“Cautiously optimistic.” That is the reaction of supporters of Montgomery County’s Corson tract, home of Underground Railroad stop Abolition Hall. Whitemarsh Township is entering into an agreement with the owners to purchase the historic, 10.45 acre property, after five years of pushing back against a proposed townhouse development there.
Situated at the crossroads of Germantown and Butler Pikes, the property as a farm dates back to the mid-18th century. It includes a three-story house right on the road, a part of which was built in 1794. Behind it sits a stone barn and Abolition Hall, which was originally a carriage house.
In the 19th century the family farm’s descendents, Martha Maulsby Corson and her husband George, were active in the Underground Railroad, sheltering freedom seekers escaping from the South. As part of the Plymouth Meeting Anti-Slavery Society they held meetings in the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse across the street from their home. Permission was revoked after the burning of an area church that had hosted abolitionist speakers. In response, George Corson added a second story onto the carriage house in 1856 to create a hall where the society could meet, thus creating Abolition Hall as it now stands. Guest speakers included Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Later in that century, the Corsons’ daughter Helen and her husband Thomas Hovenden used the space as an art studio. Both were active artists in the Philadelphia area. Helen’s subjects tended to be children and pets, while Thomas often depicted domestic or narrative scenes. The Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill has both their work in its collection, while two of Thomas’s best-known works, The Last Moments of John Brown and Breaking Home Ties, are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, respectively. Their daughter Martha Corson also used the hall as a sculpture studio.
Corson’s house (today referred to as Hovenden House), barn (now a residence), and Abolition Hall are contributing properties in the Plymouth Meeting Historic District, an area of 56 buildings spanning 200 acres that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. “It was Pennsylvania’s first National Historic District,” noted Sybelle Zove, founder of the advocacy group Friends of Abolition Hall. In the preceding year the three buildings had been added to the register after being threatened by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which proposed rerouting Germantown and Butler Pikes through the tract.
Today the property is still owned and occupied by Corson family members. In 2015 they entered into an agreement of sale with the New Jersey-based developer K. Hovnanian Homes, which currently has projects in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The developer submitted plans to Whitemarsh Township for the construction of 67 townhouses on the Corson tract and an adjacent two-and-a-half-acre parcel also owned by the family. It prompted a group of residents to form the Friends of Abolition Hall, “to advocate for a set-aside of some of the tract for public use and a welcome center [for the Plymouth Meeting Historic District],” Zove recalled. “One of our primary objectives was for people to understand the value of the site.”
Thus began a five year tug-of-war between preservationists and the developer, involving law suits, planning commission rejections, and the inclusion of the tract on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2017 at-risk list.
Environmental concerns were also an issue. “There are two areas of wetlands on the Corson property that have been delineated by the Army Corps of Engineers. And there are sinkholes due to the limestone rich soil,” said Zove. “In that area of the township, there had been two or three limestone quarries. Over the years they were filled in, and some of the pits used as dumps.”
In July 2020 the developer withdrew from the agreement of sale. Whitemarsh Township officials recognized an opportunity they hadn’t anticipated. “It wasn’t too long ago that I was talking about how many townhouses might spring up there,” said Laura Boyle-Nester, chair of the township’s Board of Supervisors.
Unlike many municipalities, where budgets don’t allow for much investment in preservation, Whitemarsh is armed with a robust Open Space Fund, which yields approximately $2 million each year. It is the result of a referendum 15 years ago in which the residents approved a 0.25 percent additional earned income tax dedicated to acquiring and maintaining open space. Since 2006 the Open Space Committee has spent $16.7 million on property purchases, ranging from the very large, like the 109-acre Sheep Tract, part of Erdenheim Farm just outside of Chestnut Hill, to numerous small parcels. In a heavily-developed area like Whitemarsh, “If there is an undeveloped pocket of land, it is meaningful,” said Boyle-Nester.
Even with these resources, the purchase price of nearly $4 million was out of reach for the township. Intriguingly, an anonymous donor came forward with the offer of a $2 million gift if they would partner with the Whitemarsh Arts Center (WAC), bringing the township’s portion to within their means.
The suggested partnership wasn’t just out of the blue. The WAC is currently housed in another old township-owned building, a farmhouse in nearby Cedar Grove Park. “Bringing in the Art Center is helpful on so many levels,” said Boyle-Nester. “Their 501(c)(3) status is an important asset in this complicated agreement of sale.”
Dan Zuena is president of the board of directors of the WAC. “We were fundraising for a new building and had been aiming to stay in the same place. But now, to move to the highly visible location at the intersection of Germantown and Butler Pikes is a tremendous opportunity. And the ability to house larger classes, and more classes at popular times, is an opportunity for us to grow.”
According to Zuena, a $500,000 Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant that they received from the state in 2018 will transfer to the new plans. Once the sale is finalized, he says the WAC will take a closer look at the buildings to decide which one to occupy.
In addition to already having a working relationship as a tenant of the township, Zuena feels the move to the Corson tract is right for the WAC. “Our mission is education-based,” he explained. “With the history of this property and the family being artists, it makes sense for us to be there.”
Mindy Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, gives credit to the Friends of Abolition Hall. “They had a lot of tenacity,” she said. “It was a daunting task, but we thought, because of the history and location and the development pressures in that area, it was an important one to take on.”
“Being on the list doesn’t save it. Success is achieved at the local level,” she continued. “The lesson is, as citizens you get a seat at the table. The public needs to be involved.”
“At every step, we had doubts,” said Zove. “But, in the end, we believe our advocacy and education efforts elevated the public understanding of this property and its people and stories.”
While it is too early for the township and the WAC to begin planning the future uses of the property, Boyle-Nester cited a general sense of their aim. “To maintain the open space for residents, and the historic buildings for the public in general, because this is American history.”
From her vantage point of nearly 30 years of at-risk list making, Preservation Pennsylvania’s Crawford reaffirmed the feeling of “cautiously optimistic” when considering the future of the Corson tract. “Even if a property gets marked ‘saved,’ it doesn’t get removed from the list,” she said. “We hate to have to save something a second time, but it happens.”