Generating New Life At The Ambler Boiler House

March 29, 2013 | by Dominic Mercier


Taking the wide view in Ambler | Photo: Dominic Mercier

Taking the wide view in Ambler | Photo: Dominic Mercier

Ambler’s recent revitalization may be a textbook example of how to transform a sleepy town into a thriving suburban destination. Until recently, however, an industrial hulk has lurked just across the tracks from Main Street, apart from the rejuvenation.

The Ambler Boiler House, built in 1897, served as an asbestos plant for the Keasbey & Mattison company until the company was ravaged by the Great Depression. The 48,000 square foot building was eventually left vacant in the 1970s, declared a brownfield, and subjected to remediation by the Environmental Protection Agency. For decades, it served as little more than an eyesore and a draw for urban exploration enthusiasts and budding graffiti artists.

But after nearly 10 years of setbacks and another crushing financial crisis, the Ambler Boiler House has risen from its industrial ashes, reborn as a multi-tenant office building that employs an outline of smart, modern design features—alternative financing, substantial green features, historic preservation, transit-oriented design, and brownfield development.

Welcome back: the entrance to the revitalized Ambler Boiler House | Photo: Dominic Mercier

Welcome back: the entrance to the revitalized Ambler Boiler House | Photo: Dominic Mercier

Despite significant challenges, Summit Realty Advisors saw major commercial potential and purchased the property in the early 2000s. It’s a stone’s throw from Ambler’s SEPTA Regional Rail station and situated in what Philadelphia Magazine called one of “10 Awesome Neighborhoods to Call Home” in 2010. The greatest challenge was financing its $16 million price tag, the last portion of which was acquired in 2011 in the form of a $2.5 million low-interest loan from the regional EnergyWorks program.

Heckendorn Shiles Architects led the renovation, which was recently awarded LEED Platinum status from the US Green Building Council. Principal Matt Heckendorn says the firm’s goal was to create harmony between an existing industrial shell and the envisioned sophisticated office space for five to seven tenants, two of whom are already in place.

Core States Group is among those who've opened offices in the Ambler Boiler House | Photo: Dominic Mercier

Core States Group, an engineering, architecture, and project management firm, is among those who’ve opened offices in the Ambler Boiler House | Photo: Dominic Mercier

“Overall, the design objective—and challenge—has always been the marriage of this remarkable vestige of Amber’s industrial past with the needs of a Class A office space,” Heckendorn says.

The project has the hallmarks one would expect in a LEED Platinum project: reclamation of the masonry shell and roof truss system, a geothermal heat pump with 53 wells, low-VOC interior finishes, bike racks and changing rooms, and a grey water system. While it would be easy to single out any of those features, it’s the combination of all of them that makes the project special, Heckendorn says.

“I think, perhaps, the more interesting sustainable aspect of this project is the very nature of the project,” says Heckendorn. “We redeveloped a deteriorating and graffiti-strewn brownfield, adaptively reused a beautiful and historic industrial shell, and provided a new workplace within a two-minute walk of the SEPTA train station.”

That walk is just long enough to take a good look at the old structure epitomizing Ambler’s new vitality.

This is transit oriented development | Photo: Dominic Mercier

This is transit oriented development | Photo: Dominic Mercier


About the Author

Dominic Mercier Dominic Mercier is a freelance writer, photographer, and graphic designer and Philadelphia native. He is a 2001 graduate of Temple University, where he majored in journalism. He is the former managing editor of Montgomery Newspapers and press officer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He currently serves as the communications director for the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. More of his photographic work can be seen here


  1. Harry Kyriakodis says:

    Here’s more on the Keasbey & Mattison Company: In 1873, Henry G. Keasbey, a wealthy financier, and Dr. Richard V. Mattison, a chemist, founded the firm in Philadelphia as a producer of pharmaceuticals and asbestos products.
    Dr. Mattison moved the company from Philadelphia to Ambler, Pennsylvania, in 1881. While working in his lab one day, he accidentally discovered that milk of magnesia would adhere to a hot metal pipe and, in combination with asbestos and other products, could be turned into an insulation material for steam pipes. In 1886, he changed the focus of the company to manufacture asbestos building and industrial supplies; it soon becoming the world’s largest maker of magnesia and asbestos products.
    Dr. Mattison introduced Ambler’s first electric streetlights, built the first water system, and loaned money to town businesses for renovations and expansion. He hired architects to build fanciful Victorian homes for company executives, and simpler homes for lower management and workers. His own 400-acre estate, “Lindenwold”, was modeled after Windsor Castle in England. In 1890, Mattison built a huge building that housed Ambler’s first library, opera house, and various offices and shops.
    Keasbey & Mattison thrived in the early 20th century as a leading manufacturer of asbestos textiles and products. During World War I, it contributed to the war effort by supplying products for ships, war plants and defense. But the Great Depression sounded the death knell for K&M. In 1934, the English firm Turner, Newhall, Ltd., purchased the company for $4 million dollars. It operated the business until 1962 when Keasbey & Mattison closed for good.

  2. leslie scot says:

    Don’t like it.
    to transform a sleepy town into a thriving suburban destination. It’s right down the street from me.
    Amber traffic already a problem. & small town was an attraction of living here.

  3. leslie scot says:

    Also small town aspect helped police save my life & put away bad guy. Don’t need more.

  4. Bseen says:

    Have always loved Ambler and knew it would come back. Great to see the Boiler House reused, a new SEPTA station, great restaurants and a nice brewpub in the town.

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