Photos by Tessa Marie Images
It’s always been a precarious balance of history and commerce in our region. And the battle rages on … quietly.
In Wayne, the upcoming redevelopment of an heiress’s estate will mean the end of a classic 1893 mansion. In Havertown, a historic mid-century modern structure has been staying just a step ahead of the wrecking ball. All along the Main Line, preservationists are struggling to maintain as much of the area’s historical character as progress will allow. “Without it, you don’t have the Main Line,” says Kathleen Abplanalp, director of historic preservation at Lower Merion Conservancy.
Pressures from developers and rising land prices have made things increasingly difficult for those who champion history. It’s a never-ending balancing act between the ideal and the real—one where the rights of property owners and the needs of school districts often come first.
Still, there have been some significant victories. Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust has overseen a long and successful effort to reconstruct the Jones Log Barn in Chesterbrook. And in perhaps the most ambitious preservation effort on the Main Line, Willows Park Preserve is renovating the park’s mansion for public use. Dozens of other properties, including Wynnewood’s iconic St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, have been given protected status, making it harder for owners to get demolition permits.
The balancing act extends to neighborhoods, with homeowners in historic districts facing restrictions on what they can do with their properties. It’s here that Lower Merion historic preservation planner Greg Prichard has noticed a more subtle erosion. “Many renovations use materials and colors that are wildly inappropriate for historic buildings,” he says. “I think this is largely due to the popularity of home-renovation TV shows, where gray is king and flippers perform renovations to make quick money and leave.”
Without strong preservation ordinances, things like “vinyl windows with short lifespans replace historic wood windows that could be made energy-efficient,” Prichard says. “In the end, all of thesesmall changes lead to a drastic overall change in the appearance of historic neighborhoods, even when no buildings are lost in the process.”
“Unfortunately, I think it’s gone.”
Radnor Township commissioner Jack Larkin is referring to the mansion at the corner of Strafford and Eagle roads once occupied by the late Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance “Dodo” Hamilton. The township is powerless to stop the razing of the Victorian-era home for a residential development. As written, its preservation ordinance “is very vague,” says Larkin. “We don’t have the authority to preserve private property, [and its location] would make it very difficult to build around it.”
The developer, Haverford Properties Inc., didn’t respond to several requests for comment, and it seems residents are mainly concerned about the density of the development. “There hasn’t been an attempt to save [the mansion], nor any significant community outcry over its impending demise,” says Prichard, a Radnor resident and member of the township‘s historical commission.
While zoning and historic designations can be helpful tools for preservationists, all concede that there is no substitute for a developer—or philanthropist—sympathetic to their cause. In Havertown, Jeff Steigerwalt converted the old Llanerch School into 13 condominium apartments, preserving the existing façade and adding historical elements like original chalkboards in each apartment. “You’re not going to find the bones of a building like this anywhere,” says the developer, who grew up in the Manoa section of Haverford Township.
Not far away, Blank Aschkenasy Properties converted a ’20s-era garage on Merion and Lancaster avenues. It houses a La Colombe coffee shop as part of the Bryn Mawr Village shopping center, and the rest of the units are architecturally compatible. Though the thought of razing the garage did cross his mind, Paul Aschkenasy believed it added a ton of character. “You get the feeling of old Bryn Mawr,” he says. “We didn’t get any financial benefit from it, but we thought it was worth it.”
In Strafford, preservationists collaborated with Summit Realty Advisors to prevent the demolition of the historic Covered Wagon Inn on Lancaster Avenue and Eagle Road on a corner of the property where a CVS was built. The pharmacy’s exterior was even designed to match the look of the 18th-century structure.
Yet Tredyffrin Township has no historic preservation ordinance—a fact Pattye Benson finds “mind-boggling.” She attributes it to those with large properties who “don’t want to tie the hands of their heirs.” “They don’t need the government to tell them what to do,” says the president of Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust, adding that one of her main concerns is “demolition by neglect.”
Related Article: Properties on the Lower Merion Conservancy WatchList
One of the region’s most ambitious preservation projects in recent years began on a hot August evening in 2017, as the fledgling board of Willows Park Preserve pondered how to save a century-old Villanova mansion designed by renowned architect Charles Barton Keen. Over a seven-year period, Radnor Township officials rejected a series of ideas for its use—proposals for everything from a catering service to a nursery school.
“Then this gentleman walks in and asks, ‘What would it take to save the mansion?’” recalls Tish Long, Willows Park Preserve’s board president.
Though not a township resident, the man had seen too many beautiful structures destroyed. He pledged $1 million and requested anonymity. Now, Willows Park Preserve is in the midst of a $5 million renovation to bring the structure into compliance with building codes. Upon completion in 2023, it will be a community center with a large terrace for outdoor events. “Open space and beautiful surroundings are more important than ever before,” says Long. “It will be a show-stopper.”
So far, no one has wandered into a meeting of the Haverford Township commissioners and waved around enough cash to save the Brookline School. Built in 1913 on Earlington Road, the historic township-owned structure is a prime example of the neoclassical style of the period. The designer, David Knickerbocker Boyd, was a contemporary of legendary Main Line architects like William L. Price and Horace Trumbauer. “Structures like these can never be replicated,” says Prichard. “For generations, they’ve stood as symbols of the neighborhoods that grew up around them.”
Township commissioners remain skeptical. “I’d love to find some use for it,” says commissioner chairman William Wechsler. “I know it has historic significance to some, but it’s in really bad shape.”
The board’s property committee is currently preparing recommendations for the building. Options include tearing it down for open space or building a new township library on the site. “I grant it has some challenges,” says Colette Bannan, a leader in preservation efforts for the school. “But they’re not insurmountable.”
Train stations have excellent chances of survival, as they serve functional purposes and can’t be razed to make room for condo developments. Three of SEPTA’s nine historic train stations— Strafford, Berwyn and Radnor—are on the Main Line.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Strafford has perhaps the most unusual history. After serving as the Wayne commuter station from 1873 to 1883, it was moved to its present spot. SEPTA restored the Stick-style building between 1999 and 2002 following a June 1999 fire.
While Strafford station’s architect is unknown, Radnor was designed by well-known 19th-century architects Joseph M. Wilson and Frederick G. Thorn. Prichard says that SEPTA has been “really receptive” to maintaining the stations, adding that local communities have also helped.
There’s no cookie-cutter formula for rescuing historic buildings. One of the oldest intact log barns in the Mid-Atlantic region was saved only when the Tredyffrin Township Historical Architectural Review Board borrowed $25,000 from the board of supervisors to dismantle the crumbling circa-1730s Jones Log Barn in Berwyn and store the parts until it could be rebuilt in Chesterbrook. Supplemented by additional materials from another barn, the structure will open this spring as a living history museum.
Back in 1948, Radnor Historical Society opened its headquarters in Dorothy Finley’s basement kitchen. Dating to 1789, it was part of the farmhouse of Capt. John Pugh, a Revolutionary War veteran. The rest of the house, with its many 19th-century renovations, was given to the society in 1964, shortly before her death. It now serves as a public venue.
Local ordinances also play a role in a successful formula for preservation. In Lower Merion, the township’s revised zoning code is a major asset. “We kind of stacked the deck in favor of preservation,” says Chris Leswing, director of building and planning. “It rewards older buildings. It allows flexibility for adaptive reuse.”
Codes like Lower Merion’s allow municipalities to be more generous with variances if developers are doing their best to preserve structures. “It’s a complex historical interplay,” Leswing admits. “We want developers to be able to modernize without losing the building’s character.”
The key to preservation efforts at the Willows Mansion has been a public/private partnership with Archer & Buchanan, a West Chester-based architectural firm with a long track record in the area. But in some cases, efforts can suffer due lack of knowledge. “Part of it is knowing what the resources are and how to obtain them,” says Rob Williams, president of the Tredyffrin Township Historical Commission, an advisory board to township staff. “A lot of it is elevating awareness. Some people just don’t know how to do it.”
Ultimately, though, it comes down to property owners. “Some care and some don’t,” Williams says. “The first thought is often a teardown. Advocates of preservation want that to be the last option. What’s the value of our sense of place? That’s much harder to communicate.”
At the end of Elmwood Avenue in Narberth, next to a bridge under construction, the Baptist Church of the Evangel is surrounded by a chain-link fence, affording unobstructed views of broken and boarded-up windows and other signs of dilapidation. Built in 1893, it’s the borough’s oldest church. From 2015 to 2018, officials considered proposals for development. All fell through due to residents’ objections, none of which had to do with preservation. Only recently has the borough taken steps to protect historic properties, commissioning the Pennsylvania State Historical Commission and Lower Merion Conservancy to create a heritage plan. “Narberth has no historical architecture review board, indeed no preservation measures beyond what’s in the zoning code,” says the Lower Merion Conservancy’s Abplanalp.
The conservancy placed the church on its WatchList, which includes threatened structures and landscapes. While the conservancy doesn’t have enforcement powers, the list raises awareness. Abplanalp notes that St. Charles Borromeo Seminary received protected status, and the First Baptist Church of Ardmore was converted to condominiums in a historically sensitive renovation. Both were on the 2014 WatchList.
Among preservationists, annual house tours are valuable tools for raising funds and historical consciousness. Tredyffrin Preservation Trust’s tour and ongoing lecture series have “made a tremendous difference,” says Benson. “You can’t escape history here,” she says, “even if some people would like to erase it.”