This January marked a year since I began the series Behind the Façade for the Hidden City Daily. Although I’m proud of my work, I’m usually not one for sentimentality in regard to milestones. So I had no intention of writing a reflective piece for this arbitrary anniversary.
But a few weeks ago, I was forced to finally address the issue of a large wet spot on my dining room wall that I’ve ignored for longer than I care to admit. The wall is part of what used to be the party wall when another house occupied the adjacent lot. Even though this lot is now my side-yard and garden, our house suffers from having an exterior wall that was never meant to be an exterior wall.
As anyone who has dealt with water knows, it’s a wily intruder. You may think you know the path it takes, but you can never determine for sure without actually going into the wall. So we were forced to cut out the piece of drywall, and chip back the plaster to investigate the leak. I was admittedly annoyed as I did this work. Chipping ancient plaster is an arduous task, especially when the end game is to find what could be a large and expensive problem. But as the bricks began to reveal themselves, I had to take pause. Mixed into the mortar of sand and specks of rock were clumps of very coarse light brown hair.
I’m not a historical architecture buff. But I do know that horsehair was commonly used as insulation and fill for mortar at one point in our not too distant past. I must also admit that up to that point, all I knew about the house was that it was originally built as a tenement in what I believed was 1885. But as I took off my gloves to feel the texture of the hair, I started to think about where the bricks were created. I then started to think about the person who laid the brick, and then about the people who were given a home by the bricklayers labor and the horse’s sacrifice of its mane.
So after literally going “behind the façade” of my house, I was inspired to dig a bit deeper into the history of who built this house and who lived in it.
I’ve admitted a lot in this article so far, so I will continue with this theme and reveal that I am not an investigative reporter. While many of my English major peers pursued a writing career by building their post-graduation portfolios covering town hall meetings and events for local newspapers, I was off dabbling in the trivialities of poetry and lofty travelogues. At a bit of a loss on how to research this article, I relied on my intuition and searched for the Philadelphia City Archives.
Fortunately, the City Archives are not hard to find. Housed in a nondescript concrete building at 31st and Market Streets adjacent to Drexel University’s campus, the archives exude an aura, like any great library, that mental and historical treasures are to be found on the shelves. And the staff certainly validated my preconception.
The woman behind the desk not only helped me navigate the forms to request information, but also spared me a quarter so I could use the locker to stash my coat and gloves. I then met Pam, who emerged from her office to welcome me and ask what I was looking for. After I answered, she told me how interesting my request was and that Dave would be along shortly with the files I would need. It took me a moment to realize she was just asking out of simple curiosity. And then there was Dave. At first he was the stereotype of the city employee, curt and disengaged, setting the folder down on my desk and telling me to not let the documents get out of order. He started to leave, but then turned again to give me a minute tutorial of what I was looking at.
At the risk of grandiosity, I did feel a certain surge of excitement as I sat down and began looking through deeds connected to my address dating back to 1868. As I said, I was never an investigative reporter, so there was something exhilarating and magical about finding the evidence to either confirm my assertions or correct my miscalculations.
The first miscalculation corrected was the date. I don’t know where I got 1885, but I was off by about 20 years. After studying the first deed, I learned that my house was built in 1868. Studying the successive deeds, I identified two other pieces of information that would guide the rest of the research. The first was a long paragraph describing my house as a tenement, or brick messuage, with the exact coordinates situated on the westward side of Emerald Street, and then northward to Dauphin Street and what was once Price Street, but is now Arizona Street. The second was an identification of the parties involved in the transfer.
The first transfer of sale was in 1868 when the land was an empty lot between Anthony C. Walter and Henry M. Boyd, whom I’ll return to later. The following list is a necessary history to understand the complicated history of the land, and if anything else, the names and phrases are just too good not to recount. Henry M. Boyd sold the house in 1869 to Anthony Huver, Anthony Huver sold to George Stull Jr. in 1870, George Jr. sold to George Sr. in 1870, Anthony Walter then sold to Catharine Miller in 1872 under the auspices of a Sheriff’s sale, Augustus Joseph Miller “and his wife” Annie C. Wakeling, as the executors of Catharine Miller’s estate, sold the property to themselves, Augustus Miller sold to Emerson Conrad in 1890, Emerson Conrad “and his wife” Ada sold to Marmaduke Watson in 1891, Marmaduke’s estate sold to Thomas Watson in 1895, Thomas Watson sold to Helen Watson in 1905, Helen Watson sold to Margaret Dowling in 1913, Margaret Dowling sold to Joseph Prindable and Anna “his wife” in 1917, and finally almost 30 years later after poor Joe must have passed away, Anna Prindable sold to James Fanning in 1948. That’s where the records stop.
These deeds led me to a few key discoveries and assertions. The first is that the high rate of transience, so prevalent in modern Kensington, has its roots in the founding of the neighborhood. I could posit a few theories on why that is, but I was still amazed by the high turnover rate as represented in the deeds with 13 transfers in 80 years. As we also saw in the instances of the Stulls, Millers, and Watsons, transfer of property within families is also an old Kensington tradition. And finally, in the most legible deed of 1905, it was explained that the alleyway behind the house was “laid out and opened” by the late Price J. Patton for “the use of this and other properties bounded thereon.” It then explains that the property and the alleyway were “bounded” by Anthony C. Walter. It also says something interesting that the westward alley ran into the Fairhill Estate. It ends with the ominous dictum, “Together with free and common use, right, liberty, and privilege of the said alley as for the passage-way and water-course at all time hereafter.” This alley is now a dirt and grass path that leads to the urban farm behind our house.
After seeing the names Patton and Walter resurface in this letter, I searched back further and found the larger deed of land transfer between Abraham Martin and Price J. Patton. As I began to piece it together, Abraham Martin must have been the larger landholder in the area and Patton, I presume, was the land speculator. The mention of the Fairhill Estate was confusing because its historical boundaries start on Sixth Street in West Kensington. But after consulting a map on PhilaGeoHistory, the area west of “Frankford Road” and east of the Fairhill Estate was basically open land, possibly owned by Abraham Martin before he turned it over to Patton. This would make sense being that many of the surrounding mills such as the Bromley, Thomas Buck Hosiery, and Providence Dye Works were not built until the 1860s and 1870s, consequently when all of this housing was also being built.
The mention of Anthony C. Walter as the “bounder” leads me to believe that he was the developer. After researching the concurrent deeds of all of the properties on the block, Walter’s name was on each deed. Along with a record of Sheriff sale in the 1872 transfer to Catherine Miller at my address, almost every house on the block also went up for Sheriff’s sale between 1872 and 1879 with Walter’s name again appearing on every transfer. The 1870s must have been a pretty bad decade of business for Mr. Walter.
And as the first deed revealed, Mr. Boyd was apparently the builder of the houses. After placing this last piece of information, I looked to the clock and realized that I was about ten minutes late for a work meeting. So I closed up the folder, ensuring that all deeds were in their proper order and I left, explaining that I would need to come back again to research Patton, Walter, and Boyd. The congenial woman at the front desk smiled and said they’d be expecting me.
Due to snow and holidays, I didn’t get back to the archive until two weeks later. As soon as I walked in, I saw Dave. Although he didn’t recognize me, as soon as I mentioned my research, he put down what he was doing and took me to a metal filing cabinet labeled “Gopsill Business Directories 1868-1872.” He told me that I’d find my information on the microfiche.
I must admit that I hadn’t used microfiche since high school, so it was probably comical for anyone but Dave to watch me stare at the roll of film like I was holding some artifact, and then use my fumbling intuition to thread the film through the viewer, having it fall off the spool twice.
Although it only took a few minutes of scrolling through the film to feel like an old pro, it was still difficult to navigate the search. In between the old-timey advertisements for ice companies and soap manufacturers was a somewhat helpful index. But it was impossible to find terms like “Real Estate Agent,” “Developer,” or “Mortgage Broker” amongst the 19th century job descriptions of “purveyor” and “assayer.” In the end, after much searching, the only name I was able to track down was Henry M. Boyd listed as a builder from 146 S. Fourth Street in Old City working in rapidly developing Kensington. As I mentioned before, times have not changed much.
Although it was disappointing to not find Patton or Walter, I did find three brick companies within five miles of my address in 1868: Bennet and Firth at Kensington and Allegheny, Flood & Bros. at Kensington and Allegheny, and John Rose & Son at Somerset and Kensington. Although there’s no way to determine if the bricks I exposed in my kitchen came from any of these firms, it’s a nice thought in keeping with the ethic of local manufacturing that we yearn for in modern-day Kensington, which brings us back to that wall.
I could end this essay with some esoteric musing on the deeper connection I now have to my house, or some pseudo-academic analysis on the development and industry spanning two centuries in Kensington. And I could certainly beat the double entendre of “behind the façade” into the ground. But I’ll just offer the advice that anyone who owns a house should do the research I did, for the simple reason I write this series, because it’s interesting. When it comes to the plaster, I’d recommend that not everyone do that. It’s a major undertaking that left me with bloody knuckles and dusty lungs despite my gloves and respirator. But the exposed brick does look pretty darn good.
About the author
Nic Esposito is an urban farmer, novelist and founder of The Head and the Hand Press. He lives on his urban homestead in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
A tour of a nearly intact Victorian mansion in West Philly, two civics explore the possibility of creating improvement districts, Stotesbury Gateway to be remade, and cleaning up Clark Park > more
Under the rumbling El and amidst the hustle and bustle at Kensington and Somerset, a distinctly Philadelphian brand of darts is made the same way it has been for over 100 years—by hand. Brad Maule throws a round with Widdy Darts > more
GreenSTEM systems to be installed in four schools, the inequality of urban pollution, jazz month in Philly, parklets being installed in West Philly, and terrible timing in closing Kensington store > more
The demolition of a former house of worship in Northern Liberties has provided a glimpse into the building's history > more
Clearer information and working escalators for PATCO, delays in UC student housing development, the William Penn Foundation’s new approach to safe watershed awareness, and what the Lower Northwest invented for the world > more