Tracey Gordon was one of the energetic female insurgents who swept into office last year, defeating a 71-year-old, 10-term incumbent to become Philadelphia’s Register of Wills. Although hardly a political newbie, she promised to bring fresh thinking to the underappreciated row office, which was known, if it was known at all, as a bastion of patronage.
Gordon wanted to start an outreach effort to get more low-income homeowners to prepare wills and prevent their properties from falling into legal limbo. She wasn’t merely going to clean up the office’s patronage habits; she wanted to invest in decluttering and preserving her office’s vast trove of documents, currently housed in a broiling City Hall attic. Those papers, which include testaments from the likes of William Penn and John B. Kelly Sr., are literally the people’s history of Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, Gordon immediately reverted to political type, and her new way started to look a lot like the old way. As one of her first official acts, she tapped a retiring City Council member, Blondell Reynolds Brown, to spearhead the conservation effort — at an annual salary of $102,000 — despite having zero experience managing public records.
That figure is easily double what someone who has actually trained as an archivist makes, yet it still wasn’t enough for Brown. She simultaneously signed up for the city’s controversial DROP pension program, which was never meant to be used by elected officials. To outraged critics, Brown responded with a phrase that would make Marie Antoinette blush: “It’s nobody’s business but mine.”
You’ll be happy to know that, even in a city where two indicted officials continue to sit in City Council’s gilded chambers, politicians can still be shamed. Last week, Brown slithered out the door after relinquishing her job in Gordon’s office.
It’s not enough for the story to end there. What makes this episode so frustrating is that Gordon’s ideas for reform are terrific and sorely needed.
While Gordon can’t undo this stumble, she might be able to demonstrate that she really is a new kind of Register of Wills, if she makes good on her promise to use her office for more effective public service. For those of you wondering how the Office of Wills relates to this column’s usual interests — the creation and preservation of good buildings — please hang on a moment.
The connection between Gordon’s proposed outreach campaign and the city’s urban form is easy to explain. Because houses were worth so little during Philadelphia’s decades of decline, many homeowners never bothered to prepare wills stipulating who would inherit their properties. Instead, the properties were passed on informally, to children, cousins, nieces and nephews, even friends.
Since those new occupants didn’t have clear title, they were especially vulnerable when gentrification began transforming old working class neighborhoods, especially ones with large black populations. Those residents couldn’t get home improvement loans or tap into the city’s property tax-relief programs. Some residents became so overwhelmed, they simply abandoned the houses, adding to the blight that is still bringing down many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Gordon saw the damage that Philadelphia’s casual attitude toward inheritance was causing and campaigned on a promise to educate homeowners about estate planning. She recognized that the simple act of writing a will could be a tool to combat the wealth gap between blacks and whites, a big contributor to inequality in America. Preparing a will is especially important now, she told me during a visit to her office, “because a big transfer of baby-boomer wealth is just beginning.”
I was a little surprised when I got an email in late January from Bellevue Strategies’ Mustafa Rashed, Gordon’s outside communications adviser, inviting me over to her City Hall office for a tour of the record rooms. After her victory in last May’s primary, Gordon practically went underground, refusing to return calls from reporters. But once I arrived, I understood that what happens at the Wills office impacts Philadelphia’s urban form.
The first thing Gordon showed me was the last will and testament of John Rittenhouse of Roxborough, a descendant of the family that lent its name to Philadelphia’s most beautiful public square. The fragments of lacy script, which probably date from the mid-19th century, were taped together and shoved into an ordinary file folder.
A city’s history is told in the structures it builds, but to understand how and why they were built, we need the documents. The office of the Register of Wills has been a repository for vital records since 1682 — not just wills, but also marriage certificates and transcripts from Orphans Court, which oversees the disposition of trusts and estates. The history of who inherited what property, and what they did with it, is all there.
Or, at least, it’s there for now. As the collection has expanded, the employees have struggled to keep up. When space ran out in the filing cabinets, documents were packed into cardboard boxes. They’re now stacked to the ceiling, just below the sprinklers. Trigger the smoke alarm and they’ll be soaked.
Gordon took me to the ninth floor of City Hall, where more files are kept. We climbed a rickety staircase partially blocked by construction supplies (code violation!) into the dusty attic just below the building’s grand mansard roof. This is where marriage licenses and court records are stored, folded into narrow envelopes and stuffed into century-old filing cabinets. Some files were never returned to their drawers and left mo around the room. Amazingly, the Wills office, which operates on a $4 million budget, does not employ a trained archivist.
“When you open the files, everything just crumbles,” J.M. Duffin, a researcher and archivist for Penn, told me. Duffin has spent years combing through the wills to assemble a map of West Philadelphia’s original estates. One of his colleagues is using the office’s records to reconstruct the history of slavery in Philadelphia. Preservationists like Oscar Beisert scour the documents to prepare nominations for the city’s historic buildings.
It’s not just academics and professional researchers who rely on these records. As more people take up genealogy, the wills and marriage licenses are crucial tools for tracing family history. We’re in danger of losing whole chapters from the book of our past.
There have been several attempts to bring order to the mess. Under Gordon’s predecessor, Ron Donatucci, specialists from the Conservation Center were hired to develop a strategy for conserving the most historic of the files. They identified 4,300 but were able to conserve only 400 before funds ran out, the center’s director, Laura Hortz Stanton, told me. Ancestry.com, the online genealogy database, has digitized some wills, but there is much more work to do.
Ideally, the office’s collection of wills, marriage licenses, and Orphans Court transcripts would be consolidated with the City Archives, which just opened a state-of-the-art repository, with temperature and humidity controls, at Sixth and Spring Garden. All the city’s other records are housed there — deeds, death certificates, ward maps, photographs, departmental correspondence.
For some reason, wills and marriage certificates have always been kept separate. Some researchers believe the Wills office maintains its own collection of documents as a way of ensuring the patronage workers have something to do.
Gordon told me she intends to ask the Kenney administration to appropriate money — as much as $1 million — to hire a consultant to help her office figure out the best way to manage and conserve the collection. By all means, the administration should pitch in to protect these priceless historical records. But that’s a job for a professional archivist, not a political hack.