family moved to the suburbs.
Meanwhile, John and Susan made improvements to the house, including extending the depth to thirty-four or thirty-five feet. They undertook this addition with the help of their friend and neighborhood architect Roland Davies. But John and Susan themselves took on the task of making a brick patio. Like so many others in the neighborhood, they collected old red bricks from neighborhood buildings that had been demolished and hauled them home in a discarded shopping cart.
John became active in the Society Hill Civic Association, and in 1976 was elected president. It was a busy year, with the Bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to be observed. But John recalls three issues with which the Civic Association, in particular, had to deal: the proposed siting of a Black History Museum in the neighborhood; keeping the Civic Association together, rather than allowing it to split into two; and the threat of I-95 where it passed along the eastern edge of the neighborhood.
John also tells a story of how his wife Susan played a pivotal role in rescuing the Belgian block paving (much beloved by Society Hill residents) on Second Street between Pine and Lombard Streets, when the city’s Streets Department decided to replace them with macadam – without consulting the Civic Association and starting the work in the middle of the night.
DS: This is an interview with John Smith. The date is June 16, 2009. The location is his office on the 24th floor of One Liberty Place, 17th and Market Streets, [Philadelphia], the law firm of Reed Smith. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens.
John, if you could just tell me when did you come to Society Hill?
JS: Susan [Smith, his wife] and I moved to Philadelphia in 1970. I had received a position as an associate with the Dilworth Paxson Kalish Kohn and Levy law firm. After a brief stay in the dormitories at the University of Pennsylvania, while I prepared (1:00) for the Pennsylvania Bar exam, we looked for a place to live and happily found an apartment on the back side of the 300 block of Spruce Street, owned by Mrs. Nellie Lee Bok.
DS: Is that 329 Lawrence Court?
JS: That was our address on the backside. [The address was actually 329 Cypress Street.] We had a little brick wall enclosure and a little wooden door which admitted us to the street and vice versa.
DS: Why did you come here? Because of the job with the law firm? Had you gone to Penn?
JS: No. I had very little association with Philadelphia before this time. I had (2:00) been raised in the Hudson River valley of New York. I went to college at Princeton and law school [Yale University] in New Haven, Connecticut. I did have a brief brush with Philadelphia … when I signed up for Officer Candidate School in the Navy. I had to come to Philadelphia to be sworn in … and I raised my right hand and took the symbolic step forward to become a member of the U.S. Navy.
DS: Why did you look at Society Hill for a house?
JS: Well, first of all, we didn’t know a great deal about the city. I was bringing a wonderful wife down from her New England roots. We were looking for a place (3:00) that had intimacy and a village-like feel to it. Society Hill immediately felt right to us.
DS: Did you tell me the year that was?
JS: That would have been 1970. I’m trying to remember the name of the realtor, a pair of ladies….
JS: The Sterns. Exactly. The Sterns introduced us to the possibility of living in Mrs. Bok’s apartment.
DS: You rented this place?
JS: We rented it for about a year and a half. We followed a distinguished group of prior tenants: Bill and Emy Rouse had lived in this apartment once upon a time, and (4:00) one or two others who would be known in the neighborhood. We stayed for a year and a half until the possibility of buying our own home on Lawrence Court. Actually, our first address was 329 Cypress Street. We must have been taken with the number 329, because when we went looking for a home, the home we got interested in was 329 South Lawrence Court.
DS: Was that an existing building?
JS: It was an existing building. It’s a small Federal-era townhouse. I think (5:00) rowhouse would be the most applicable description. Perhaps Father, Son and Holy Ghost would be appropriate, because it had not much more than a single room per floor. A small place, thirteen-and-one-half feet wide if you count the bricks in the party wall and about twenty-five feet. in depth, but for us it was home.
DS: How long did you stay there?
JS: We stayed there until 1979; I guess we must have lived there seven or eight years.
DS: Did you restore this house?
JS: We did a lot to this house. We were amateurs at best, but we did a lot of work (6:00) on the inside to try to make it habitable. At one point, using an old supermarket cart, we visited various sites where red brick was being discarded and collected them so as to make ourselves a brick patio in the back. We were careful to see that the privy that was in the back wasn’t disturbed. At least, we looked for historic artifacts before we covered it over. I can’t say we found much more than a few pieces of broken china; it wasn’t necessarily a great historical treasure trove. I guess around 1976 or ’77, we did a major renovation. We knocked down the entire rear of the entire structure and (7:00) extended the building back nine feet, so it went from twenty-five feet in depth to something like thirty-four, almost thirty-five, feet in depth. We felt we had added Texas-like space to this home. With a light well, it was a nice addition, and it made the place both more livable and much more attractive.
DS: Approximately what did you pay for it originally?
JS: I can tell you exactly what we paid for it. We paid $40,000. The house was being advertised for $42,000, but I was adamant that I would only pay $40,000. (8:00) The seller came back to us, and we were just in the informal negotiating posture, and suggested a compromise at $41,000. Well, I was very full of myself. I was a newly minted lawyer, and I was not going to be trifled with. We had an earlier handshake at $40,000, if not a contract, and I said to him, “No, no dice. It was going to be forty [thousand] or nothing.” At which point, he went back, and I wasn’t sure exactly what was going to happen next. I remember telling my father about this hard-nosed negotiation that I was engaged in. He said, “John, you might prevail, but you’re really taking a heck of a risk. You dope. You could lose this place, and an additional thousand dollars (9:00) is not going to make any real difference in the amount that you have to pay.” Well, fortunately, my father’s concern was misplaced; the seller came back and stuck with his original handshake, and we bought it for forty thousand.
DS: Do you remember the real estate taxes on it at that time?
JS: I don’t think they were separate from the monthly mortgage that we paid, and that monthly mortgage that we made must have been around $358 a month.
DS: Who was the seller? Was it the Redevelopment Authority, or was it a private person? (10:00).
JS: No, it was a private person, and I just don’t recall their names.
DS: Tell me, was Lawrence Court – the new properties in that Lawrence Court – were they built at that point?
JS: They had been only recently built. Lawrence Court was an attractive little alcove, cobblestone [in fact, it was Belgian blocks] paved, with a nice, small circle in the middle of the courtyard area, and we were one of a series of small row houses, three on one side and one very long, flat one in our back yard that was appended to this modern development. It had never been taken down. We were surrounded by walkways. There was a walkway coming in from Spruce Street, where there was a beautiful statue, a sculpture of two kangaroos. I always thought that was very funny, because in the law we sometimes have the (11:00) expression “Kangaroo Court”. Here was one in the most literal sense. There was a walkway adjacent to one of the little row houses that we lived in. We felt that despite the small size of our house, we had wonderful elbow room in this city house of ours.
DS: Now, you had several sons during this period of time that you owned this house?
JS: We did. The year before we bought the house, our oldest son, John, arrived in November. Susan spent a very long, hot summer great with child in the summer of 1970. Then Stephen came along in the middle of 1972. There we were, at least (12:00) for a few years, until Peter was born in 1978, and Peter basically pushed us out of Society Hill.
DS: [Laughs] Blame it on Peter. Did you have any interaction with the Redevelopment Authority when you were putting on the addition? Was that of any significance?
JS: I’m sure we had to secure approvals of various kinds, but we left it to our builder to do that, and as far I knew he secured all the requisite approvals.
DS: Did you use an architect?
JS: We did. We used our friend, Rody Davies, to design this, including the light well. Ultimately, we also created a space up under the eaves of the roof, because, (13:00) again, it was so small that just to accommodate Stephen we had to turn that space into a tiny bedroom. Rody helped us do all that, and we came up with a stunningly neat solution to our problem.
DS: What was the reaction of your parents on both sides, Susan’s and your parents, to your moving here, taking on this project?
JS: They had different reactions. My parents were very pleased; I think they must have prepared themselves to tell us right from the get-go that this was a wonderful acquisition, whatever their real thoughts. My father- and mother-in-law – I married a farmer’s daughter – and so Joseph T. Brown, Susan’s father, had five hundred or six hundred (14:00) acres of farmland in New Hampshire, and I think his first comment to Sue was that he’d seen places – he has chicken coops bigger than this house. Well, he said it in the most loving way, so I never took offense. But, I noticed that both sets of parents, whenever they came to visit, always stayed in a hotel nearby. [Laughs]
DS: [Laughs] Very telling. During this period, you were involved in the Society Hill Civic Association, and you were president for a period of time. Can you tell me (15:00) about this?
JS: Yes, well, first of all we joined the Society Hill Civic Association – it must have been shortly after we became home-owners – and attended its meetings. I recall attending meetings where Paul Putney was presiding. I can’t tell you exactly what year, but he was the president at that occasion. There was a great deal of discussion about the Octavia Hill [Benezet] housing in that period of time.
DS: At Sixth and Pine?
JS: Sixth and Pine. [In three locations on Sixth, at Panama, Pine and Lombard.] At some point, however, I guess it was – the terms of office, in that era, I believe, were only one year, so that after Paul’s administration – and (16:00) there might have been one other in between, someone turned to me – and I don’t recall whether I had been involved in some quasi-official way before – but, nevertheless, asked me to run for president. I said I would be happy to do it as long as Peggy Duckett ran for secretary, which she did. Suffice to say, without spending millions of dollars in campaign expenses, we won, I became the president of the Civic Association. This would have been roughly the year – it was 1976.
JS: Which was an active year, to say the least. There was a lot going on. (17:00)
DS: Had the Benezet group – had that been resolved or was it still being discussed?
JS: I think it had been largely resolved; that was not one of the major issues when I was president.
DS: It was not; it could have been Paul Putney, Joanne Denworth, and then you.
JS: It could have been. It could well have been.
DS: What were the issues when you were president?
JS: Well, there were a number of them, to say the least. One issue was the Black History Museum.
DS: Where was that to be located?
JS: That was to be located at Pine Street off of Sixth, near the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. That proposal had a very divisive effect on the neighborhood. There (18:00) were some people who did not want it at any cost. There were other people who wanted to show that the neighborhood was receptive to having African Americans be in [it] and to go to see their history in our neighborhood. I think it’s fair to say that the proposal was to shoehorn what was a very ambitious project into a very tiny space. It fell to me, beset by both sides of this controversy, to speak at meetings of the Redevelopment Authority or the City Planning Commission, I don’t recall which, to say we weren’t against this proposal but that there were significant space issues and parking (19:00) issues and they would have to be dealt with in some fashion if this site was to be used. In the end, I think the inadequacy of the site turned out to be the determinative factor, and the museum was sited several blocks away to the north, at its current location.
DS: Seventh and Arch?
JS: Seventh and Arch, where they had perhaps four times as much space and plenty of headroom to go up. I think that turned out to be a win-win for everybody.
Another controversy, perhaps stirred a little bit by this controversy, was that not everybody in the neighborhood felt that it was a cohesive neighborhood. There (20:00) were people more toward the western side of the neighborhood who wanted to break away from the wild-eyed liberals who lived in the eastern part of the neighborhood. There was a real threat of secession or break-up of the Association. At that point, I had the sense and good fortune to be able to name Mark Kessler as the chair of a constitutional commission – I don’t think we called it that, but that’s what it amounted to – to take a look at the issues that had been raised and how the Association would be governed. Mark approached this with his customary care and thoughtfulness, and a (21:00) significant change was made in the way the Association operated. That was, once upon a time, when I was elected, the candidates were all voted on Association-wide. After Mark had had his learning and listening and so forth, we arrived at a new way of electing representatives to the Association, and that way was to divide it into four quadrants, and each quadrant elected at least one, maybe two, representatives. So that was (22:00) another controversy, but with this bow to more local points of view, we were able to hold the Civic Association together; the new constitution was overwhelmingly adopted. Mark certainly deserved our thanks for helping that happen.
The third major event that I can recall is that we were having to deal with the plan to put I-95 up along the Delaware [River]. This was a challenge that not just my presidency, but several others afterwards certainly had to deal with. I was involved in making common cause with Queen Village and probably half a dozen other (23:00) civic associations. Together, we retained John Frazier Hunt to be our lawyer in doing battle with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the city fathers, … to try to get I-95 buried from what was then proposed as an elevated structure down to a subterranean structure that would not cut our neighborhood – and all the other neighborhoods, Bella Vista and Wash West, – cut them off from the Delaware riverfront. It is still a source of some sadness for me that we were only partially successful, and I-95 did get partially submerged. Even then, there was only avenue-wide access (24:00) … so there was only theoretical access to the waterfront and not nearly the kind of intimacy that I think we had all hoped for.
DS: Did you have any interaction with the older, original neighbors, people who had been born and raised in the neighborhood? Any stories about that?
JS: Well, having come in 1970, anybody who had moved in, in 1969 or before, was seen by us as salt-of-the-earth old-timers. There were a number of people, including people like the Stevenses [David and Dorothy], who had already established themselves, the Putneys [Paul and Joan] and the Bullers [Carter and JoAnn] and any number (25:00) of wonderful people who had not been there much before, say ten or fifteen years, if that. There were a large number of people who had, in fact, been born and raised in Society Hill who were a little wary of all of these new college-educated, up and coming professional and business types and were not sure that the newcomers, and that would have included us, were going to be sensitive to their prerogatives, to maintaining the neighborhood, to not seeing prices go through the roof. Some of them were on the board of the Civic (26:00) Association when I was president, and that was at least an avenue for discussion, which was helpful. Not always did we come to terms. Then there were, of course, a number of people who just regarded the Civic Association as an organ for the newcomers and were just plain hostile to what the Civic Association was trying to do. There were tensions that were unfortunate. I kept a – I tried to keep an open door for everyone.
By the way, there was one other remarkable thing that happened during my presidency. That is that the then-Commissioner of Streets, David Damiano, took (27:00) it into his head to tear up all the cobblestones [in fact, they are Belgian blocks] around Headhouse Square; these were going to be replaced with “nice, smooth macadam.” This, of course, was not discussed with anyone in the neighborhood. It certainly was not discussed with the Civic Association. One evening, Sue and I had gone to bed, and the phone rang. I picked up the phone, and there was a fellow at the other end of the line who was clearly inebriated. He said, “Mr. Smith, you gotta come down here right away! They’re tearing up (28:00) the streets!” He said it in a very slurred fashion, and I was inclined to dismiss it as a prank or something. I said, “If you have some serious information, let me know in the morning,” and I said, “Good night.” Thank goodness, he called back. He said, “No, you weren’t listening to me. They really are tearing up the streets, and they’re doing it right now.”
This sounded serious, so I threw on a pair of khakis, and sure enough, there were a whole bunch of Streets Department front-end loaders. They were indeed starting to push and pile some of the blocks, Belgian blocks, that characterized and distinguished that part of the city. Susan, in that same period, had been involved with Jo Ann Buller in something called Walking Historical Architectural Tours. (29:00) She had a Colonial Dames dress, a very nice, long, blue dress. I said, “Honey, go back home and put that on and come right back down here.” That’s exactly what she did; went back home, and ten minutes or so later – I’m arguing with some supervisor who was in charge of the block operation – Susan shows up just about the same time that a whole bunch of photographers, including a photographer from the Daily News, showed up. He said, “Can I get a picture?” He turned to Sue and me, and he said, “Where would you like me to take it?” We agreed that he should take it right in front of a front-end loader; stand there. [It was a little bit like that picture of the Chinese gentleman who (30:00) stood in front of the tanks at Tianamen Square.] I’m overdrawing this portrait. Suffice to say, she stood in front of this guy while the befuddled operator waited for some instruction. The Daily News photographer took a picture, and it was the front-page picture in the Daily News the next morning.
DS: I’m glad you told that story.
JS: Believe me, there was such a firestorm of protest; that idea quickly got buried.
DS: That was a great story. I had forgotten it. Other stories like that, that you can think of, things that went on in the neighborhood, that [show] we all felt we had to protect our space and our neighbors. (31:00)
JS: Well, partly because of the intimacy of the space, the entire Society Hill space, [and] partly because I think almost everyone who had moved in there in the last ten years or so felt a certain pride of place and kinship in an effort to restore a historically significant and beautiful neighborhood. I think most people were fond of one another. We enjoyed one another’s company, and there was a great deal of cohesiveness.
I do recall one other institution that several couples created, that Sue and I were invited to join, and that was a babysitting cooperative. There were couples in (32:00) that co-op, including the Pattisons [Jay and Susie], the Rouses [Bill and Emy], and the Snyders [Skip and Deirdre]. We all realized we had little kids, and if we made common cause, we actually could afford a night out every now and then by parking our children with another responsible couple. Somebody devised a wonderful double-entry bookkeeping system, so that you got credits when you were sitting for someone and you got debits when you were parking your children. The number of hours times (33:00) the number of kids equals whatever. It turned out to be a very equitable system, and we had a little bit of breathing space from our children, now and then.
DS: That was originated with Paul and Joan Putney. They drew it up and actually, our kids are a little older than yours, so we were in the first phase and you were in the second phase. It was a wonderful set-up. Tell me about the education of your children. Were they in any of the kind of school program before you left?
JS: Yes, we were basically public-school oriented. Susan went to public schools throughout her secondary and elementary education. I went to public schools for all but two of my high school years. We started with the proposition that in this neighborhood the schools were going to be good schools. We sent our sons, and it was both John and in due course Stephen, to the General George A. McCall elementary school. I will say that there were a number of teachers there who did their level best, but I will also say that in the end we were quite disappointed with the quality of education they were getting there. That, together with Peter’s coming along in 1978, were reasons that we left the neighborhood. It’s no condemnation of anyone, but the public schooling was (36:00) not up to our standards and I say that with some sadness. We could have sent our kids, I suppose, to St. Peter’s or some of the other offerings. There were those alternatives, but we were pretty determined to have public school education for our children, so that really was a factor.
DS: Any other stories that you would like to tell before we conclude?
JS: Well, I don’t want to bore you. There was a time when Sue and I observed a car thief – in fact we had several run-ins – two run-ins with thieves. One was a car thief, and I happened to see this in progress and became –
DS: During the day? During the evening?
JS: During the evening, late evening. It was the parking lot that was devoted to the newer units of Lawrence Court. I reported the crime and became a witness in what seemed to be an unending series of hearings. Each time it would get continued, because a new lawyer would have been retained, and I would sit there at counsel table waiting to be called. The judge would say, “Since this matter is just newly before us, of course I’ll grant a continuance.” I wanted to get up and say, “I’ve been here three times before, (37:00) Your honor, let’s get to –.” [Laughs] That was one incident. I think finally I did testify, and I believe he was convicted. Then another example, and to this day I can’t imagine, but she’s very public-spirited, Susan observed a purse snatching. She was somewhere in the vicinity of the Ottaviano barber shop.
DS: During the day?
JS: During the day. Broad daylight.
DS: Fourth and Delancey?
JS: Yes, near Fourth and Delancey. As I recall it, she determined to take justice into her own hands. She had a baby stroller, probably with Johnny in it, pushed (38:00) it in the Ottaviano doorway and said to Freddy, who was the barber, “Please watch my son,” and then she took off after this guy, on foot. The chase went down Pine Street. I’m a little vague on the details. I think he tossed the purse over the brick wall of St. Peter’s Church and kept running. I think he finally managed to outdistance her, but not without her going three or four blocks in hot pursuit. [Laughs] I asked her afterwards, “What would you have done if you’d caught him?” She said, “Well, it didn’t cross my mind.”
DS: She was just so angry she had to react. I can feel for her. I’ve been there, too. Anything else? (39:00)
JS: I think that’s all I can recall at the moment.
DS: Thank you so much, John. I appreciate your time and your stories.
[End of interview]
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