Preservation

Gilded Age Estate to be Demolished by School District

October 20, 2022 | by Stacia Friedman

The entrance to the Oakwell estate and  its 100-year-old arboretum in Villanova. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The Oakwell estate’s mansion was built was built in 1922. It was designed by architect William Wayne, Jr. The home is listed as a Class II Historic Resource in Lower Merion and is currently the only building on the property that is legally protected from by-right demolition.| Photo: Michael Bixler

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. 

Oakwell’s former owner Dr. John Bennett was in an agreement of sale with Villanova University, which planned to preserve the estate and use it as a retreat and for education, when the Lower Merion School District rushed a vote to condemn the property. After losing a legal battle, Bennett was forced to sell the property to the school district. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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 Stoneleigh mansion and grounds were gifted to Natural Lands by former owner Otto Haas’ family in 2016. The public garden is now open and free to visitors. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The estate’s tea house, greenhouse complex, and Acorn Cottage (not pictured) are not legally protected. The school district plans to demolish these structures. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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

The Clothier Estate was completed in 1917 and designed by Horace Trumbauer. The Lower Merion School District demolished the Beaux Arts mansion in the spring of 2020. | Photo courtesy of Lower Merion Conservancy

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.

A architectural rendering of Black Rock Middle School at 1860 Montgomery Avenue in Villanova. The $90 million public school was completed in 2022 and opened in September. | Image: Spiezle

“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

The grounds of the Oakwell estate were designed over a 50-year period by landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers The legendary firm designed New York City’s Central Park, the grounds of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C, and F.D.R. Park here in Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.”

Oakwell’s arboretum features over 500 trees and large ecosystem of plants, animals, insects, and multiple watersheds. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The winding drive through the estate puts the 100-year-old landscaping on full display. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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

The Lower Merion School District plans to begin demolishing the Oakwell estate’s arboretum in May 2023. The estate’s grounds is currently off limits to the public. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The school district plans to raze the tea house, cottage, and greenhouse complex at the Oakwell estate.  However, the historic mansion is legally protected. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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, visit: https://www.saveoakwell.org/



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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

32 Comments:

  1. Hayley says:

    Such an beautiful estate! And just so sad. These people need to read The Lorax. Cutting down all the trees is the worst thing you can do, ever.

    1. Chris says:

      I understand the frustration and this is a classic issue of balancing progress and preservation. If the school district plan will re-plant trees and ensure storm management, the environmental impacts that the people are commenting against are addressed. The mansion will be preserved, and a portion of the arboretum will be preserved and you will have a new functional space for the new middle school. Also, the article does not mention the bidding wars that the owner entertained between Villanova and the school district which would provide a different perspective of how we arrived to the existing state of affairs. From a legal perspective, the article implies that it is the school district that is in need of “negotiation”. However, the district won their court case on this issue. Wish the article provided some additional background on how we got here instead of it being portrayed as a mindless act by the school district.

  2. Elyse says:

    holy Crap!

    What cn I do?? live nearby

    1. Linda Dorey-stein says:

      Please visit the face book page “Save Oakwell”

      1. M. Shapiro says:

        It amazes me that every timecthevtiwnshipbwants land they call it eminent domain. Yet if a home owner excises a variance by 2-3” they say, “No way.” Even when the home owner is not destroying any trees or environmental resources. SAD

        1. M. Shapiro says:

          In printing somehow a run-on sentence showed up and I can’t find edit. Should say, “time the township wants”

  3. Dan says:

    Lower Merion Township did an exhaustive search for field space for Black Rock Middle School and the only place they could find was a field in Haverford Township. The neighbors weren’t too enthusiastic about this idea and in any case the baseball fields at this location were already being used by other schools.

  4. Lora Snyder says:

    Thank you for reporting on this . What an abuse of eminent domain byLower Merion School District on the community and environment . Disgusting. I think Lower Merion School District Board forgets who they work for !

  5. Braxton l Williams says:

    Wow I cannot believe what a snow job this has been by that school. They are absolutely bound and determined to demolish everything beautiful around there. There is some kind of other motivation here, there is no way that they are hell bent on demolishing historic trees and a historic mansions houses just for playing fields. Hot miserable fertilizer covered playing fields instead of a beautiful historic house surrounded by mature trees.

  6. Linda Dorey-stein says:

    Thank you for shining a light on what could be a very dark chapter in the history of Lower Merion School District were this plan carried to fruition. It is my hope that those in power will collectively reach a decision to rethink a former administration’s decision and consider other options that will spare Oakwell and it’s myriad treasures.

  7. John bennett says:

    Today with the world’s struggles with climate change , the destruction of 500 full grown trees is sinful. I pray that LMSD considers another use for the property as a conservatory of nature.

  8. Holly Manzone says:

    Excellent well researched article about a potential tragedy that can easily be avoided. If those trees are cut they will be gone forever and there will be severe environmental consequences. The worst part is that the fields aren’t even needed. Enrollment is declining and there are alternatives. Fresh air is more important than convenience.

  9. Roz Warren says:

    Thanks for publishing this terrific and well-researched article.

  10. Linda Dorey-stein says:

    Dear Ms Friedman,

    Thank you for finding the time to present such a thoroughly researched and well documented article on the unfortunate series of events that have led to Oakwell’s precipitous state.

    The situation is so profoundly absurd that were it not so grave, presents almost as comedic.

    Your detailed coverage makes clear that this latest school board proposed travesty is the tip of the iceberg – the Black Rock Middle School, the cost to the community, the loss of an architecturally significant property, the ludicrous location, the bloated expense, the abuse of eminent domain, the questionable contractual underpinnings – none of it makes sense and your writing clearly raises questions.

    The hubris of the School board defies description but suffice it to say, rather than working on behalf of the community, they appear beholden to none and are mysteriously propelled on a calamitous path of economic and environmental destruction.

    Until recently, when a small but patient persevering group learned of Oakwell’s imminent demise, the LM school board has been a formidable foe; basically unstoppable. Your article captured the arrogance that underlies their unrelenting drivenness to carry on despite what is clearly not in the best interest of those they purport to serve.

    Thank you for a concise and eloquent presentation of Oakwell, her history and the events that have led to her present precarious state.

    Your writing may have turned the tide.

    Linda Dorey-Stein

  11. Chris Oakwell says:

    As a parent of kids at Black Rock Middle School, I am looking forward to the fields in close proximity to the school. Fortunately, we live in a community with ample trees and other ample preserved spaces.

  12. David McCarthy says:

    This is the same area that forced out the Barnes Museum by making voluminous complaints about everything under the sun. Such entitlement. Shameful!

    1. Karin F says:

      And then fought to keep the Barnes there when they found out it was moving.

  13. Diane says:

    I would get in touch with some celebrities or high profile people that are advocating watching our carbon footprint. Taking down all those trees are going to have an effect on that. Fight them on current hot topic political and environmental stances!!

  14. Heidi says:

    Very sad situation…why destroy such beautiful woodland and where are the animals going to live? We keep destroying more and more woodland and for what? What a beautiful home as well….I don’t live in that area but you need to look at the big picture. There has to be a better plan.

  15. isabel melvin says:

    Thank you for telling this well researched story. Lower Merion School District needs to realize their well intentioned decision is a mistake. There are so many athletic fields available to the folks in this township. Let’s be creative. Reminder: If this plan goes through, the kids will be bussed there. They will not be able to walk to their own athletic field. Why not get bussed to other fields close by? Thank you for shedding light on this mistake.

  16. John Regula says:

    The students need to make their voices heard. They, if anyone, could make the biggest difference.

  17. John Barr says:

    The Art of The Steal, II

  18. Martha says:

    Well, as a neighbor, parent, voter and tax payer, I think it is fair to say this piece represents a small number of voters in the district, but a large number of the neighbors of the property in Villanova.

    I’m glad we’re building more schools and housing in lower merion. It is far more destructive to the environment to pave over chester county farmland than to infill lower merion with higher density housing. With more residents comes more need for schools.

    Oh, as an aside, the only thing that would make neighbors more opposed to the current plans would have been adding parking or open access so other residents of the township (or heaven forbid Philadelphia) could enjoy it.

    These are wealthy neighbors who want to protect their neighborhood. Nothing wrong with that, but trees are being cut throughout all of Montco and Chester Co because NIMBYs won’t allow apartments and affordable development in places like LM. How about some transit oriented development near Rosemont or Villanova stations? Thought not.

  19. Karin F says:

    LMSD has lost its way. The focus used to be on a fabulous education, but priorities have changed. Shiny expensive buildings, support of sports at all costs, and an arrogance that leans heavily on past successes and achievement. Meanwhile, education suffers, litigation is used to shut down/silence any and all opposing to eminent domain, compliance w/ federal law IDEA, other educational priorities like an evidence-based reading program that teaches kids to read, state laws regarding gifted ed, professional and comprehensive training for staff, a bloated Administration…but sure. Demolish this amazing property and have the District’s mouthpiece attempt to gaslight taxpayers over what’s actually occurring. That’s what’s important, right? Who cares what residents, taxpayers, and other stakeholders want. Just crush ’em.

  20. James says:

    Just a thought, the school district purchased Clairmont for 22M, demolitioned the estate and spent 90M on building Black Rock Middle School. They knew they needed more land and that’s why they had to seize property from Dr. Bennett to provide playing fields for Black Rock. That was like putting the carriage in front of the horse.

    We need cooler heads to sit down and talk calmly to check over options to be considered before we make a mistake of f greater proportions.

    I wonder if they ever considered renovating the old school for 50 more years of service.

  21. Dennis McClellan says:

    My heart is truly heavy, as I read this article and remember how much I thought of what I used to see as a kid, driving around Lower Merion on Sunday afternoons (l lived in Chester County). Then I think back to when I taught school at LMSH in the 1970s and what had already been lost forever.

    There is more to education than bricks and mortar and glass. There’s something powerful in being educated by the visual history of the properties that have been destroyed and lie in the bullseye of expansion.

    Two thousand years from now, this discussion will be mute. However, today and for the immediate future, the historical respect these properties deserve is a stick in the eye. If Lower Merion can’t control itself, pause and imagine the power it has, the heritage of the area is meaningless. LM has redefined itself: just “another suburban area”.

  22. Anne Beidler says:

    Wow this is a great article about an outrageous situation ! Hoping wisdom prevails. I can’t imagine people would allow the destruction of such a wonderful resource for ecological study! Especially in this era.

  23. David Schuesler says:

    Although not on the same scale, this smacks of Robert Moses style hubris or mania. They have envisioned a grand project and apparently can only see it from that vantage point.

  24. John Anthony says:

    We are turning the suburbs into a city with little ground for nature. The building codes requires so much land for a building property that can only be used by the owner but they don’t think about nature. Time has come for people to speak up and stop all the townships and school boards from destroying this earth that we live on. If we stop paying our taxes they would not be in office for they work for us the taxpayer’s

  25. Charlie Karl says:

    THE SLAUGHTER OF THE TREES goes on and on.The disregard for nature by the school board entrusted with the education of youth is disturbing. What values are these to go forward with another plan to destroy cultural heritage and nature? Didn’t the community learn anything with the issues raised with Stoneleigh? With all that money how about tennis courts on the roof of the buildings or over the parking lots? That is unless the school board has the forsight to reserve those spots for solar installations.

  26. Sandy Kohn says:

    If the LMSD is truly concerned with educating our children, where’s the morality in this plan? It would send a message of irresponsibility rather than teach a lesson of respect and preserving our heritage.

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