It wasn’t long after Dave Weiss bought his condo that a woman came by to see its history. Years earlier, she’d operated a basket-making business in the basement of what was once First Baptist Church of Ardmore. “She took one step in and started crying,” says Weiss of the surprise 2015 visit. “She said, ‘The spirit is still here.’ It was a beautiful moment.”
That spirit survived the passing of an era when many small churches dotting the area died, along with their congregants. While some have disappeared, others have been repurposed, often as part of ongoing efforts by history buffs and preservationists. Meanwhile, vacant schools have also become condos, a bus garage is now a tavern, an auto repair shop has been converted into an upscale coffee shop, and a major commercial development has emerged from the corroded remnants of an iron works. Such survival stories typically reflect the tenacity and ingenuity of owners, developers and architects. Here we shine a spotlight on a few of the more notable transformations.
At the turn of the last century, when European immigrants poured into the area, they built solid stone churches like 1923’s First Baptist Church of Ardmore. Many were in walkable downtown areas perfect for apartment dwellers— some of them history buffs like Dave Weiss. A geologist by training, Weiss says his upholstery skills help explain the attraction to the traditional. “You’re finding layer on layer of craftsmanship,” he says.
A native of Germantown, Weiss bought into the Arbors at Athens following a move from Upstate New York. He also joined the board of the Lower Merion Township Historical Commission. Weiss and his wife, Chris, wanted to live somewhere distinctive. The entrance to their three-bedroom unit is virtually unchanged from its church days. Inside, the residential and the ecclesiastical blend seamlessly. Large stained-glass windows help to flood the living room with natural light, and Weiss keeps his running clothes and other possessions in the small upstairs room that houses the church bell. The bell still works, though he has thus far spared neighbors a demonstration.
Developer D. Scott Brehman carved the church building into four condos and the parsonage into a fifth single home. He bought the property from a developer who’d been thinking of tearing it down and building townhouses there. The transformation was a challenge. “Churches are usually in residential areas, and there isn’t much else you can do with them because of the zoning,” says project architect Jeffrey Borges-Martin. “A church is a big volume. For residential, you want shallower spaces than a sanctuary. The bigger economic challenge is getting HVAC in.”
Often, leaving the stained-glass windows would make the interior uncomfortably dark. “And sometimes you have to replace stained-glass windows with those that are energy-efficient,” Borges-Martin says.
The structure dates back to about 1860, when the Pennsylvania Railroad built it as a passenger station, ticket office and telegraph office. It’s the oldest such building still standing on the Main Line, according to Greg Prichard, preservation planner for Lower Merion Township. Lincoln’s funeral train is said to have stopped there to replenish ice and water. It was later a private residence, and the hospital bought it in 1893 as an isolation building for infectious diseases.
The building was constructed in 1940 as a bus garage for the Aronomink Transportation Company, part of a SEPTA forerunner.
La Colombe was originally a garage, and Hope’s Cookies/Snap Pizza was a former service station. At La Colombe, developer Paul Aschkenasy remodeled that 1920s-era structure and made it the focal point of Bryn Mawr Village Shopping Center, with compatible architecture. Prichard says the Hope’s Cookies/Snap Pizza building is probably the township’s last remaining “classic service station building,” dating to 1930.
School buildings often outlive their educational usefulness long before they’ve outlived their structural usefulness. This Havertown institution was converted into apartments after there was no longer any demand for its classrooms. Inside the building, developer Jeff Steigerwalt wisely stuck with an educational theme. A row of student cubbies remains intact in a hallway, and a unit might have a chalkboard in the kitchen, perhaps even with a farewell note from a teacher. A few of the school’s former students have come by to have a look at the history—and Steigerwalt always obliges.
Just alongside the tracks of the Main Line’s iconic commuter rail line, the former Tango restaurant is being reborn as the Pullman, slated to open this spring. The exterior of the old Pennsylvania Railroad baggage and freight building will stay true to the original architecture. Transitioning from Tango’s Latin theme has meant a tedious stucco-removal process. Designer Barbara Balonge is modeling the interior after on an old Pullman car, with classic touches like a piano bar. “There’s just something more romantic about train travel than flying,” says the site’s developer, Jennifer Hammer, who tended bar at the old Smokey Joe’s in Wayne to help pay her way through college at Villanova University.
Here, an 1886 mini-mansion has become part of an ambitious reimagining of the campus of an independent school. French International is converting the structure into a science and innovation building, adding a wing for restrooms and universal accessibility. Completion is expected in 2022.
As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Stephen Gibson had a soft spot for the decaying steel industry that had once been the lifeblood of that city’s economy. But when he returned to Pittsburgh years later, he was saddened to see that many of it remnants were gone. “They took away all that industry,” says the architect.
Decades later, as a project manager with Penn Group developers, he’s working with history, rather than against it. In 2000, Penn Group acquired a 10-acre portion of the vast old Pencoyd Ironworks site along the river, transforming it into the Ironworks at Pencoyd Landing, with a riverside square, a hotel and two restaurants.
The ironworks may have gone dark in the 1930s, but its elements have been woven into the architecture of the hotel. Corrugated factory walls have become the skin of one side. The skeleton of a 56,000-square-foot warehouse frames the courtyard of the complex. A streambed underneath was reinforced, and outdoor diners can look out at children cavorting on a play area. Meanwhile, the developers of the neighboring Royal Athena apartment project renovated and reopened the foot bridge in 2017, joining it to the trails winding along the river
Now a de facto historian for the site, Gibson continues to unearth its secrets—like the small shack cantilevered over the river. Its use was a mystery until this past fall, when Gibson discovered that it was an infirmary for injured iron workers. “We’ve tried to surround ourselves with the history of Pencoyd,” he says.
When the CVS chain bought the property that included the historic Covered Wagon Inn, local preservationists quickly mounted a campaign to save it. Pattye Benson, president of the nonprofit Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust, conceded that the developer, Summit Realty Advisors, had the legal right to raze the 18th-century fieldstone structure at the corner of Old Eagle School Road and Lancaster Avenue. “[But] CVS wants to be part of the community,” says Summit Realty owner John Zaharchuk. “We didn’t want to come off as carpetbaggers.”
A new plan drawn up in cooperation with Benson’s group and local officials left room for both the inn and a new CVS. Some of the history’s preservation efforts were basic. “The north wall was like Swiss cheese,” says project architect Matt Heckendorn.
The Covered Wagon’s immediate surroundings also had to be repurposed to avoid an aesthetic clash between the old and the new. CVS has a gabled roof and an exterior of prefabricated stone to match the inn’s look. And a surrounding barrier partially obscures the parking lot when viewed from Lancaster Avenue.
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