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This Southwest Philly rowhome is without a row: Inside the last of the ‘Brigantine Castles’

Somebody posted a screenshot of a lonely rowhouse on Reddit this week. It looked unnatural for Philadelphia, where houses are packed next to each other, a single wall often dividing one structure from the next, block after block after block. Houses don’t stand alone. They don’t have sprawling, pristine yards.

Well, maybe in the suburbs, but not in the city. So we went to 5436 Woodland Avenue, to find out the back story.

Out here in Southwest Philly, nearly every spot of land is covered up, whether it’s by a rowhouse, road, sidewalk, deli or corner store. The streets are noisy with large trucks and construction vehicles passing by. Amid the din, the isolation of the Woodland Avenue house grants some peace and serenity, and the grass and a slight elevation make it seem like you’re walking toward a hilltop estate.

We stand under a maroon awning, peek inside and ring the doorbell a couple of times before a figure wearing a ballcap and a Penn State t-shirt approaches. Leonard L. Johnson answers the door and invites us in. Plaques, photos, drawings and other various mementos acts as wallpaper in the living room. Of them all, the one with Bill Clinton stands out. Johnson and his wife, Minnie Moore-Johnson, owners of the lonely rowhouse without a row at 5436 Woodland Avenue, have met the former President.

“He’s a funny guy,” Johnson says. “A good guy.”

Other pictures feature former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, local Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady and former district attorney Lynne Abraham. There are letters signed by former mayors Ed Rendell and John Street. They’ve all wanted to meet and praise Moore-Johnson.

Minnie Moore-Johnson looks up at one of her favorite photos on her office wall, one of her and her mentor Reverend Leon Sullivan. It hangs beside a photo of Moore-Johnson and Bill Clinton.

Minnie Moore-Johnson looks up at one of her favorite photos on her office wall, one of her and her mentor Reverend Leon Sullivan. It hangs beside a photo of Moore-Johnson and Bill Clinton. Bobby Chen/BillyPenn

She gained national acclaim for her work in the community, largely with her organization Concerned Parents, Inc. Starting in the 60s, the charity fed hundreds of needy Philadelphians every Thanksgiving (though her methods and bookkeeping were once questioned). It wasn’t just the local media and local newspapers who followed her. Essence magazine profiled Moore-Johnson. Brady and other U.S. congressmen formally honored her in a House session.

In a way, this house on Woodland Avenue is for her and Johnson’s retirement. They moved in about seven years ago, from just around the corner on Conestoga Street. Moore-Johnson and her husband wanted space and somewhere to have “peace of mind,” but they didn’t want to move out of the community. The inability to pick up and let go fits her persona: Johnson says his wife is going on her third retirement.

The Johnsons and their house in southwest Philadelphia.

The Johnsons and their house in southwest Philadelphia. Bobby Chen/BillyPenn.

Their house used to be in the middle of a row of five. Each functioned as an apartment building containing four apartments. But as Southwest Philadelphia declined in the 80s and 90s, they became vacant, attracting squatters and neighborhood kids, who called them the Brigantine Castles.

The city bulldozed the other four rowhouses. Johnson and Moore-Johnson bought 5436 Woodland Avenue. Looking back, they say it would’ve been easier and less expensive to tear down the house and rebuild a new one, not to mention a lot cleaner.

After they bought the place, they realized it seemed more like they had purchased a landfill. Johnson and Moore-Johnson found pieces of cars, whole refrigerators and furniture. They estimate filling 10 dumpsters with the garbage left behind.

“You had to start unloading stuff from the front door,” Johnson says, “just to see inside.”

They gutted the entire house and then started renovating. When one room was refurbished, they’d live in there and move on to the next, “one room at a time.” There was no heating at first so their first winter entailed placing blankets on windows and doors and using kerosene to stay warm.

“Have you ever seen that movie ‘The Money Pit?'” Moore-Johnson asks. “I was sitting in this house watching TV and ‘The Money Pit’ came on. I almost cried myself to sleep.”

The “landfill” became a 6-bedroom, 3.5 bathroom house. Because they live alone the other rooms are used for office space, prayer or storage. They sometimes host family gatherings in their big yard (Johnson and Moore-Johnson have 32 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren between them) and on Saturday will host many visitors, including some of Philadelphia’s leaders.

And this house without a row will be the site of the latest Philadelphia Mural Arts project.

The Johnsons and their house in southwest Philadelphia.

Bobby Chen/BillyPenn.

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From left: Moore-Johnson, Moore-Johnson's son Roland Bolds, Johnson, artist Ernel Martinez, Mural Arts interns Keely Hooper and Jocelyn MacDonald. Bobby Chen/BillyPenn.

Ernel Martinez is painting the mural and as of Tuesday had nearly finished. It’s being done in conjunction with the Fathers And Children Together program, which aims to facilitate better relationships between incarcerated dads and their kids. The mural will showcase a picture of inmate fathers, children and a poem, bordered with several drawings made by youngsters in the program.

Johnson has been working on the backyard deck this week to get ready for Saturday’s festivities. He and his wife talk about how lucky they are. Johnson recovered from prostate cancer a few years ago. Moore-Johnson recently needed emergency surgery for gall bladder cancer, but says she’s recovering.

Inside their lonely row house, she takes us through some of the plaques, pictures and letters, describing the reason for each one. Then she points to her husband.

“That’s my hero right there,” Moore-Johnson says. “That’s my best friend.”

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