Walking down Broadway a few weeks ago, my cell-phone rang, and despite the caller’s number being unknown to me, and suspecting a sales call of some sort, I answered and was rewarded in spades. Visions of time-share re-purchasers and other cons jumped to mind, and I was far but not so far from wrong. An aged, lilting voiced greeted me: “Mister Feldman, this is Willis Berry. I believe you wanted to speak to me…”
Willis Berry, Jr. was convicted of civil fraud in 2009 and defrocked from his post as a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge and disbarred after a 2015 criminal conviction for theft and conflict of interest for running a real estate business from his judicial chambers for more than a decade.The criminal complaint alleged that Berry bilked Philadelphia taxpayers out of $110,000 by using his judicial secretary to handle 16 sub-code rental properties from his office in the Criminal Justice Center. Berry, elected judge in 1995, retired in September 2012 on the same day he was to pay a $180,000 civil fraud judgment involving a North Philadelphia property that a jury found he acquired by deceiving a client. He is currently serving a sentence of three years probation.
Many months ago, I published an essay about 1535 Girard Avenue, a Center City Philadelphia mansion owned and inhabited by Charles Yerkes, the infamous municipal finance swindler and street-car line manipulator: http://newyorkwanderer.com/the-trilogy-of-desire/
Yerkes final abode before his imprisonment in the early 1870s in Eastern State Penitentiary, 1535 Girard stands today, beaten but unbowed, at least from its grand exterior on the corner of 15th Street. Theodore Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire chronicles the rise and fall of Yerkes, in Philadelphia, Chicago, London and then New York, all modeled after Yerkes’ astonishing run. His business acumen, persuasive powers, incredible womanizing and agonizing death at the cusp of success in consolidating London’s complex web of public transportation systems are the stuff of legend, a life written large. My photo-illustrated essay, inspired by my reading at the end of the third volume of the trilogy that the protagonist Frank Cowperwood was laid to rest in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and my immediate discovery that Yerkes himself is there, entombed in a marvelous mausoleum, lead me to Philadelphia where, in 2014 I could only gaze and wonder at the ornate structure, chained shut, and wonder what remained.
Two years of fruitless efforts to contact Mr. Berry finally paid off. Through one of his attorneys, Berry reached out to me, and suspecting the worst, I nonetheless traveled to Philadelphia to inspect the mansion’s insides. Perhaps some original details remained, some palimpsests of its former glory? In we went, flashlights in hand, Berry clad in work boots, his tousled long mane of greying curly hair and lanky frame barely masking a dissolute life.
Shocked but not surprised, I followed after Berry as we clambered through room after room and floor after floor of gutted spaces and ankle-deep debris. Lines from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit” jumped to mind :The Schoolmaster pleads with the wealthy, aged, victimized and bionic-limbed Claire to cast away her desire for revenge against a man who impregnated her many years before and abjured responsibility, and implores her, “Let your feeling for humanity prevail!” She responds coolly: “Feeling for humanity, gentlemen, is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine you can afford a new world order. The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel.”
Incessantly short of funds, Berry’s plan to turn 1535 Girard into a multi-family residence is a long way off. Pipe cutters, hand and power tools, and construction detritus litter every surface. One gets the sense of unpaid bills, swindled workmen, chicanery on toast. The saddest moment came when Berry called out to his son Dave, who inhabits a single room, putatively habitable apartment on the top floor. The lanky and swarthy young man finally answered the door, and shook my hand, as his father implored him “Gimme a hug, at least.” Berry seems to me to have wrecked more than his life alone.
Nonetheless, details remain: Yerkes’ DNA still remains: Here are the banisters he clutched, the wainscoating his coat-tails brushed, the tub in which he bathed. But all in all, a far sight better than his digs at Eastern State.
Who knows what will become of Willis Berry, Jr., Charles Yerkes’ rightful heir? One thing is certain, given the vagaries of the Philadelphia real estate market: 1535 Girard will never be returned to its former glory. It never came close to Yerkes’ final New York City abode at 846 Fifth Avenue, with its private opera hall at the side-street entrance. I wonder what Berry’s own home looks like now…