The house of Captain William Spafford needs to be saved!

At Front and Bainbridge Streets in Philadelphia (once part of the suburban Southwark district) is a row of large and splendid townhouses that were constructed for members of the rising trans-Atlantic merchant class in the decades before the American Revolution. At one time, the house on the northwest corner was the luxurious residence of a sea captain, William Spafford (sometimes also spelled “Spofford”). Below is a brief sketch of Spafford’s life.

UPDATE in February 2021 — The current owner has been renovating the house as a single-family residence for perhaps four years, but the work appears to be at a standstill. The rear two-story addition to the building, including a portion added in the 20th century, was demolished in early 2018 and then rebuilt with a shaft for an elevator, though the work is incomplete. The main house was gutted of its interior walls, and some reconstruction has taken place. New window frames were inserted throughout the house last year, and the building was sealed from the elements. But the outer brick walls continue to deteriorate. If the project is completed as planned, it would be an important victory for historic preservation in Philadelphia.

William Spafford was born in the last years of the 17th century and died in 1768. He married Rebecca Ellis at the First Presbyterian Church in 1719. Tragically, their son William Jr. died seven years later, and their son Thomas died in 1730.

Early in life, Spafford became a sea captain, ship owner, and merchant. Newspaper ads of the time show that in 1720 he was master of the sloop William, which he sailed to Antigua. During the next few years, he captained the sloop Sarah, which he owned, also in the West Indies trade. In 1726, he registered the 30-ton sloop Keith. William Spafford continued his sea voyages throughout the next decade, sailing the Three Bachellors to Barbados in the early 1730s, the Charming Sally to Ireland in 1736, and the brig Mary to Lisbon in 1738.

Photo by John Moran from the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia (c. 1868).
Photo by John Moran from the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia (c. 1868).

Capt. Spafford sold a variety of imported products at his store, which was located on the ground floor of his dwelling house at the corner of Front and Market. Slaves were included among his merchandise. For example, in August 1731 he advertised the sale of “a very likely Negroe woman … fit for housework or plantation work,” along with a cargo of good green tea. In 1734, he was selling a “young Negro man” and a “very likely Negro boy.” In July 1741, he had a “Negro Man” and “Negro Girl,” along with a lot of West India rum and Moscovado sugar. And in Sept. 1743 he advertised a “Negro Woman who can Wash, Iron, Scour, etc. and Cooks very well.”

Around that time, Spafford was making the transition from sea captain to the business of providing ropes and other equipment to ships. Capt. Spafford’s ropewalk was located on the Passyunk Road, near the corner of Oak Street (now Bainbridge). He took on a young man, Timothy Scannel, as an assistant in the rope-making business. Scannel had just arrived in Philadelphia on a ship from Ireland, and was assigned as an indentured servant to “William Spafford, mariner.” Unfortunately, in July 1748, Scannel ran away. Spafford offered a reward for his capture and described Scannel as “of a thick short stature, full face, wears his own short black hair, very talkative, and speaks very fast … by trade a rope maker.”

64 - Capt. William Spafford House
House in 1960s, when a bar occupied the ground floor.

Spafford advertised that he sold “ship chandlery, with cables and cordage of all kinds” at a store on Samuel Powell’s wharf. In December 1755, he moved his store to another wharf further south, which was “late of Messieures [Emmanuel?] Josiah and Carpenter.” The economic risks of the chandlery trade became clear in November 1760, when Spafford and other chandlers, a sailmaker, and a ship builder placed a notice in the newspapers asking for the apprehension of one John White. They reported that White had ordered a brigantine, called the Ranger, built, fitted out, and filled with cargo. Then, together with his wife, he sailed away to an unknown port, without paying any of the people who had built and provisioned the ship.

Although Spafford sold people into bondage, he apparently saw no conflict between that endeavor and helping to support the church. Thus, in 1753, he was listed as a manager of the lottery to raise money to build a steeple onto the Second Presbyterian Church in Arch Street. William’s brother George, also a sea captain and merchant, was another lottery manager. (Another sea captain, John Spafford, was probably another brother.) The completed steeple was almost has high as that of Christ Church, but George Spafford never got to see it since he died in 1754.

Pres Church Arch St 1799 Wm Birch
Second Presbyterian Church in Arch St., 1799 (print by William Birch). Spafford contributed to the fund to build the steeple.

In 1755, it was mentioned in a newspaper ad that William Spafford, now in his sixties, was living on Front Street in Society Hill. Ten years earlier, he had purchased a lot of ground “on the hill” at the corner of Front and Shippen (now Bainbridge) Streets. According to an insurance report, Spafford’s elegant townhouse was constructed there by 1762, if not earlier. Unfortunately, by 1764, Spafford had died.

Finally, a newspaper notice of June 2, 1768, indicated that the Passyunk Road rope-works property of William Spafford, deceased, was to be auctioned off by the sheriff. The property tax roles of 1769 list a Widow Spafford as living in Southwark, with one servant and one cow. Quite likely, Rebecca Spafford still resided in the townhouse at Front and Shippen Streets.

The house — built with profits gained from the slave trade —once had a central hallway (unusual in Philadelphia), which led to a grand circular staircase. The ornate bannister was still intact at the second story level of the stairway, when I toured the building a number of years ago. Currently, however, the house lies empty and stripped of its finery.

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