The much-publicized demolition of La Ronda aside, preservation efforts big and small continue unabated on the Main Line, making it easy for the rest of us to take the area’s rich history for granted. (And that, of course, is the last thing we should do.)
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In the coming months, when Ted Pollard is living comfortably as an expatriate in the Yucatán city of Mérida, he’ll either relish what he’s accomplished on the Main Line or regret that he couldn’t have done more. Either way, the president of the Radnor Historical Society will know exactly why he fled to Mexico.
There, he’ll live in a 2,500-square-foot home that cost him just $40,000. Founded in 1542 and organized around cathedral squares brimming with culture, Mérida is a United Nations World Heritage Site, with a local government empowered to protect and preserve its past. Once in town, Pollard will develop a holistic wellness center—and he’ll continue to hope Radnor Township and other Main Line communities adopt a similar sort of long-range vision.
In a final local push, Pollard’s Radnor Community Preservation Coalition celebrates its second anniversary this month. RCPC is a nonpartisan association of neighborhood groups, residents and business owners that stresses community stewardship. It defends the principles that guided initial development in Radnor and the laws that protect its neighborhoods, all to preserve and protect the local quality of life through information, education and communication.
RCPC’s widespread interests include neighborhoods and their cohesiveness, population diversity, affordable housing, open space, historic assets, physical character, natural beauty and environmental issues, parking, storm-water management, density, scale, and traffic. It’s also concerned with the residual effects of housing an increasing number of local college students.
At 64, Pollard isn’t shying away from making RCPC his legacy. Even as he’s gone about resettling in Mexico, each project here has a team leader (some 30 of them) charged with bolstering support. “My goal is to have a foundation or heritage center outside of government to be a watchdog,” says Pollard. “Up to now, we’re still too staggered, too scattered.”
A Radnor Township commissioner from 1992 to 1996, Pollard prefers the grassroots sector. Since returning from Mexico over a year ago, he’s focused entirely on preservation.
To ensure posterity, Pollard says, Main Line communities must unite to form identical protective ordinances to keep developers from hopping from stronger townships to weaker ones. Right now, proper ones don’t exist to support even long-range planning. With no legal guidelines or recourse, townships can waste enormous amounts of time and money. Even Radnor’s Historical and Architectural Review Board ordinance that passed two years ago was 20 years too late, Pollard says. And the commissioners don’t always uphold its recommendations.
“Right now, dollar figures drive projects—not ordinances,” says Pollard. “And it’s frying my buns because it’s ruining the flavor of our town. Inappropriate development can ruin a community.”
Take the destruction last fall of La Ronda in Bryn Mawr. “It’s so sad,” says Pollard, who can’t bring himself to even drive past the site of what was architect Addison Mizner’s only surviving work north of the Mason-Dixon Line. “I’m incensed, really. Shame on Lower Merion Township. La Ronda should’ve been a sacred cow. We have our hands full with Radnor, but this ought to be a wake-up call to everyone for the need for much stronger historic preservation ordinances.”
Of all the RCPC-supported projects, the restoration and adaptive reuse of the Willows Cottage may be the best example. The two-story, 3,000-square-foot linear gatehouse of the historic Willows estate neighbors the famed Ardrossan property on Darby-Paoli Road in Villanova. With $150,000 of in-kind services and another $50,000 in donations, the cottage has been stabilized just in time for its 100th anniversary this year. It’s also the distribution point for Skunk Hollow Farm’s 2-acre community-supported agriculture facility. The initial effort has won several regional and state awards.
Next up: preserving the building and turning it into a full-time endowed environmental education center—that is, if the Friends of the Willows Cottage can raise another $400,000 in partnership with the Radnor Conservancy. “Our partnerships have propelled us,” says Mark Janiczek, the project’s team leader and a residential builder who lives a few blocks from the site. “The community has embraced and encouraged the sustainability movement. We have some great momentum going.”
Other projects on RCPC’s plate include rescuing the Radnor Baptist Cemetery (also called First Baptist Cemetery) in Wayne. Abandoned in 1952, its trust fund went broke, and the bank turned over the burial records for its 400 graves. The historical society matched them with federal Work Projects Administration records, then made a database. Capitalizing on the energy and willingness of groups like the Villanova University women’s cross-country team and local Boy Scouts, volunteers have been cleaning up the 1-acre tract.
Pollard says he could force the township to assume responsibility for the property, based on a 1922 state law written to prevent abandoned cemeteries from causing blight. But as with all the coalition’s work, he’s chosen an educational approach over a confrontational one. Many of the neighbors have applauded the preservation effort—and offered to help.
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The Radnor Community Preservation Coalition emerged in 2007 out of efforts to save Ithan, a village of roughly 10 buildings that was the commercial center of Radnor Township 300 years ago. Once called Radnorville, it served as a crossroads during Revolutionary times.
After development was successfully halted there, calls began coming in from West Wayne and Garrett Hill. “We need help, too,” the callers told Pollard. “We thought, ‘Why reinvent the process all the time?’” he recalls. “We began reaching out to all communities [in the township], inviting them to help us—to use us.”
The economic downturn’s lone saving grace—at least in the coalition’s mind—is that it’s helped halt or stall development, giving opponents time to regroup and galvanize. In the past year, the Garrett Hill Coalition spearheaded 80-100 community meetings to force changes in the planning process and development of its master plan and overlay district. It even formed block captains, who knocked on doors like modern-day Paul Reveres. “It’s the way it used to be, when you always had town meetings, when all the voices were heard,” says Pollard. “It’s still the way many New England towns operate.”
Pollard doesn’t want any community to be dumfounded when a zoning issue arises. “We have the resources to help,” he says. “But we’re also informing and educating government as to why we need to maintain the integrity and vitality of our communities. If you build a monstrosity in the middle of a Victorian community, the whole area is diminished.”
Pollard’s first project was a log cabin at Eastern University, just down the street from his home. Four years ago, caution tape prompted a meeting with Eastern’s president—not only to save the cabin, but also to “instill a sense of institutional stewardship,” Pollard says. “You can’t just go willy-nilly, abandoning structures. If they’re in bad repair, fix them. It’s often a matter of who gets there first—the developers or the preservationists.”
Cabrini College, by contrast, just had its restoration of the Woodcrest Estate Mansion—a piece of Drexel, Paul and Dorrance family history that houses its administrative offices—placed on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s also been a garden restoration there. “None of this is going to make the college money,” Pollard says. “But it will create a sense of pride.”
Then there’s the Shipley School’s Beechwood House, another scheduled demolition that’s now been restored. “There could have been a parking lot there,” says Pollard.
Pollard also has restored his 105-year-old Renaissance Revival home in St. Davids three times since 1985. It’s been for sale for more than four years. “You get to see the woodwork, the massiveness of the stones, the brass, the workmanship—and it puts anything today to shame,” he says.
While historic preservation isn’t within the mission statement of the Radnor Historical Society, members did decide to form a subcommittee and cultivate an appreciation for the area’s history. “Our goal, really, is to make the community interested in itself,” Pollard says.
For three years now, the society has been giving out preservation awards to homeowners, builders, architects—“those with vision,” he says—as part of the Mad Anthony Days of Wayne celebration. “It has enhanced the fabric of the community,” says Pollard. “In Radnor Township, we’re really winning.”
Around here, eyes have always been on Ardrossan. Then. Since. Now. Forever, perhaps. Maybe more than any other, the iconic mansion and bucolic estate is the epitome of the Main Line.
Although nearly half of its original expanse of some 750 acres has been sold or donated in recent years, what’s left remains the largest contiguous block of undeveloped land in Radnor Township’s 14 square miles. An oddity, Ardrossan remains a rarefied retreat symbolic of the region’s slackening hold on open space.
“If a person had a boundless amount of money, could they recreate Ardrossan?” asks Media’s David Nelson Wren, an independent scholar and writer. “Maybe you could rebuild the house, but you could not recreate the land.”
Aside from the 50-room Georgian Revival manor named after the Montgomery family’s ancestral home in Scotland, Ardrossan was once a working dairy farm. The estate included 28 structures, many of them historic. During World War II, it was even outfitted for air raids. “It was a place you could head if the Nazis bombed,” says Wren, who recently finished a manuscript about the estate and its owners—the high-society family made famous in the Oscar-winning 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. “It’s quite phenomenal.”
The estate’s first occupant was Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery, founder of the renowned investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott. After he married Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery, he hired architect Horace Trumbauer, who designed many of the region’s famous estate homes, along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When work was completed at Ardrossan, the ceilings were 13 feet high, a foot taller than similar-period Main Line homes. The dining room easily accommodated 30 guests.
“It’s so very rare to see a place so perfect, so preserved. The furniture is all still in the same places from when Mrs. Montgomery died in 1970. Her china is still in the cupboards,” Wren says. “I’ve tried to capsulate this before it could possibly be lost. Hopefully, it won’t be. The family wants to maintain it—but how?”
Ardrossan was left in trust to four Montgomery children. Since then, those families have grown. “It’s a lot easier to preserve something when there are four people involved rather than 50,” says Wren. “The family is together, and they’re very amenable. They’re not arguing, but they still have to pay taxes. And the upkeep is incredible.”
The family was supportive of Wren’s book, particularly the venerable Bobby Scott. But when he took ill and died in 2005, Wren thought the book would die, too. “It was at his funeral where I was cornered by several family members, who said the book had to be finished,” he says.
Wren socialized with the family, earning unfettered access to its records. What began as an architectural digest quickly became a social history. “I sat in that third-floor [linen room turned family archives] and fell madly in love,” he says.
Bryn Mawr photographer Tom Crane is still shooting all-season images for the book, but the recession has kept publishers away from what figures to be an expensive and glamorous project. “Not glamorous because of all the parties held there, but because of the landscape,” says Wren, who is scheduled to speak on Ardrossan at the Radnor Memorial Library on March 16. “You can’t help but see the glamour—even if it’s just the cornfields. Ardrossan always had the highest and best corn.”
In 2008, Villanova painter George Rothacker spent the summer at Ardrossan creating nine pieces as part of a Radnor Conservancy art auction event. Living less than a mile away, he’d painted the estate before, but only from the road.
The owner of an advertising agency and design studio in Media for 30 years, Rothacker began to focus on Radnor Township in 2000 and has since amassed 120 works. He’s just finished a likeness of the Narberth Theatre in time for the monthlong Preserving the Heart and Soul of America show that opens Jan. 4 at the Shipley School’s Speer Gallery.
Edgar “Eddie” Scott III, a ninth-generation scion of the Montgomery, Scott and Wheeler families, wouldn’t discuss the property’s future for this story. But slowly, over the decades, the property has been subdivided. In 1970, Radnor Township used $300,000 in grant money to buy 93 acres for what became Skunk Hollow Park. More recently, two parcels totaling 293 acres were sold to individual owners as lots ranging from 10 to 25 acres. Chanticleer Garden also bought a chunk to protect its views. Various other proposals have come and gone, or lie dormant as a result of the economic downturn.
“I’m sure [Ardrossan] will continue to have a presence in some form,” says Ted Pollard of the Radnor Community Preservation Coalition. “It forces everyone to be real creative, but will the decisions be in the best interests of everyone? It’s such a large tract that bad decisions could have a disastrous effect.”
In size and prominence, Ardrossan is the Titanic of Main Line real estate. The original structure—Orchard Lodge on Abraham’s Lane, the wedding-gift home of Edgar and Hope Scott—dates to 1720. Col. Montgomery’s granddaughter Joanie Mackie’s Godfrey Farm on Godfrey Road includes one structure dated 1689 and another built around 1742.
“Let’s just hope it all doesn’t end up at the bottom of the ocean,” Wren says.
The walls, the floors—everything, really—were caked in an 8-inch-thick mass of papier-mâché. And where there wasn’t paper pulp, there was graffiti and oil tanks when developer Tom Deignan arrived at Brandywine Paperboard Mills.
Other than the old mill’s bones, only its location on the banks of the Brandywine River provided a glimmer of hope. Inspired by Downingtown’s declaration to revitalize itself, Deignan bought the site’s buildings—a hodgepodge of dilapidation—in 2004. In January 2005, work began with four months of sandblasting.
“It was either an epiphany or a moment of temporary insanity, but I envisioned what it could be,” says Deignan, whose Haverford-based Carroll Contractors and Carrollton Development Group have focused on preservation for 25 years. “Old buildings are a dime a dozen, but the proximity to the river gives this place an iconic look and feel.”
Now, the 19th-century mill is a mill no more. Last April, two eateries opened in the former industrial space on Lancaster Avenue—Firecreek Restaurant + Bar and Doghouse Gourmet Burgers. Between the two, there’s seasonal patio space for al fresco dining.
Inside Firecreek, the mill’s original walls of cracked stucco over stone have been invisibly sealed. “Some people say I should cover them with art,” Deignan says. “But this building is a work of art.”
The mill’s old pulley system is still in its original position up in the rafters; two bull wheels—each weighing 2 tons—were relocated for architectural flair. Cranes are now anchors for spotlights above the wait staff’s prep stations.
“What’s interesting is to see [locals] in their 80s come in,” says Deignan. “They just light up at the transformation. They worked here. This is a sort of life after death—literally.”
Deignan moved here from Boston in 1984. His first project was a 1796 barn-to-residence conversion in Bryn Mawr. A dozen similar projects followed, and he began importing barns from England and the Midwest for prominent Main Line estates. Over time, he focused on commercial interests, pursuing old pharmacies, manufacturing plants and paper mills. Fittingly, his headquarters are in a former Ford dealership that sold Model Ts.
Both Boston and Philadelphia are known for their Colonial roots, old money, and stubborn, successful, traditional folks who want a job done right. To that end, Deignan is a kindred spirit. He’s a descendant of Charles Carroll, who was the oldest survivor of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence—a large landowner and the only Catholic to sign.
Deignan’s companies take their name from Carroll, which is also Tom’s middle name. He has 13 siblings, just like the number of original colonies, and his home in Willistown Township—built in 1856—has been in an ongoing state of restoration for 26 years.
Back in the day, Downingtown was known as Milltown because of its thriving industry along the river. But over time, that all died. Now, the town is ripe for a renaissance.
“Though Downingtown is in the crosshairs of Chester County, it was always next in line to be transformed,” says Deignan. “It was the town that time forgot. Now, it’s on its way back in a big way—and this restaurant could be the single catalyst.”
Three other unrelated projects are in the works in Downingtown, all of them on industrial sites. For his part, Deignan is here for the long haul. In fact, he’s only completed one of three phases on his 3-plus-acre site by the Brandywine. Next up is a 50,000-square-foot office building in an existing two-story structure, which he’ll expand by two stories and connect to a five-story addition. The third phase is a new condominium complex. All, he says, will “evoke an industrial-architectural feel” and be “a melding of old and new.”
Outside Firecreek, Deignan even preserved the old mill’s 85-foot-high brick smokestack, making it into the valet stand. “It’s an iconic structure,” he says of the mill. “If we tear it down, then this is just another town. If we keep it, we keep the historical fabric of this community.”
Deignan has sunk $40,000 into the restoration of the smokestack alone, and he’s already got $10 million invested in the entire project. After the final two phases, that figure will balloon to $35 million.
Across Route 30, Diottavio & Co. of Glenmoore recently completed preservation work on the circa-1701 Downingtown Log House originally built by John Hickman. The 1 1/2-story structure remained in the Downing family until 1940, when Thomas W. Downing died and left it to the borough. It was home to the Downingtown Chamber of Commerce from 1950 to 1988. Then the local historical society did an extensive restoration and relocation 70 feet west of its original location.
Outside Firecreek, a 9 1/2-foot bear built with 65,000 nails guards Deignan’s beloved restoration project. It’s a fitting symbol of the times. “True to form, sometimes you get the bear,” he says. “And sometimes the bear gets you.”
If there’s a Main Line restoration project that proves the restorative power of partnerships, it’s Cynwyd Train Station and the kindred Heritage Trail. SEPTA, Montgomery County and Lower Merion Township each provided $225,000 toward the restoration of the 19th-century gem on Conshohocken State Road and Montgomery Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. Other collaborators include the Lower Merion Historical Society, Stumpo Construction, Broadlands Financial Group, the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd and more. The plan is for a rededication celebration this spring, marking its official rebirth as an active multipurpose facility and trailhead.
“It was during the era of railroad development that Lower Merion transitioned into a premier suburban community,” says LMHS president Jerry Francis.
Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1886, when George Brooke Roberts was president of its Schuylkill Valley Division, the station is a prime example of a standard brick-and-frame depot design, along a rail line that connected Philadelphia to Reading and Pottsville. The Cynwyd Heritage Trail will provide a 2-mile, paved path extending from the station to the Manayunk viaduct along unused SEPTA R6 track. It will lead through a 350-acre, linear park, linking public, private and institutional lands in the township.
Montgomery County’s open-space funds will cover 80 percent of the $1.3 million trail project, with Ardmore’s Studio Gaea among the contracted trail design firms. “We’re reclaiming an abandoned, compromised industrial landscape, and creating a spectacular park and recreational space,” says Nancy Winkler, president of Friends of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail. “Uniquely, it will link us to the City of Philadelphia and the regional trail system, helping to connect Lower Merion’s recreational spaces with the city’s.”
Plans to refurbish the station began in November 2007, when the lease agreement with SEPTA granted lessee responsibilities to the township. A month later, Lower Merion subleased the station for the next 30 years to LMHS, which then began a three-year, three-phase revitalization plan. Stabilization was first. Water intrusion, fire damage and termite infestation required the removal and replacement of rafters, joist beams, flooring, windows, doors and the roof. Rotted pillars on the trackside were replaced with salvage or in-kind, full-cut lumber.
This year, leasehold improvements are expected from the first-floor tenant and the caretaker in the second-floor apartment. The third phase will reintroduce external ornamentation features—roof cresting, gaslights and benches.
This marks the second time LMHS has been involved in historic restoration in Bala Cynwyd. It played an identical role in the renovation of Lower Merion Academy, an 1812 building the society leases from the school district for its headquarters.
To learn more, visit cynwydtrail.org.
The circa-1747 Mill at Anselma in Chester Springs is the oldest such working relic in Chester County—and it’s working for a reason. In 2004, the Mill at Anselma Preservation and Educational Trust raised more than $2 million for the restoration of the gristmill and surrounding structures, and for innovative educational programming to go along with it.
Today, this National Historic Landmark offers tours and demonstrations while serving as the home for the Anselma Farmers and Artisans Market. The trust is licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell its stone-ground flour and cornmeal, produced on-site by award-winning miller David Rollenhagen.
“So many historic sites struggle today because they don’t attempt to reach out to their communities,” says outgoing executive director Heather P. Reiffer. “Two of our most successful programs—the development of stone-ground flour products and the farmers market—responded directly to input we received through community feedback.”
This past summer, the mill and the farmers market partnered with the Chester County Food Bank as a drop-off point for surplus fruits and vegetables going to families in need. Such programs have raised the mill’s visibility and increased attendance when visitor numbers are declining at most museums and historic sites.
The trust recently spearheaded a collaborative initiative with other natural, cultural and historical organizations to create “Chester Springs Surrounds. Natural Charm.” The goal is to market Chester Springs as a destination point. With funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, efforts resulted in a brand identity, an accompanying brochure and a website (chesterspringssurrounds.org).
Much of the 22-acre mill site is under preservation easement through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a conservation easement through the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. Environmental projects include working with a local native-plants nursery to mitigate algae growth in the mill’s races and ponds, establishing wildflower meadows, and planting 100-plus trees to limit stream bank erosion.
The Mill at Anselma is open April-December. To learn more, visit anselmamill.org.
Years ago, when a group of community-minded types restored the band shell in the center of Phoenixville’s Reeves Park, they didn’t know what its original colors were. Luckily, one of Gus Spector’s postcards solved that dilemma. Other cards in his collection touched off a mystery, showing a statue of a young boy beneath the band shell’s center stage. To this day, no one knows what became of it.
A 66-year-old Phoenixville urologist, Spector is also an expert on the region’s historic interiors and exteriors, as documented in his extensive collection of vintage postcards. Architecture is his guiding theme, and Philadelphia and Phoenixville are his primary settings. He claims to have 95 percent of all the Phoenixville cards ever issued, though they make up only 5 percent of the 5,000 historic postcards in his collection.
Spector grew up in South Philadelphia, attending city universities and medical schools, and doing his residency at city hospitals. An uncle owned a jewelry store on Bridge Street when Phoenixville was in its 1950s heyday. “When we first came out here, we thought it was the end of the world,” he says. “That was before the Schuylkill Expressway.”
Originating as a casual hobby, Spector’s collecting progressed as he began to appreciate “the old Philadelphia, before the glass ivory towers were erected.” At home in his “Philadelphia Room,” most of the cards are from the first quarter of the 20th century, and include buildings, hotels and street scenes. “This became my way of preserving the past,” he says.
Portions of his Philly collection can be seen in the four books he’s written. His favorite, Philadelphia Neighborhoods, focuses on the city’s different sections. It relies on so-called “real photo” postcards taken by itinerant photographers who sold the cards to the locals. Spector is also in discussions with Bryn Mawr’s George S. MacManus Company to privately publish a book on Philadelphia’s historic architecture.
Locally, Spector’s postcards were used in 2007’s grand opening brochure for the Schuylkill River Heritage Center at Phoenixville. He’s also made donations to the center, including an 1876 issue of Scientific American, in which Gustave Eiffel claims to have visited the Phoenix Iron Works for ideas prior to building the Eiffel Tower.
“These are cameos of the way things were,” says Spector of his collection. “Some are the only remaining relics of what a given place looked like.”