by Elizabeth Coady
The curious and the collector descended en masse in Chestnut Hill over the weekend to snare a piece of history when 3,000 artifacts from the estate of Frank Rizzo were offered for sale.
At 10 a.m. on Black Friday, the doors opened at 8919 Crefeld Street where Philadelphia’s legendary tough-cop-turned-mayor had lived from 1975 until his death in 1991. The house remained the home of his widow Carmella, who died last July at 101, and was a “time capsule’’ that had remained virtually unchanged for decades, according to John Romani of Sales By Helen, a family-owned company specializing in high-end estate sales.
“There was about 600 people through the doors in the first 10 minutes,’’ said Romani, 46, of Bryn Mawr. “I had my daughter counting and she said she stopped at 400, and it didn’t stop.’’
The line of people winded down the driveway into the street where meatball sandwiches were available from a food truck. By Sunday afternoon when the three-day sale ended, an estimated 2,500 people had gone through the house and bought one of the 2,500 of the 3,000 items for sale.
The event generated “more calls, emails and messages on social media than any sale we have ever done,’’ said Romani, whose business has operated for 30 years, and he admits that Rizzo’s knack for engendering controversy scared him a bit, even generating protests last year at his statue across the street from City Hall.
“I was nervous,’’ Romani said. “I hired a 14th District police detail.’’
The British newspaper the Daily Mail published a story about the sale at the “home of the loved and loathed’’ mayor. A dealer for Buckingham Palace telephoned interested in the framed portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Phillip the royal pair had presented to Rizzo as mementos of their 1975 visit to Philadelphia to celebrate the city’s bicentennial.
A reporter from France called to interview Romani about the black leather billy club up for sale. No, it was not the same baton that appeared as an accessory tucked into Rizzo’s cummerbund when he left a swanky event at the Bellevue Stratford to oversee a “racial disturbance at 25th Street and Washington Avenue,’’ as it was described by a Temple University museum curator. But the baton became a symbol of Rizzo’s rough-and-tumble reputation, and Thatcher Longstreth, his Republican opponent in the 1971 mayoral race, copied the photo and posted it all over the city. Longstreth – also a Hill resident – still lost.
“I said listen, my father was a policeman and he carried a baton. And my father said that baton saved so many lives,’’ Romani recounts of his conversation. “He would break windows in fires, car fires, he said he would use it for crowd control … He said, “Give me a baton any day of the week.’’’
The most expensive item to be had was a single-digit license plate – the number 8 – which sold for $5,000, and an ordinary office Rolodex that went for $2,500. But there were plenty of smaller-priced items to be had, including a ‘Frank Rizzo, Mayor’ business card and $10 albums. Romani says 500 business cards sold at $5 a pop.
“All of his albums sold. That was another crazy thing,’’ Romani said. “100 Mummers albums, a 100 Frank Sinatra albums, his daughter loved Elvis. Apparently when he came here they drove around with him and he gave her all the records. He had all the Elvis records, and then typical Italian – Dean Martin, Tony Bennett.’’
The weirdest thing was a mounted screw that was a model of the one Rizzo’s doctor put in when he fell at a 1975 refinery fire and broke his hip.
“He didn’t trust the doctor so he asked the doctor to show him’’ what he was putting in his body,” Romani said.
The sale was a huge success, according to Romani.
“Everyone left happy I’ll tell you that,” he said. “There was so much to go around.’’
And in a surprise twist ending, according to Romani, some of the Mayor’s more personal affects – including a handwritten black address book and two immense Rolodex each weighing 20 lbs – were claimed to have been found tucked away in the attic after the sale ended. Also found was the Mayor’s wallet-sized license to carry a concealed permit, a pair of handcuffs, a skeleton key from the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, and an honorary sheriff’s deputy badge from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
The handwritten telephone book contains contact information for President Richard Nixon, who shared a similar, hardliner attitude about keeping order with Rizzo, and Frank Sinatra’s telephone numbers – in area codes 213 and 714 – appear in one of the huge Rolodexes, which Romani calls “pretty significant.’’
Also listed is the telephone number of KYW news, then-home to reporter Stan Bohrman, who Rizzo called a “crumb bum’’ in an infamous encounter outside Rizzo’s Hill home.
The Rolodexes, black address book and items not sold at the house will go up for auction Jan. 29 at Uniques & Antiques in Ashton, Pa. You can preview the auction items here.