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Deborah Dilworth Bishop, real estate developer, Philadelphia advocate, and daughter of former Mayor Richardson Dilworth, dies at 85

"She chose to live with dignity," said her son, Bill. "She was always doing something. She took care of her family, was pleasant, giving, and kind."

Mrs. Bishop was involved in preserving treasured historical sites in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Bishop was involved in preserving treasured historical sites in Philadelphia.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Deborah Dilworth Bishop, 85, a real estate developer, a board member and advocate of many local preservation, historical, and civic organizations, and the daughter of former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth, died Nov. 15 of cancer at Beaumont at Bryn Mawr retirement community.

Dynamic, driven, and dedicated to her family and the city of Philadelphia, Mrs. Bishop was active with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, the Woodlands, the Powell House Museum, and other local groups.

Known by friends as “the fabric of Society Hill” and an “urban pioneer,” she first lived in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia and then worked as a real estate developer in other areas of the city. She also appeared in a 2013 episode of the 14-part TV documentary series, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, produced by Sam Katz and others.

“She loved Philadelphia,” said her son, Bill, “and she grew up in a time of great change.”

“She was a quiet doer,” said family friend Carla Zambelli Mudry. “She did things because they were the right things to do.”

Born May 10, 1936, at home in Center City Philadelphia — her mother didn’t like hospitals — Mrs. Bishop spent some of her childhood in Palm Beach, Fla., with her grandmother while her father was in the Marine Corps during World War II. She later went to boarding school in Maryland, and moved with her family to Society Hill in the 1950s just as it was beginning to be redeveloped into what former Inquirer staff writer Peter Binzen called “the nation’s most successful urban-renewal project.”

After spending a few years in New York studying acting, she married Theodore Newbold in 1959, and they lived at first in a small house on Elfreth’s Alley. They moved to a larger place on South Third Street, between Delancey and Spruce Streets, when their children — son Bill and daughters Daisy and Noel — came along.

In a 2008 interview with Dorothy Stevens of Preserving Society Hill, Mrs. Bishop talked about the challenges of renovating her home on Third Street under the guidance of architect George Roberts.

“I said to him, ‘Mr. Roberts, we bought this house for $6,000. Don’t you think it was a steal?’ ” Mrs. Bishop told Stevens. “He was a very proper old Philadelphia gentleman, and he said to me, ‘Frankly, Deborah, no.’ It was my first warning of what we had done. Oh, my God.”

Despite her early travails, Mrs. Bishop went on to buy and renovate more properties, and she remained interested in preserving local historical sites for the rest of her life. “She did a lot of things that required quite a bit of effort,” said her cousin Alan Wood. “She was spirited and vivacious.”

After a divorce in 1981, Mrs. Bishop married Harry Bishop in 1984, and they lived in Haverford. He died in 2009.

Mrs. Bishop liked to watch movies and travel, visiting Antarctica, Asia, China, Russia, and elsewhere. She volunteered to tutor disadvantaged students in reading and, when asked how she was doing, would invariably respond, “Perfect in every way.”

She donated her father’s personal papers to the Library Company of Philadelphia, wrote a cookbook with others for Christ Church in 2006, and when she laughed, her whole face lit up. “She was a charismatic theatrical woman,” said her daughter Daisy Konowal.

“We want more people like her in this world,” Mudry said.

In addition to her children and cousin, Mrs. Bishop is survived by two grandchildren, a brother, and other relatives. Her former husband, three brothers, and three sisters died earlier.

Services were Nov. 22.

Donations in her name may be made to Christ Church, 20 N. American St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19106; Philabundance, 3616 S. Galloway St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19148; and the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19107.