Sandi and Tim Weckesser got as far as the address of their dream home before the banker's friendly smile slowly dropped. They were applying for a mortgage; their second attempt as the first bank denied them. Just like this bank was about to do. The banker told them there was no way the bank would ever approve their mortgage. When pressed for more details he said: "Because you'll leave. You'll see how the neighborhood is, and then you'll leave." The banker was unaware that Sandi and Tim had been living in Germantown for years, they were looking for a new home to accommodate their growing family.
Still, it was hard for the Weckesser’s to secure financing. It was 1976 and Sandi and Tim were a young white couple looking for a home in Germantown, a predominantly black neighborhood—though one with a history of successful integration. At the time blockbusting was prevalent in the Germantown real estate market and the banks had been redlining the neighborhood for years.
This home-buying process all started when Tim was driving home from the grocery store. He saw a gorgeous house that looked almost like a castle. It didn't look occupied and he thought it might be for sale. He had to take Sandi to see it. She loved the idea of staying in the neighborhood, so they immediately drove the six blocks from their house in East Germantown to take a look.
Like Tim, Sandi fell in love with the house. Commissioned by Henry Lister Townsend in 1887, the house was built by the architecture firm G.W. & W.D. Hewitt, and later described by architect Alfred Bendiner in his 1964 book, Bendiner’s Philadelphia, as “bastard Gothic crossed with sonofabitch German.”
Tim and Sandi walked up the front yard to the porch and peered into a large picture window. They were stunned to discover that the house was empty. The floor was an expanse of beautifully crafted oak parquet in what they later learned had been the ballroom—which Tim colloquially refers to as 'the basketball court.' Meanwhile, the yard was overgrown with ivy and goutweed.
A car pulled onto the belgian-block drive. Sandi was mortified. Not only were they trespassing, they were gawking in this person's front windows. They approached the car, apologizing profusely and explaining that they were “drawn to the house.” They only wanted to see if anyone lived there or if it was for sale.
The woman in the car laughed. She was actually the realtor, and she would be delighted to sell it to them.
They were transfixed by the original details as they walked through the 9,094 sq. ft home. The twenty-two room "Castle," with nine fireplaces, had been gently divided into two en suites in addition to the owner’s large three-bedroom living area. There was also a carriage house at the rear of their lot they could turn into another stand-alone unit. The Weckesser's loved it. Sure, it was big, but with rental income it could also work for them.
The owners, who had taken great care of the home and made many improvements, had been hoping to find such a young couple. They moved fast to get it into the Weckesser’s hands so it wouldn’t be turned into an apartment building, all of the American Chestnut wainscoting painted white. One week later the Weckesser’s signed an agreement of sale and began the long process of trying to get a mortgage for the "The Castle."
Although with the creation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 it became illegal to discriminate against individuals based on race when trying to buy a house, lenders were still segregating neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) wasn't exactly helping with that. The FHA still had certain restrictions on mortgages in areas they deemed "high risk." They discouraged lending in areas where the buyers would upset the racial makeup of a neighborhood, which meant they also wouldn't provide mortgage insurance on a property in a redlined neighborhood.
Sandi and Tim went to every local bank they could and finally got a lender to approve their mortgage.
Here's where all the problems that come with a century-old, 9,000+ SQFT dream home would turn this story into a nightmare. But not for Tim and Sandi. They've had their share of issues of course: keeping up the large yard, maintaining two apartments and a carriage house as well as their living space, and heating bills in the winter come to mind. If you ask them now if they'd do it all over again, the couple, now in their mid-70's, laugh and give a simple, "No!” That is, they were very lucky but terribly naive. “It could have been a disaster!” Tim says.
But this is still their home. It's the home they made together and raised their children in. Where their kids learned to ride their bikes—inside, around the dining room table, on rainy days. It's the home where just recently they hosted their son's wedding.
It’s their “bastard Gothic/sonofabitch German” castle, and they love it. 43 years they've lived in their home, and if that second banker happens to be reading this now, they still haven't left.