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Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Philadelphia's Morris House; from ICON Magazine, April 2012
In Philadelphia’s Morris House at 225 South 8th Street, I extend my hand to Julie Morris Disston, whom I am meeting for the first time. The quick handshake connects me to one of Philadelphia’s oldest families, the Anthony Morrises, a line going back to 1685 when Anthony Morris was mayor of the city.
But Anthony was only one notable in the Morris family gene pool. Later, there was Captain Samuel Morris, who fought in the Revolution; then the Captain’s son, Luke Wistar, who became a manufacturer. For most legacy families, this would have been enough, but the Morrises, like the super growing plant wisteria (named after Luke), just keeps going.
Julie, who sits with me at a large table in the dinning room of the Morris House Hotel, is reflecting on the house that has been in the Morris family for seven generations. The hotel guests in the other room enjoying morning coffee and muffins, strain to hear what Julie is saying about what has changed in the house since she left it as a girl in 1932, the year the family left the home forever.
In the dining room, for instance, where trays of edibles are displayed for guests, Julie indicates the fireplace and informs me that there used to be bookshelves on either side of it. She informs me that the portrait above the fireplace is not the same portrait that hung there when she was a child. She offers another twist: the current sitting room where the guests gather was once the real dining room, while the room where we are talking was the original sitting room. “It was very cozy in here then,” she tells me, “especially with the bookshelves and a big chunk of cattle coal burned in the fireplace.”
Philadelphia was a different city then. You could hail a cab without being killed, or you could ride a cab without being pulled out of the cab and into the street, although times were tough in a different way. During the Revolution, a musket fired by the British managed to shoot holes in the pendulum of the William Ericke clock that still stands in the first floor hall.
Every age has its dangers, of course, but for young Julie Morris, childhood held a degree of protection.
Growing up in the house, she and her older brother, Bucky, would be escorted to school every morning by English and German governesses.
Julie went to an exclusive French speaking school on the second floor of a house on the southeast corner of Rittenhouse Square. “We had two rooms up a flight of stairs; there were 21 of us of various ages up there speaking French. As children we would walk up Walnut Street past the costume designers for the theater. My brother went to Haverford Friends and we would walk to the old Broad Street Station when it was steam engines, and we’d put him on the train and then walk to Rittenhouse Square.”
“They [the governesses] walked for miles and miles,” she remembers. ”They would walk us and walk us everywhere.”
Her grandfather, Effingham B. Morris (1856-1937), President of the Girard Trust Company for 41 years, as well as a one time Director of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was a noted financier and civic leader. Her father, Effingham B. Jr., a lawyer who went into banking, married Julia Peabody Lewis, who died in 1938 at age 47 when, according to Time Magazine, “…a horse she was riding caught its knees on a fence in mid-jump [and], somersaulted into her.”
Luke Wistar and his wife, Ann Pancoast Morris, were the first Morrises to live in the house. For those who can’t keep their Morrises straight, there can be some confusion with Robert Morris, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. While there’s no relation between the two families, the Morris House bears a special relation to the first White House built at Sixth and Market by Robert Morris, who then later handed it over to Washington and Jefferson in 1790 when Philadelphia, for a short ten years, became the capital of the nation.
The first White House, which was demolished in 1832, was a mirror image of the Morris House.
Today the Morris House can properly be called the real President’s House, as opposed to the modernist Septa subway stop design posing as a President’s House, with its video enactment displays and minimalist references which, ironically, do not even mention Robert Morris.
“They tell me there are more Morrises in England than there are Jones’ or Smiths,’” Julie tells me with characteristic good humor.
What was life like here?
During a guided tour of the upstairs rooms, which are now all handsomely decorated hotel suites, Julie tells me where the nursery used to be. As we enter the room, she lets out an audible sigh. “My, oh my, what they’ve done to this room—beautiful!” she says, pointing to a bathroom that decades ago was a closet. The nursery was where Julie and Bucky were required to play; it is where Bucky kept his toy trains and where Julie (presumably), kept her dolls. “We played up here; nowhere else.” When her parents had dinner parties, she and Bucky would dress up, go downstairs and entertain the adults with poetry readings: Julie would recite Joyce Kilmer’s Trees, and Bucky would recite the poem, If. Afterwards, they would both be escorted back upstairs.
“I had a dog at home,” Julie tells me, “because we had a big enough yard to have pets. It was very much like everybody’s growing up. Most of the little girls at the French School were the daughters of doctors at Pennsylvania Hospital who lived a couple streets over. Two French ladies who ran the school didn’t permit you to speak a word of English—you had math in French, history in French; everything was in French.”
Recess at the school meant roller skating in Rittenhouse Square. Skating past the wading pool had been a tradition for children since the year 1914, when roller skating for boys up to the age of 10 and girls up to the age of fourteen, was officially approved by the Chief of the Bureau of City Property. Marion Willis Martin Rivinus, author of The Story of Rittenhouse Square, notes that child skaters in the Square were approved about the same time that Rodman Wanamaker “presented two benches which he had imported from France.” Then as now, there were problems with vandalism in the Square. In 1914 the chief concerns were the marking and defacing of railings and complaints about public spitting.
Walks around the city and other playtime activities in Julie’s world were structured affairs. In the immediate neighborhood, she told me that the governesses would walk them “solemnly” around Washington Square (where you could not roller skate because there were flagstones), into Independence Square, and finally down along the Delaware River that in those days she remembers as being filled with “big, big ships.”
At ninety, Julie still retains elements of her youthful country girl looks, an athletic “can do” persona that, combined with her seasoned optimism, produces the impression of someone who is ageless. It’s no shock, for instance, that her favorite words seem to “fun” and terrific.” She still refers to her grandfather as “the man who built Girard bank, and who stayed there forever.” Ask her about her father’s switch from lawyering to banking, and she’ll tell you, “Banking to me is wonderful, but it’s not as much fun as being a lawyer.”
When Julie asked if I’d like a tour of the house, I got the distinct impression that this was her first walk through in years, perhaps even since 1932.
“Grandfather was scared of fire,” she says, beginning another story, “Evidently fires then used to happen through the attics, and it would get going and that would be the end of it.” To protect his family, and the house, Grandfather Morris bought the houses on either side and then had them demolished.
Inside her brother’s old room, she recalls Bucky’s “great big Sleigh bed, a big double bed,” as well as the hallway (now replaced by a bathroom) that used to take her into her own room. “That door wasn’t there but that one was!” she adds suddenly, as if remembering something profound.
When we come to the attic, excitability is evident in her voice. “The ghosts were up there,” she says. “There was creaking and all kinds of noises. There were very definitely ghosts on the 3rd floor, and there was always a stairway that could come down. I never went up there alone; someone was always with me. It was very dark and it has some windows but it runs all the way back over my old room.”
We stop on the stairway landing so that she can look out the window. “That looks familiar,” she says, pointing to an old house standing alone among a sprawling Pennsylvania Hospital addition. “I remember looking at that house as a girl.” She reminds me that the woodwork is all original, the venerable railings like dense material pathways straight into the 18th century when Jefferson, Washington or Franklin, while stepping up or down the Morris House stairs, applied their hands to these same railings for support.
Images of the Founding Fathers climbing stairs reminds me of what Washington said of the first President’s House, the one owned by Robert Morris, as being “the best single home in the city.” If Washington could come back, he would feel right at home here.
Life for the Morris family changed when work began on the N. W. Ayer building, later known as an Art Deco masterpiece but in 1920 regarded as a hazardous construction site, especially for the two Morris children who were told they couldn’t play in the back yard anymore. “The builders used to drop ribbons down into our garden and Mother was kind of nervous, that’s one reason I think she was ready to move,” Julie said. When the Morrises left, the builder of N. W. Ayer bought the Morris House and began renovations. “He put steel girders under the house; it was sitting on brick, the old way of building, and the whole thing would have shaken down had he not done that, but after Harry it went through many owners.”
From Philadelphia, the family moved to a farm in Whitemarsh Township that Julie’s father had bought in the spring of 1929. Named The Silver Springs Farm, it was Effingham Jr. ’s version of Effingham’s Sr.’s farm to end all farms, Bolton Farm in Bristol, “a beautiful thing,” Julie describes, “that had everything, horses, Angus cattle, pigs, chickens, and a pony with a cart.” At Silver Springs, she learned the hard work of farming, in time getting to know a friend of Bucky’s, a guy named Bill Disston (from the famous family that founded the Disston Saw Works) who would gradually come around to not regarding her as just Bill’s little sister, but as someone to watch..
“I met Bill out hunting on a horse,” Julie recalls,. “So I had to do some fast riding to catch up with him.”
They married in 1942 when Julie was 20. World War II was at full tilt and young Disston had just transferred from the First City Troop, which had just been federalized, to the Army Air Corps. “He didn’t want to go into the mechanized cavalry, so after the transfer we went to the south after the wedding and he went through training.” From Columbia, South Caroline, Disston was sent overseas and assigned to a bomber in Corsica where he flew over the Brenner Pass 77 times, and survived, no small fete when most bombers then went down in flames.
After South Carolina, the couple lived in Florida for ten years and then moved to California, for sixteen years. They raised three boys. “They are all married; they have 8 children between them. There are 8 more great grands down the way, so it’s just wonderful,” Julie adds.
Bill Disston died five years ago.
Near the time of this interview, Julie’s family was preparing to throw her a 90th birthday party in which the portraits of Luke Wistar Morris and Ann Pancoast Morris that used to hang over the fireplace in the former sitting room during the early 19th century would be unveiled as gifts and restored to their proper place, both portraits having been lost for years and then serendipitously discovered at a Freeman’s House auction by none other than the current owners of the house, Eugene Lefevre and Deborah Boardman.
The idea to restore the portraits to their rightful place on Julie’s 90th birthday was yet another exciting chapter in the long history of the house.
When I asked Julie if she knew about “a secret unveiling of some found portraits” she said she did not, so I decided to let the matter rest.
The House that Lefevre Saved and Re-built
The man behind the purchase of the portraits of Luke Wistar and Ann Pancoast Morris on occasion of Julie’s 90th birthday is Eugene B. Lefevre, a partner in Rampart Holdings, Inc. and owner of the Morris House Hotel and M restaurant. In France, the name Lefevre is comparable to the name Smith or Jones in the States. Eugene calls himself Gene, and says he had his fifteen minutes of fame when he and business partner, Michael DiPaolo, saved the Lit Brothers building from destruction.
“I was president of Growth Properties then, and Michael and I were just dumb kids,” he tells me, “we had done a bunch of stuff in Old City and noticed that the people who bought Lit Brothers were trying to turn it into suburban office space. But when you do renovations of historic buildings, you have to go in the grain, rather than against it. It wasn’t working for the owner so he gave up and started to tare it down.”
When that happened the city exploded in protest. “The owner was the bad man in Philly at that point,” Gene says, “so we bought the thing with a little bit of money and a lot of financing.”
Finding a tenant was difficult, but then in came the Mellon Independence Center and Lefevre and DiPaolo were declared municipal heroes. Philadelphia Magazine awarded Lefevre its 1989 “Developer to Watch Out For” Award in its “Best of Philly” issue. “I liken that to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, “Gene says in total seriousness before delivering a surprise salvo, “but within a year, I was insolvent. Philadelphia Magazine didn’t want to do a follow-up because being noted like that is a curse. I called the guy who nominated me and I said, ‘You’ve ruined my life!’”
Gene says he didn’t like the limelight anyway, despite the fact that Ed Bacon had become his friend on the radio interview circuit.
“The Morris House had been on the market for a while from a pension fund that had foreclosed on it,” Gene says. “DiPaolo and I made a couple of offers on it and eventually they sold it to us. After the Morris family moved out, it was sold to a woman named Gee Elliot, a wonderful grand dame of a woman, whose husband was a neurosurgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital. They then sold it to another person who turned it into office space.”
That was O’Brien Energy; a co-generation company that Gene says was a big thing for investors at the time. “He raised a lot of money, spent it on cars, this building and a bunch of other things and then went broke, causing the people at the finance company to take it back.” While O’Brien Energy owned the building, little carving scars on the historic wooden floorboards were being executed by various styles of women’s high heels; whether they were stiletto gashes or sensible shoe gashes is anybody’s guess, but the heels dug in with the same sort of might that the British bullets hit the pendulum on Julie’s grandmother clock.
When Lefevre and DiPaolo bought the building from the finance company, it was love at first sight. “Once we bought it, we kept looking at it and looking at it, and since our business is to try to add value to buildings and then keep them or sell, we turned this into a hotel.”
The first challenge was to install what Gene calls “fine grain” bathrooms where there hadn’t been bathrooms. Then they installed a hidden sprinkler system, new heating and air conditioning. Most of the building’s woodwork and plaster was restored. As a preservation architect and a member of the Preservation Alliance, Gene says he knew what he had to do when it came to retaining the form and shape of all the rooms.
O’Brien Energy’s one positive legacy was the addition of a porte-cochere with pediment and big Georgian columns on the north side of the building. “It’s a grand entranceway for a hotel to what once had been a modest Quaker house,” Gene says. Yet making the hotel safe for guests meant slicing the house in half in order to create 2 zones that were distinctly separate for fire purposes, as well as putting in a second staircase and renovating the back yard which had been all grass, sans the lone path that Julie remembers being there when she was a child.
The three separate buildings on the site, Gene says, include the carriage house that had been a garage. The Carriage House includes three suits, or one bedroom apartments. There are a total of 15 guestrooms in the Morris House Hotel; M restaurant seats 50.
The complicated process of renovating an historic house sometimes brings good fortune. In Gene’s case, he found a major surprise in the wall near the grand entrance way created by O’Brien Energy. In what had been the kitchen of the original colonial house, but which is now the foyer and reception area, was a rather large bump visible underneath the dry wall. Gene kicked it open one day and found an old fireplace complete with a rack and two large copper pots. Today this fireplace is a central feature of the Morris Hotel.
Attics, of course, carry their own mystique. “The attic was basically a low space, a place you could barely walk around in; it must have been perfect for a kid; it’s scaled for a kid; a couple dormers light it. We ended up putting all the AC and duct work that serves all the rooms, up there,” Gene tells me, while adding that when one of the pumpkin Pine floorboards in the house needs replacement, they are gotten from the attic.
I first met Gene when the hotel’s M restaurant hosted a private menu tasting event to introduce its new Italian chef, Aaron Bellizzi. The three hour hors d’oeuvres and cocktail party was also a celebration of the restaurant’s solvency, thanks mainly to Gene’s wife, Deborah, who single handedly ended a cycle of sloppy kitchen management and in some cases, poor hires. “Gene,” Deborah would tell me later, “is a humble, self-effacing man. He does not have a towering ego.”
“And Deborah is the opposite of Michael and me,” Gene offered. “We’re really good ADD kind of people, while she’s a multi-tasker; she follows through.”
A former ballet dancer and a well known city head shot photographer with her own studio not far from the Morris, Deborah met Gene while in the middle of changing careers.
Getting M restaurant off the ground has been a struggle.
“When we opened two years ago, we started off with a chef friend of mine, an old family friend,” Gene says “Then we hired a chef whose girlfriend worked as our manager. When their relationship went sour, it made things a little crazy; she left, and then he left. As for our current chef, his girlfriend does not work here!” Gene says, in no way attempting to stifle a laugh that not too long ago was probably closer to tears. “But today we feel like we’ve crossed some kind of threshold, where the whole team between the hotel and restaurant is working like clockwork.
“We are a boutique hotel,” he continues, “and very popular with academics and Europeans. Europeans prefer small hotels when they come to the United States. But small, boutique hotels couldn’t exist without the Internet. Years ago, unless you had what they called a ‘flag,’ or a name which you had to pay for on an annual basis, you couldn’t have a hotel. The only way you got people to come to your hotel was to be a network of Hiltons or Holiday Inns or Comfort Inns. When the Internet came, you didn’t need that anymore. People can find your hotel by going on sites like really cool hotels dot com.”
Gene actually prefers to call the Morris an Inn “in the classic sense,” because it is much more than a B&B. Boutique, in the style of minimalist modern hotels like the Gault in Montreal’s Old City (where there are no rugs because the heat comes up through the floors, and where it can take 15 minutes to discover how to turn on the lights), or Klaus K in Helsinki (a beautiful hotel but where the room furniture is made more for Cubist sculpture display purposes than for comfort), does not begin to describe the Morris’ uniqueness. “We are definitely not the Hotel Gault,” Gene says, letting out another mantra-like laugh, “We’re not that. If this was the Sixties, we would be Earth shoes and Macramé.”
A self-described ‘reverse Carpetbagger,’ Gene’s parents brought the family up from Florida when he was still a boy. “They think of us as sort of old Philadelphians because my father was the first Democratic member of the Union League. But when we got here, my parents asked, “What are we supposed to do?”
They were told to enroll their kids in Episcopal Academy or the Agnes Irwin School, go to church at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, and “you’ll be fine.”
At one point during my chat with Gene, Deborah joined us briefly while on her way to check the doings in the kitchen. We’d been talking about traveling in France, and I was telling Gene about my experiences in the George Sand House in Nohant, where visitors can touch Chopin’s piano or seat themselves at Sand’s dinning room table.
“You know,” Deborah said, “the Morris Hotel is reminiscent of driving along a little route in France and coming to a little French village, walking up to an ivy covered building and noticing a Mom and Pop working in the garden and you ask them where to have dinner and they say, ‘But of course, here!’”
Gene and Deborah seem to have incorporated this model as their life’s theme. They tell me about their country getaway, a 1755-built farm in Frenchtown that is older than the Morris House, and located in the middle of a field and woods, an isolated and beautiful spot where it is possible, Deborah adds, “Too grow as much as we can for the restaurant.”
As for those stunning portraits of Luke Wistar and Ann Pancoast Morris that used to hang over the sitting room fireplace, when Gene discovered them at the annual Pennsylvania auction at Freeman’s in 2010, he knew he had to act.
“When they were cataloging the portraits they put estimated values on each item. It was estimated that the pictures would be 5,000 a piece. The Morris family was looking at the same thing but decided they didn’t want to bid. I put in a low ball bid, because I am a bottom-feeding creepy real estate developer.”
The next day Gene was informed that he got the pictures.
“While the artists name cannot be verified, they are attributed to 1817. Luke and Ann had 7 children, 4 of which survived,” he said.
When Gene took the portraits off the wall to let me have a look, the feeling was energizing, reminding me of Deborah’s comment earlier that visiting the Morris garden was cheaper than therapy, causing many to ask, “Why do I feel so rejuvenated?”
That sense of rejuvenation certainly seemed to quicken Julie Morris Disston’s steps when she showed me the garden and pointed to the top of the N.W. Ayer building as well as to another high rise, The Saint James, built a few years back yet situated at such an angle that it didn’t block the sun in the Morris backyard.
“The Morris House was very lucky to have survived all these changes,” I told her. “So many buildings did not.”
“Yes,” Julie said, “Yes-- it will be here forever!”
Thom Nickels (From ICON Magazine, April 2012)