Every Friday afternoon since February, Deb Robbins and other concerned neighbors stand in front of Lower Merion School District’s administration building holding signs that read “Honk if you want to save the trees!” Drivers respond enthusiastically. Who doesn’t want to save trees? The answer in Lower Merion is surprising.
“The school district intends to cut down over 500 majestic old-growth trees on the Oakwell estate in Villanova for the purpose of creating auxiliary playing fields for Black Rock Middle School,” said Robbins, a member of Save Oakwell, a grassroots organization formed in 2018 to preserve the forest. The Oakwell estate is not an abandoned, overgrown property. It is a curated arboretum containing heritage trees and gardens planted over 100 years ago. It sits within the Mill Creek, Gulph Creek, and Darby Creek watersheds and is home to abundant wildlife, including foxes, deer, great horned owls, white-tailed deer, and insects vital to the ecosystem.
The Oakwell estate’s current resident, Dr. John Bennett, founder and CEO of Devon Medical Products, has lived there for 25 years. He intended to sell the sprawling estate to Villanova University to be used as a retreat. However, in December 2018 the school district elbowed out Villanova and voted in favor of condemning Bennett’s property.
This is not how the school district sees it. “After a long search, the school district paid more than $12.9 million for the contiguous properties, which had both been offered for sale by their owners, for use as playing fields for Black Rock Middle School,” said Amy Buckman, director of school and community relations for Lower Merion School District.
Bennett disagrees. “I had the property under agreement with Villanova and, just prior to closing, the school district took it by eminent domain,” he said. “I didn’t want to see it go to baseball fields, destroying the ecological setting we have here. I went to court to fight them and lost. It’s a travesty.” The school district paid Bennett $9.95 million for the property.
“I offered to remain on the property to care for the house, but they want me gone so they can claim that it is abandoned, allow it to deteriorate, and tear it down.” Bennett has kept the entirety of the estate well maintained and still lives there with his daughter and grandchild.
Legally, the Oakwell mansion at 1835 County Line Road, a Class II Historic Resource, is currently protected from by-right demolition. An application to raze it would have to be submitted and reviewed by both the Lower Merion Township Historical Commission and the Board of Commissioners. Also, monitoring demolition by neglect is enforced in Lower Merion and is protected against in the Township Code. The school district has proposed to retain and renovate the mansion for reuse.
The mansion is no ordinary house. It is a glorious echo of the Gilded Age when captains of industry competed to bring architectural opulence and formal gardens to the Main Line. While the beautiful home is of a bygone era, the landscaping of the Oakwell estate has an eternal quality and is very much alive. For now.
Bennett has a personal relationship with the trees on his property. Touring the grounds with him recently, Bennett stopped to admire a 150 year-old dwarfed blue spruce, a 200 year-old maple, and a 350 year-old oak. Standing in front of one of the towering trees, Bennett, over six feet tall, appeared tiny. At his pool house he recalled, “The township made me put $85,000 in escrow when I built it because they were afraid I was endangering surrounding trees. Now those same trees are about to be cut down.”
The Origins of the Oakwell Estate
The Oakwell estate was originally part of the 65-acre Stoneleigh estate in Villanova. It was built in 1877 by Edmund Smith, a Pennsylvania Railroad executive. In the early 1900s, Samuel Bodine, head of United Gas Improvement Company, acquired the property and hired Guy King to alter the the mansion, which was originally designed by the Wilson Bothers, architects of the Academy of Natural Science, Reading Terminal, and other Philadelphia-area landmarks. Bodine also hired architect Frank Miles Day to design a cottage where the property’s superintendent resided and the greenhouse complex, which were so innovative that, in 1903, House & Garden magazine published a five-page article about them. All of these structures still exist today.
Bodine, who also served as president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, retained the acclaimed landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers to reinvent the grounds and they worked on the property over the next 50 years. Historical records reveal that Bodine’s wife, Eleanor Gray Warden Bodine, was the leader of a horticultural training program for young women on parts of the property that would later come to be known as the Oakwell estate.
In 1919, Bodine gifted a portion of Stoneleigh to his son William, which was then named Oakwell. In 1922, architect William Wayne, Jr. designed a mansion for the Oakwell estate. In 1932, Stoneleigh was subdivided and sold. Otto Haas, co-founder of chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas Company, purchased the southwestern portion of the estate, which retained the Stoneleigh name. Under the Haas family’s 80-year stewardship, Stoneleigh was well preserved. In 2016, the family gifted it to Natural Lands, a nonprofit nature conservation organization. Stoneleigh is now free and open to the public. Two years later, the school district set its sights on the grounds of the Oakwell estate.
Repurposing by Bulldozing
This isn’t the first time the school district sought to demolish a cherished landmark. When it needed a site for a new middle school, it attempted to seize Stoneleigh, the adjacent estate, also by eminent domain, but was defeated by local preservationists. Ultimately, the school district purchased the 22-acre Clothier estate.
The 100 year-old Beaux Arts mansion, Clairemont, was designed by celebrated Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer and was built between 1916 and 1917 by Morris Clothier, chairman of the Strawbridge and Clothier stores. The estate’s landscaping was also designed by the Olmsted Brothers. It was demolished in 2019 and the $90 million Black Rock Middle School was built in its place. The school opened in September 2022 with ample parking, but inadequate playing fields.
How was Stoneleigh able to block the school district, while the historic landscaping, Acorn Cottage, and horticultural structures of the Oakwell estate, originally part of Stoneleigh, at risk? “When the historic resource inventory survey was conducted in the late 1990s, the greenhouse buildings were overlooked. However, this parcel is historically associated with the Stoneleigh estate and warrants similar protections,” said Kathleen Abplanalp. director of historic preservation at the Lower Merion Conservancy.
“From the very beginning, the entire 13-acre property has fit into our mission goals for historic preservation, open space preservation, the health of the local watershed, and sustainability,” Abplanalp said. “We are vehemently opposed to the current plan and hope the school district will compromise some of their programmatic needs.”
Erin Betley, a conservation biologist who lives in Lower Merion, views the pending destruction of the estate’s landscaping and historically significant structures like the greenhouse complex as lost opportunity. “Oakwell’s intact landscape provides a hands-on educational opportunity for our children, and our community, to learn about ecology, conservation, environmental science, gardening, sustainability, history, natural history, historical preservation, and more,” she said. “Historical records reveal that Stoneleigh’s greenhouse complex and fruit and vegetable gardens were educational spaces for young women during and after WWI, where they gained practical training in gardening while also feeding the community. I hope this can be viewed as a chance for this valuable place to come full circle and used in a way that takes inspiration from our collective past to inform our collective future”
The school district claims that it suffers from a lack of intramural playing fields, not just at Black Rock Middle School, but at all three middle schools and both high schools. However, established athletic fields appear to be all around. “Under the 2016 Master Plan, Lower Merion High School’s 17-acre Arnold Field should be reconfigured to include baseball, softball, and multipurpose space,” said area resident Shawn McMurtry. “They can also make better use of Bala Cynwyd Middle School’s five-plus acre Amherst Field, as well as softball and playing fields at Penn Valley Elementary School and Penn Wynne Elementary School.” Another available space are the polo fields at County Line Road and Old Lancaster Road.
Following the Science
A single mature oak tree can consume more than 40,000 gallons of water a year. Where will all that water go when the Oakwell estate’s trees are gone? Lower Merion School District representative Buckman replied, “There will be storm water control measures added to the site, which will be a dramatic improvement over what exists on those properties at this time.”
Samantha K. Chapman, professor of biology and co-director of the Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Stewardship at Villanova University, sees the situation differently. “For decades it has been well known that mature forests absorb large amounts of water. Removing stands of large trees leads to flooding and polluted water in creeks and streams. The trees at Oakwell are providing us with flood control and water cleansing and losing them would result in flooding for local roads and dirtier creeks in our area.”
Doug Tallamy, a conservationist, author, and professor of agriculture and entomology at the University of Delaware, agrees. “If you replace a forest with a lawn, you are generating run off,” he said. Tallamy was involved with preserving Stoneleigh. His message to the school district? “Find another place without cutting down hundreds of trees.”
It’s not just a water problem. It’s a breathing problem. Villanova University biologist Adam Langley, who runs the school’s Global Change Ecology Lab, stated that removing the Oakwell estate’s trees will release 15,000 metric tons of CO2, which, he said, is equal to the annual carbon emissions of 3,200 vehicles. While the school district claims it plans to plant 631 replacement trees, the reality is that it will take those saplings decades, if not centuries, to equal the carbon reduction and water consumption of the existing giant oaks.
Buckman stated that the school district’s new superintendent, Dr. Khalid N. Mumin, and Lower Merion Board of School Directors “are committed to doing what’s best for students and the community.” However, cutting down 500 trees to create a playing field may not give them an edge over other districts and private schools. According to Sue Paist, coordinator at ArbNet, the Arboretum Accreditation Program, in the last five years parents have placed more value on schools that have arboretums than softball fields. “Nationally, 23 arboretums are on school grounds now, including two at a middle school in the Perkiomen School District,” said Paist. Superintendent Mumin declined to be interviewed for this article.
Speaking Truth to Power
At a recent school board meeting, Manzone encouraged officials to rethink their position. “It’s okay to change your mind,” she urged in the calm voice of a parent dissuading a child of a poor choice, “It’s not something you have to go ahead with.”
Save Oakwell members would like to see the arboretum used as an educational resource, preserving the estate as a community garden and wildlife sanctuary. Pauli Voelkel, a Harriton High School student, expressed the same vision in a compelling video on YouTube. Since the school district took legal action to prevent tours of the Oakwell estate, Voelkel’s video and an aerial video made by Preserve Oakwell are the only ways to see what the district seems to be determined to eliminate.
Ethics are one thing. The law is another. “Lower Merion School District cannot do what they are proposing under the applicable Lower Merion zoning code,” said real estate and zoning litigator Philip Rosenzweig of Silverang, Rosenzweig & Haltzman, LLC. Rosenzweig, with his associate Kevin McGowan, represents an adjoining property owner as well as other land owners in the immediate vicinity. “The school district has the burden of demonstrating as a threshold matter that the development of the fields requires cutting more than 25 percent of the trees,” he said. “The site has an internal area that has very few trees large enough for a playing field and neighbors are receptive to a revised scaled down plan. Under the new leadership of Superintendent Mumin, I am hopeful that a compromise can be achieved. Nothing would make me happier in this case than the school district come to the table to negotiate.”
Demolition at the Oakwell estate is scheduled to begin in May 2023.
For more information about the effort to save the Oakwell estate: https://www.saveoakwell.org/