On the House: Memories of restoring Society Hill homes in 1960s

Robert T. Trump bought and restored Bell's Court.
Robert T. Trump bought and restored Bell's Court.
Posted: September 22, 2013

Robert T. Trump will turn 80 "around Turkey Day," as he puts it. Even though nearly five decades have passed since he began restoring houses in Society Hill, he can remember virtually every detail without a pause.

A call to his house in Rhode Island finds him eager to chat, but he keeps an eye on the clock, so he won't miss picking up his son at the airport.

"You know, Californians can't wait," Trump says.

The genesis of our chat was Bell's Court, a stretch of trinities built in 1813-15 in Society Hill.

Trump, who grew up in Whitemarsh "on a small farm down the road from St. Thomas Church" and is descended from Quakers who were among the founders of Germantown, bought Bell's Court in 1961 and restored it. One of those trinities was his bachelor pad for a while, and he rented the three others to young, single professionals.

After a story I wrote about Bell's Court was published in July, Trump left a voice mail asking whether I wanted to hear more.

I did. I know many people who bought shells and lots in Society Hill in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the 19th-century commercial area nearer the river was in disrepair.

Stanhope S. Browne, who died in June, wrote in 2007 that despite the decay, 1950s Society Hill was not totally derelict, nor was it a slum.

"There was always a continuous residential population - some in boarding houses, but some in well-maintained single-family houses," wrote Browne, who restored a house near Second and Spruce Streets that he acquired when it was a dockworkers' eatery. Browne sold it shortly before his death.

In excess of 600 buildings constructed as residences in the 18th and early 19th centuries were still standing in various states of repair. "More than in any other American city," Browne wrote.

"The Great Depression had hit the neighborhood hard," Trump said, and "a lot of it had fallen apart."

For example, one of the 12 houses Trump bought and restored after finishing military service in the mid-1950s was the Rhoads-Barclay House, at 217 Delancey St.

Rhoads-Barclay was one of the first important private restorations in the city and later the home of industrialist F. Otto Haas.

The house, designed and built between 1750 and 1758 by master builder and the city's mayor Samuel Rhoads, was purchased by the Girard Estate in a 1931 sheriff's sale.

Trump bought it from the trustees of the Sole Members Baptist Church in December 1956, restored it, and resold it to a real estate firm in 1962.

Rhoads had sold the house to Alexander Barclay, "gentleman," for 700 pounds in 1758.

The sense of accomplishment Trump feels after these many years comes across in our conversation, especially as he describes the detective work in finding missing pieces needed for restoration.

He reconstructed the central chimney with materials found elsewhere, and located replacement period woodwork or moved pieces within the house.

After several years, Trump reached a point where there were few homes to restore and even fewer bargains, and he took his talents to the National Park Service, museums, and elsewhere.

"I'm retired now," he insisted, which, if you acknowledge that today's buyers are more interested in stainless steel than period wainscoting, is a real shame.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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