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Dolores Clark, 86, celebrates rebirth of her home

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia rescues its 100th Mantua house

Dolores Clark walks through a room with newly installed drywall in her Mantua home. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Dolores Clark walks through a room with newly installed drywall in her Mantua home. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

DOLORES CLARK, 86, bowls on Friday afternoons at Liberty Lanes with her Nifty Fifty's seniors team and line dances on Tuesdays at the Older Adult Sunshine Center on 58th Street near Walnut.

She lives a fiercely independent life in the Mantua rowhouse that her father bought in 1939, a former grocery store on Melon Street near 39th that he turned into her beloved childhood home.

When Clark's adult children tried to persuade her to move into an assisted living community, she refused.

But as feisty as she is, Clark couldn't afford to fix the two cracked joists supporting the front of her house, including the ancient cast-iron radiator in the living room.

And she couldn't tear out and replace the dining-room walls that were succumbing to decades of water damage and black mold.

Despite her profound need to live independently, Clark would have been forced to leave her childhood home because it was deteriorating dangerously.

"Years ago, a house at the end of the block collapsed," Clark's daughter, Brenda Jones, said late last week. Clark nodded, remembering.

"We were afraid the same thing could happen here," Jones said.

Then a neighbor told Clark and Jones about Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, a small nonprofit making a huge impact in Mantua by repairing the houses of low-income residents like Clark, thereby stabilizing their blocks.

When the rehab is completed this week, Clark's will be the 100th house in Mantua that Rebuilding Together Philadelphia has saved by making critical structural and systems repairs.

RTP restored 70 houses within three blocks of Clark's home, including 20 on her street and around the corner on 39th Street between Wallace and Fairmount.

"Some of them were truly horrific," said Stefanie Fleischer Seldin, RTP's executive director. "We've seen people living without plumbing, going to the bathroom in buckets."

Seldin said RTP fulfills a critical need because there are thousands of low-income residents on the waiting list for the Philadelphia Housing and Development Corp.'s free Basic Systems Repair Program. The wait time is three years.

Although it has only four staffers, RTP made Clark's neighborhood whole with hundreds of volunteers like "House Captain" Bill Wilkens and his family, who pulled off the moldy drywall in Clark's dining room and installed grab bars throughout the house.

RTP crews removed the ancient wall-to-wall carpeting in Clark's living and dining rooms, and replaced it with new vinyl wood-grain floors.

"That carpeting was 20 years old," Clark said.

"It was more like 50 years old," her daughter Jones said, shaking her head. "She had throw rugs on top of it. She was tripping on them."

As she spoke, a plumber was digging a ditch in the back yard to install a drainage pipe. The new drywall in the dining room awaited the painters.

"When Sheila, our neighbor across the street, gave us an RTP application," Jones said, "I just hoped they'd fix the two cracked beams in the basement. I didn't think they would do all this."

Clark said she's happy that RTP did it all because she knows it saved her house and allowed her to stay there.

"When we came here, we were the fourth black family on the block," she said. "I was 9. This was all Italians and Irish back then. My father told me that blacks could only rent.

"But when black families started moving into the neighborhood, the man who owned this house sold it to my father for $2,000."

Clark said her father worked hard to convert the former grocery store into a family home.

"He did that bay window," Clark said proudly, sitting in her living room. "He had these stairs built. He did that archway."

She said that before her father became a welder at Sun Shipbuilding, he was a short-order cook at Horn & Hardart. "Remember that piece of pie you could get for a nickel?" she asked. "He made those pies.

"I remember walking him to work at 15th and Market, and then walking home," she said. "I know that seems like a long walk. But that's what I did."

Jones smiled. "Remember when we found him in bed with an umbrella?" she said.

It was Clark's turn to smile. "I worked at the Red Cross for 25 years," she said. "One day, I came home and found my father laying up in bed with an umbrella. Our roof leaked into the bedroom.

"I said, 'Daddy! Lord have mercy! This don't make no sense!' I borrowed $1,000 from the bank and we got a new roof. My father was something, I'm telling you. God bless him."

Mother and daughter shared a loving look. "When we took her to see the senior home," Jones said, "she told them she wasn't going anywhere. Her father practically built this house. She wants to stay here."

Clark said: "I have memories of my father and my mother here. My father's baby sister Hattie had 10 children and there are 40-some grandchildren. All my memories of my family are here. I can still do for myself. I don't want to give up my house."