Queen Village: Historic Homes Have Stories To Tell

The Thomas Sparks-John Bishop house is located at 946 S.Front St., and 948 S. Front St.
The Thomas Sparks-John Bishop house is located at 946 S.Front St. and 948 S. Front St.

Imagine Queen Village as it was in the early 1800s—a growing community located right outside of the capitol of a fairly recently independent nation. The U.S. Naval Shipyard was on the rise and offering plenty of jobs, although they were very low paying. The devastation of the yellow fever epidemic, which had swept the city in the 1790s, had subsided.

Since Philadelphia was a booming trade city, immigrants were coming to the area in hopes of starting their new lives by furthering the development of the city by opening businesses or working for established ones. Two of these immigrants were Thomas Sparks and John Bishop, who were plumbers from England. Sparks and Bishop built their homes so that they were attached to one another at 946 S. Front St. and 948 S. Front St.

Rodimiro Herrara, the owner of the building, said, “Plumbers at that time were like today’s computer geeks, not many people knew the trade so plumbers were very prominent.”

Sparks and Bishop helped revitalize the city’s plumbing system, which at that time relied on one fountain to supply the city with water and bath houses. After the 1807 Embargo Act, which virtually stopped the supply of foreign goods, the two men started the Sparks Shot Tower, located at 101 Carpenter St. The shot tower made musket balls by dropping molten lead through mesh screens, to determine the size of the shot.

The Sparks Shot Tower, built in 1808, was the first of its kind in America.

Herrara bought the Thomas Sparks-John Bishop House in 1976. Herrara explained that when he bought the house he mentioned to the owner that the building had historical significance. “The guy said he didn’t give a damn. He wanted the money so he could take off to Las Vegas with his girlfriend.”

Since he worked as an architect, Herrara restored much of the deteriorating plumbing, windows and electrical wiring.  While doing his renovations Herrara claimed he found letters that indicated that at some point in history either John Adams’ wife or his mother, both named Abigail Adams, might have lived in the house.

“Foolishly I left them in the basement and they were ruined,” Herrara said. There are no records whether an Abigail Adams owned the property, but it is possible than an Abigail Adams stayed there since it was a boarding house for many years.

Herrara said he thinks that there has only been about four owners of the house from his research. It was in one family’s care for about 90 years.

Every historic home has a story to tell. In Queen Village, some of these homes are not recognized for the role they played in Philadelphia’s history.  Organizations such as the Queen Village Historic Preservation Committee aim to inform the public about the histories of homes in the neighborhood.   One of the objectives of committee is to have the owners of historic houses put information about the building on the outside on their house for pedestrians to view.  Amy Singh, member of the committee, explained, “They’re window pane transparencies that state when the house was built,  by whom or perhaps someone who lived there if they don’t know who built it,  what that person’s occupation was and sometimes there’s information on what year the house was registered  by the historic registry.”

Herrera said he plans to fully restore the building in the near future. “I might sell it in the next few years or so, or I might just die in here,” Herrara said.  The Philadelphia Historical Commission requires historic homes to have the outside fully restored to look the same as they did when they were first built.

The process of getting a home registered after the façade has been restored is a time-consuming process.  As of now, it appears that the outside of the building looks the way a typical 19th century Philadelphia home should have looked. Houses that have been registered can also apply for a plaque, which is displayed on the house.

There are many homes that are historic that don’t have this plaque, one of which is the Thomas Sparks-John Bishop house. Like many houses in Queen Village, to a passer-by there is no indication to the significant story of the house.

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