Historic Estate And Underground Railroad Station Under Threat In Plymouth Meeting

 

Historic scene just a few miles past Philadelphia on Germantown Pike. L-R: Hovenden House, General Store, Abolition Hall and barn | Photo: Bradley Maule

When Sydelle Zove first heard about redevelopment plans last fall for the historic Corson Estate at the intersection of Butler and Germantown Pike she almost leapt out of her seat in disbelief. The Plymouth Meeting resident, formerly of Germantown, lives a stone’s throw from two buildings as dense with history as the eight acre wooded parcel and farmland that stretches out behind them. Abolition Hall, a carriage house constructed in the late 19th century, served as a meeting house for anti-slavery advocates in Plymouth Meeting and was a key station on the Underground Railroad for escaped African Americans making their way north from Johnson House in Germantown. The Hovenden House, built in 1795, is the former home and studio of historical narrative painter Thomas Hovenden and his artist wife Helen Corson. The Corson’s entire 10 acre estate has been passed down to family members for generations and has remained largely undisturbed for centuries, until now. The three remaining heirs and joint owners of the land have entered into a tentative agreement of sale for the land with suburban subdivision developers K. Hovnanian Homes.

The New York Stock Exchange-listed company seeks a zoning variance to allow for filling the property with 48 new townhouses. According to the developer’s plan, the farmhouse, hall, and barn, all listed on the local and National Register of Historical Places, will remain intact as will the century-old general store. But the adjoining eight acres of open farmland will give way to a large subdivision that would compromise the historical integrity of the site, something Zove could not bear to witness without a fight.

For the past few months Zove and a group of roughly 21 concerned residents of Whitemarsh Township have been working diligently to raise awareness of the pending sale and of a zoning hearing on April 25 that could either seal or break the deal. The group has sent out letters detailing the builder’s plans and has consulted with attorneys and local lawmakers. They have taken out ads in local papers and have gone door to door to rally support. Plymouth Meeting was designated a local historic district by Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships in 1961. The village of Plymouth Meeting was listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1971. It includes 66 historically designated properties within the township, three of which are on the Corson property—the Federal-style 14-room Hovenden House, Abolition Hall, and a barn.

Zove is no stranger to community action. She was chair of the Penn Knox Neighbors Association when she lived in Germantown in the 1990s. There she led efforts to have the old Manheim Laundry on the 5300 block of Germantown Avenue decontaminated and cleaned of sitting toxic waste. She was also instrumental in shutting down the Colonial Inn, a personal care boarding home that was being used as a drug market and house of prostitution. Now a 20-year resident of Plymouth Meeting, she’s lending her efforts to ensure that public opposition has a voice as plans for the sale and the proposed development of the historic Corson Estate moves forward.

‘This is our moment to take a stand and send a message loud and clear to the zoning board that we care,” says Zove. “There is so much history here. Layer upon layer. The deeper you dig, the more you find.”

Abolition Hall profile; garage doors not original | Photo: Bradley Maule

Abolition Hall profile; garage doors not original | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Quakers of Plymouth Meeting were vigilant abolitionists, steadfast in providing safety for African Americans passing through Philadelphia and Montgomery County along the Underground Railroad en route to New York and Canada. In 1859, George Corson II, co-founder of the Plymouth Meeting Anti-Slavery Society, converted a barn on his farm into a 150-seat Abolition Hall to host lectures and meetings with key anti-slavery speakers like Lucretia Mott and William Lloyd Garrison just steps away from the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse, the village’s 308-year-old namesake that still stands at Germantown and Butler Pikes. The Corsons were dedicated abolitionists well known for breaking the law and putting themselves at physical risk to aid runaway slaves. One story tells how George Corson II concealed a family under a pile of hay on his wagon for safe passage to the next station. Historians and scholars universally consider Abolition Hall to be one of the most important and well-documented stops on the Underground Railroad.

George Corson’s daughter Helen married Thomas Hovenden at the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse on June 9, 1881. Hovenden, a celebrated Irish American artist and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts professor, was a narrative painter who used local tradesmen and African Americans as his subjects. One of his best-known works is the historical portrait, The Last Moments of John Brown, depicting abolitionist leader John Brown being led to the gallows after he was charged for treason for raiding a federal armory to arm enslaved African Americans. Hovenden embraced his in-laws’ Quaker faith and their abolitionist past inspired a number of his paintings. He converted Abolition Hall into studio space when he and Helen moved onto the property in the late 1800s and began focusing much of his work on interpreting dramatic moments in American history. He is regarded as one of the best painters of heroic scenes of the Civil War. Their daughter Martha M. Hovenden, a celebrated sculptor, would go on to use the building for her own personal studio.

Ann Wilson, one of the three Corson heirs, currently lives in the former hall with her husband, Roy. Both are artists and use a section of the building for studio space. The Wilsons have been quiet about the pending sale of the property.

Behind both buildings lies the eight acres of wooded bramble and open fields. Maple Acres Farm, the last operating farm in Plymouth Meeting, has leased the land for cultivation since the 1970s. Owner Gary McKeown’s family has been farming on their own 30 acre farm at 2656 Narcissa Road since 1916.

Subdivision sketch plan for the Corson Estate

K. Hovnanian Homes subdivision proposal for the Corson Estate | Sketch plan: Bohler Engineering

In order to move forward with the sale, K. Hovnanian Homes must be granted a variance on a longstanding provision of the township code that requires shared driveways and parking for new construction. Current plans for the development include garage fronts for each townhouse, priced to sell for $450,000, and additional parking for 48 cars along a loop that would circle the subdivision. If approved, the development firm will still have to satisfy conditional use approvals from sale, a price rumored to be appraised at more than $4 million, but the parking provision stands as the first big obstacle set before the builder.

Site plans have largely gone uncontested by the Historical Architecture Review Board and the township’s Planning Commission. Suggestions have been made, but no action or adjustments to the proposal have been required. Growing opposition could prompt K. Hovnanian Homes to respond to neighbor’s interests in an alternative plan that would lessen the density of the 220,000 square foot subdivision and create an appropriate buffer behind Abolition Hall and the barn. (nor to this reporter’s request for comment).

“The general sentiment of the citizens of Whitemarsh Township is development is inevitable, but we have to find a way to make it less dense and more conscious of existing traffic patterns and congestion,” says Zove. “The current plans are inappropriate. The township should exercise its rights to limit and shape development on this important historic site.”

Other issues surrounding the development include storm water management on a site prone to flooding, sitting water, and sinkholes. The proposal includes raising the grade on the construction site, which would send runoff rainwater flooding Marple Lane. K. Hovanaian Builders also intends to use a small dirt road for emergency access for fire trucks that would feed from Marple Lane, a private residential street.

Hovenden House, corner of Germantown and Butler Pikes, Plymouth Meeting | Photo: Bradley Maule

Hovenden House, corner of Germantown and Butler Pikes, Plymouth Meeting | Photo: Bradley Maule

Then there is the possibility of requiring a realignment of Butler Pike to relieve traffic congestion turning onto Germantown Pike with a dogleg that would slice the land between Hovenden House and Abolition Hall, permanently severing the historic, physical connection of the two buildings. The realignment, which would cost between $1-2 million, has been discussed by township officials for years. But there is currently no money allocated for the project, which is not in Montgomery County’s long term plan. However, if the developer were to offer to pay a portion of the project’s costs, or if the realignment was made a condition of zoning approval by the township’s Zoning Board, it could become a reality. Zove says that the realignment would be disastrous for preserving the historic integrity of the three buildings and what would remain of the Corson Estate.

“This hearing is really pivotal. I hope the zoning board will have the backbone to interpret the code as it is written rather than issue a variance,” says Zove.

Last week, Whitemarsh Township’s Board of Supervisors voted to offer its solicitor to oppose the variance. The Board’s chair, Amy Grossman, was largely responsible for the momentum behind the decision for the township to take a position on issue. If the variance is denied, the developer will either appeal the motion with the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in Norristown or pull out of the sale agreement entirely, which would raise the possibility of the township acquiring the land for open space. In 2013, the property was appraised at just $1.3 million, but the assessment was undervalued and a sale never went through. If the variance is denied, the developer could appeal the motion, negotiate a plan revision, or pull out of the sale agreement entirely, which would raise the possibility of the township acquiring the land for open space. The open space intervention would aid in further preserving the heritage of Plymouth Meeting and one of the country’s oldest and most well-recorded links to abolitionist history.

Requests for comments by representatives of K. Hovanaian Builders and the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors were not returned by the time of this story’s publication.

***

Update: The public zoning hearing to review plans for the Corson Estate at 616 Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill on April 25 at 7PM has been canceled per request of the applicant, K. Hovnanian Homes. No new date has been issued by the time of publication.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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16 Comments


  1. If the township buys the property, are they going to make good use of it by allowing the house to be used as a museum or simply sit on it in its current condition. Plus, is the township willing to pay for maintenance of the properties as simply leaving it alone is not a credible option. A lot of legwork will have to be done by other interested parties in preservation to come up with a credible plan before the township invests money to purchase the Corson tract.

    • There is a core of people who would love to see the Hovenden House and Abolition Hall used for the continuation of artistic talents. I think it would be an ideal place for a larger Art Center and Museum. I will be happy to help get this done if we get the proper backing $$ and interest.

    • Where there is a will, there is a way. See http://www.abolitionhall.com for a short documentary about the property. Just as Mayor Kenney has stepped up to intercede in the Jewelers Row matter in Philadelphia, so too can leadership in Whitemarsh take a stand.

  2. Plans like this should be considered criminal.

  3. Sink holes possible…. Montgomery County Conservation Dept. should do test boring hole throughout site. Storm water control where will rain water go? Don’t release on street to go to train over pass is big sink holes where just cemented & can fail with extra water. Many sink holes along that creek water management area.

  4. Hello,
    My name is Aisha Ford and I am a African American, American History major at Temple University. I would like to know how I could be apart of the restoration/preservation process of this station. We are loosing our history time and time again to people who only see the profit in the land and not the importance of the events that took place there. Please contact me with any information I could use to be apart of this project. I don’t want to see another station lost.

    • Neither do I. I knew the Corson who lived here and we were friends for 40 years or more. She shared stories of things that took place long ago and I was thoroughly enraptured. I wish to see this place SAVED from the 2016 so-called improvements. Please, we need big money to make this happen. I only have great enthusiasm and pride which I will gladly spend to save these properties. You can call me and get on an email list of interested people that are of the same mind set. Celine

    • You are welcome to attend a free documentary film debut and Q&A on September 29, 6:45 p.m., at the Jeanes library, 4051 Joshua Road, Lafayette Hill. Listen, learn, lock arms with us as we take a stand in support of the preservation of this historic homestead.

  5. Marianna Thomas

    Thanks, Michael, for this thorough article. I remember visiting the house as a little girl, but never learned its history. My father and one of the Corsons were friends, perhaps through the Quaker connections of Westtown School or Haverford College.

    Marianna

  6. I have lived in this township for 48 years and was never made aware of the history of these buildings. However, I can say they have always looked neglected and in disrepair. If someone doesn’t do something real soon, they are going to fall down on their own.

  7. Please find a way for development and preservation.
    This is of the utmost importance. Income for the Township and preserving our very important part of history should be equal. Please make both happen.
    A concerned realist……

  8. There are many concerned citizens that do not want to see this site of the Underground Railroad which Pennsylvania Hisstoric and Museum Commission lists as a “:SHRINE” to the Plymouth Meeting station of the Underground RR. I suggest reading Charles Blockson’s records of all that happened in PA. He has done extensive research for the state and it will really be of interest to you.

  9. The developers will be holding an informal meeting on Wednesday, September 14th, 6pm at William Jeanes Memorial Library in Lafayette Hill. They will be presenting a conceptual site plan to neighboring property owners.

  10. i called someone a few years back and no one seemed to care. may grandparents william and amanda smith lived in flourtown and had a barn out back with concord grape vines. i know there were tunnels under the barn. i dont remember the name of the road but i do think there was a cemetery nearby that you had to drive up a hill. this was back in the 50s. we stopped going in 1957 when grandmom smith died at 97 years in 1957. they were philadelphia quakers. cant find anything.

  11. The developer has invoked a little-known provision of the Municipalities Planning Code to seek the concurrence of the Whitemarsh Township Zoning Officer on the latest version of his proposed townhouse plan. On November 4, the Zoning Officer issued his Preliminary Opinion, which supports the developer’s assertion of compliance with the Zoning Code. Concerned citizens are considering filing a formal appeal of that opinion. This will require legal representation and possibly expert testimony.

  12. We need your support and donations!

    In late December 2016, seven residents filed an appeal of the Zoning Officer’s decision. We hired an attorney and a land-use planning expert, and on January 31, the Zoning Hearing Board convened a public hearing on our appeal. The developer’s attorney spent the first hour of that hearing arguing that we had no standing to appeal the ruling. Of the seven residents who filed, two were determined to have standing–they live within a stone’s throw of the Corson homestead. The hearing was continued to March 16, 2017. We are raising funds to cover filing fees, attorney’s fees, and the cost of hiring the expert. Please support our cause by donating at http://preservationpa.org/page.asp?id=65, and visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PlymouthMeetingAbolitionHall/?ref=bookmarks.

    You also can watch a short documentary about the homestead and the people who made history there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HptHKaNXLxo.

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