Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Benjamin Mifflin, shady-ass property developer

I have more things to blog about than I have time to blog, but here's a quick hilarious thing.

If you have been following closely my research into 103 Callowhill Street and you have a very good memory, you might recall that in my first history post, I wondered if the original deed contained a measurement error. In 1745, the width of the property was listed as 20 feet, but in all subsequent deeds, the property is described as 16 feet wide. Why? After hunting down early deeds for the lot next to ours, I finally have an answer!

Benjamin Mifflin's original four lots on the north side of Callowhill Street, 1745.

As I mentioned in that first history post from last year, Benjamin Mifflin was granted four contiguous lots on the north side of Callowhill Street in 1745, each 20 feet wide, on the condition that he "cause to be built thereon within the space of five years from the date hereof four good brick or stone messuages each of three stories high to the front of the said Callowhill Street." Above is a map I created of the lots given to Mifflin (although not all of these surrounding properties were defined at the time). Everything seems simple enough, right? Four lots, four houses.

But according to a 1753 mortgage given to one Arent Hassert, Mifflin was granted:
... Four contiguous lots ... of twenty foot each lot by one hundred ft ... and the said Benjamin Mifflin having according to a certain covenant & condition in the said recited Patent mentioned erected Four Brick Messuages or tenements on Westernmost of the four contiguous Lots of Ground aforesaid Did in and by a certain Indenture bearing date the fourteenth day of November in the year 1751 mortgaged two of the aforesaid Contiguous Messuages or tenements and the Ground thereunto belonging containing in breadth East & West thirty-two foot...
Did you catch that? The lots are 20 feet across. Mifflin built four contiguous messuages (row homes) facing Callowhill Street on the "westernmost" of the contiguous lots. Two of those houses and the ground they are on come to only 32 feet in width. The houses are 16 feet wide each. Yes, this is what Mifflin did when he built four houses on these four lots:

Benjamin Mifflin, noted bastard, builds four houses on four lots, 1745-1750.

Oh my god. This, dear readers, is why legalese exists, because nowhere in the original agreement between the Penn sons and Mifflin did it say "one house on each lot." Benjamin Mifflin was a goddamned bastard. He realized he could make more money if he sold five lots rather than four, and that he'd save money on his construction contract if he built smaller houses, so he did a quick subdivision  (how handy that 80 feet total divides evenly into both 4 and 5). And he accomplished this subdivision by doing something that shady developers continue to do to this day (I know this because I've started paying attention to zoning hearings): build whatever you want, to the very limit of the law, using all the loopholes you can find, and bend regulations to fit afterward. As a modern day example: new houses in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties are not allowed to build private garages because too many garages on a street full of row homes can eliminate street parking. At least one developer has tried to get around this by building a garage with an opening facing the street, but calling it a "storage space." After it's built, it's up to the subsequent owner to go to zoning and beg: "Hey, I've got this garage. You might as well give me permission to have a driveway and park my car in it, because, well, the garage is there now, nothing to be done about it."

Sure enough, even though all the other similarly shaped properties on this block are 20 feet in width, these Mifflin properties were redefined in subsequent sales to be 16 feet wide, and Mifflin got his extra lot.

The property lines of the Mifflin lots are redrawn because what the hell else are you going to do about it, c. 1760.

This is confirmed by the said 1753 mortgage (pertaining to what would now be 105 and 107 Callowhill Street), which describes the "Easternmost of the aforesaid two last mentioned messuages" as being bounded "Eastward with the said Benjamin Mifflin Ground," in other words, the empty fifth lot. Our lot. Mifflin sold it a few years later to Abraham Carpenter, who filed a land patent to build on it in 1761. (Amusingly, that land patent refers to the property as being 20 feet wide, so it's possible poor Abraham didn't realize what Mifflin had done when he bought the place; although I have found reference to the 1760 sale, I cannot yet locate the deed from that sale to be sure either way.)

Oh, Benjamin Mifflin. I am mad at you for turning skinny properties into even skinnier ones. I could do so much more with this space if it were 20 feet wide! On the other hand, if it were 20 feet wide, someone probably would have developed it before now, or at least wanted to, and I would not have been able to afford to buy it in the first place.

He was still a goddamned bastard, though.

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