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Monday, June 6, 2011
From ICON Magazine, June 2011
THE LAST WORD
When most people think of the Pearl S. Buck house they think of the sprawling 60-acre estate in Bucks County. But long before the women’s rights crusader, philanthropist, humanitarian and author moved to this house (or Green Hills Farm) she lived at 2019 Delancey Street in Center City.
The Delancey Street house, despite its having been occupied by the author of over 70 books and the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature for “The Good Earth,” is registered with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as the Richard Cadwalader house. Built in 1860 for Cadwalader in the Federal style, the multiple dwelling row house was later recast in the Beaux Arts style in 1918 by the Philadelphia architectural firm of DeArmond, Ashmead & Bickley.
DeArmond, Ashmead & Bickley (1911-1938), all University of Pennsylvania graduates, were famous for their colonial revival residences and English-influenced style buildings. They also designed (the long demolished) Franklin Trust Company Building at 18 South 15th Street in Philadelphia.
It was in this Center City house where Ms. Buck compiled her 1972 short story collection, “Once upon a Christmas.” Other holiday stories like “Christmas Miniature,” (1957), “The Christmas Ghost,” (1960) and “Christmas Day in the Morning,” may also have been written in the Delancey Street townhouse.
The 9,000 square foot, 5-floor townhouse was purchased in 1964 as the home of Pearl Buck and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. While the basement and first floor was renovated for use as Foundation space, the second floor was designed to house the dining room, a formal drawing room and the solarium or Sun Room where Buck had large numbers of plants.
With the famous Rosenbach Museum and Library just a few doors away at 2008-2010 Delancey Street, it’s no wonder that Buck saw this area as a special part of Center City. Although it was the informal, tumultuous Sixties, when Ms. Buck called 2019 Delancey Street home, she was often referred to as “Miss Buck.” When in Center City it is said that she dressed like a society matron, but when she was her Bucks County home she was far more informal.
The octagonal-shaped dining room was lavishly decorated with a Ming screen with inlaid ivory figures. A long Chinese buffet table was also situated under a smoked glass mirror. Since the dining room also doubled as a place for dancing, the octagonal table could be rolled into a closet and the chandelier could be raised or lowered as needed.
“Why did I choose Center City, you ask?” Pearl S. Buck once wrote. “Because there was a street, there was the house, there were the people. There, too, was the tradition of brotherly love…” Buck also wrote that no matter where she lived there were always elements of the Chinese. “Sooner or later into every room in any house I own the Chinese influence creeps.”
At 2019 Delancey, the 3rd floor library contained a baby grand piano, the famous “Good Earth Desk,” an ancient Chinese drum on a pedestal which acted as a coffee table, as well as leather bound editions of her books given her as gifts by her publisher. Much of the furniture was imported from the Buck house in China, namely the rose and tan Peking rugs, the Blackwood chairs, and a daybed.
The 3rd floor Master Bedroom had a small sitting room and a writing table.
One walked through the 1st Floor entryway into a vestibule that exploded with red lacquered doors, stained glass and a large statue of the Chinese goddess of Mercy. Beyond the foyer, near the fireplace with its flanking Mandarin Chinese chairs, was an altar table flanked by two antique candelabra.
During the renovation of the townhouse in 1964-65, the first floor kitchen was moved to the basement and the former kitchen became the Foundation’s conference room. In the center of the conference room was a six foot round table made of walnut and yellow marble.
Many of Buck’s Delancey Street townhouse treasures were moved to the Bucks County home when the townhouse was sold.
Of special note is the wrought iron gate on the front door. Artistically designed to downplay its use as a “guard” against intruders, the design of the mail slot is of special interest.
If you’re attending the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday celebration on June 16 from 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm when 75 Philadelphians will take turns reading sections from James Joyce’s Ulysses (I will be reading at 5:30pm), you might want to observe the proceedings from Miss Buck’s steps.
After Osama Bin Laden was shot dead by Special OPs forces in Pakistan, thousands of people, many of them students, took to the streets in celebration. Many of the revelers, who were in middle school when the 9/11 attacks occurred, responded in a way that more mature adults did not. Much of the celebratory frenzy that occurred in front of the White House, on college campuses, Times Square and Ground Zero, was like a big sports stadium roar. The reaction was definitely middle school behavior. But shouting, “USA, USA!” reduced bin Laden’s death to a gross manifestation of nationalism, as if America was a hockey team en route to a Stanley Cup victory. The hoopla seemed to suggest that the world’s troubles were over, when in fact the opposite is probably true. Cautious optimism and focused meditation, not frat party mayhem, should have been the rule that day. Why? Because when it comes to the psychology of war, one retaliatory strike breeds another.
Will the Talibun target President Obama during the 2012 campaign in the same way that Osama was targeted in May 2011? Only time will tell whether killing Bin Laden was a good thing, or whether having him fade away, his whereabouts unknown, would have been the better alternative.
Bin Laden’s rushed burial at sea (in the water or buried in the ground under the water?) must have seemed anti-climatic to most people, despite the comments of Tariq Ali, the noted Pakistani writer and activist, who noted, “Why wasn’t he captured alive and tried in a court of law to prove him guilty?” But it was the disposal of the body according to the rituals of Islam that struck me as most peculiar. I had a hard time imagining how the soul of a terrorist of Bin Laden’s ilk could possibly have benefited spiritually from prayers and an anointing after death. Perhaps in God’s great universe this makes an illogical sort of sense, but for the loved ones of the thousands killed on 9/11, a “holy” send off like this must somehow seem perversely incongruent. I suppose, ultimately, the (reported) reverence shown Bin Laden’s body stands as a reminder of death’s transcendent realm: We may be judge, jury and executioner here, but when it comes to the great unknown, we don’t necessarily have the last “word.”
In March, Philadelphia police had to close John F. Kennedy Plaza (or Love Park) because there were threats of flash mob activity. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, police spent some time chasing bands of young people in an attempt to curtail rowdy behavior. Disturbances on South Street also punctuated the day.
While police reported no violence or destruction of public property during these episodes, several arrests were made. Love Park was also closed for several hours in anticipation of further flash mob activity. The closure prevented visitors, tourists and office workers from enjoying the park on a beautiful spring day.
So what gives with the City of Brotherly Love?
In the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo, this sort of behavior would have been nipped in the bud. School kids, although minors, would have been hauled into jail and then turned over to their parents, or maybe the parents would have been arrested. The candy-coated, velvet glove “Ah, come on, they’re just kids” treatment would not have played out in Rizzo’s Philadelphia. But then was then and now is now as they say, and now is not so good, especially with the warmer weather here.
Mayor Nutter’s promise to crack down on flash mob activity comes after the horses have left the stable. The kids, or the culprits in question, don’t seem to mind his threats.
When gangs of school kids have the police chasing them around Laurel and Hardy style, you know those threats are basically meaningless.
When flash mobs first surfaced over a year or so ago, many nervous progressive types made all sorts of excuses for the behavior. There were Op-Ed editorials calling for more “after school” programs. Voices calling for the arrest of the students or their parents were criticized as being “racist” and “cruel.” But where is it written that any kid, be they Asian, Italian, Irish, African American or Indian, can team up with ethic or racial peers and hold a city hostage?
The Nutter Administration seems to be handling the problem on a case-by-case basis, as the incidents occur. This “damage control” approach to the problem has not prevented the mobs from reinventing themselves. Again, the kids do not feel intimidated or frightened because they keep doing it.
Two weeks ago, while crossing Market Street in Center City on a late Wednesday afternoon, a group of African American female students were crossing in the opposite direction. Walking beside me was a middle aged white woman, probably coming home from work. Suddenly and without warning one of the students jumped in the woman’s face and began screaming at the top of her lungs. The incident took all of five seconds, and may not have been much by urban standards, but it displayed an attitude that’s become all too common these days: callous disregard for other people’s rights and feelings. That small action, despite the fact that nobody was touched or physically harmed, constituted a kind of assault.
It would have been the same thing had a white girl screamed in the face of an older black woman-- same offense; same ignorance.
The woman was understandably shaken, but what could she do? Scenes like this have become normal in the City of Brotherly Love, and that’s the sad part. As a city we are building a tough collective hide that processes but then tunes out incidents like this. We’ve come to accept outrageous rudeness as “part of what it’s like to live in the city,” although if we were to compare Philadelphia to other cities we would discover that this is anything but the case, even though violence-prone flash mobs have occurred in Boston and New Jersey. That’s not true, however, in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, or even Detroit.
Frank Rizzo in the 1970s often went overboard when it came to maintaining public order, but one thing was certain: Philly was a safe city then.
As I see it, the way to eliminate flash mobs or random (group) teenage hooliganism, such as the March 4, 2011 incident at the Shops of Liberty Place when at least two dozen teens kicked over food and display tables in the Food Court, is to immediately implement the following:
Eliminate the “free ride” Septa transpass system for students, prohibit teens from gathering in groups of ten or more, and hold parents responsible for injuries or damages inflicted on homes or businesses during a flash mob
Since we can’t bring Frank Rizzo back from the dead, we can at least implement some useful, workable Rizzo-like solutions
Why Pope John Paul II is not a saint: As Catholic writer Michael Matt noted, “No man is great until history judges him so, which is why the rush to beatify John Paul strikes many Catholics as an attempt to preemptively overrule history’s inevitable verdict against a problematic pontificate that left the human element of the Catholic Church in chaos.”