Ambler, just north of Philadelphia, has come a long way from its heyday as the “Asbestos Capital of the World,” when the company town served as a fiefdom of Richard V. Mattison and the empire he built out of the toxic fiber.
Many remnants of that era remain, including most of the 400-plus homes Mattison had built by Italian stonemasons for his employees. These homes ran downhill from his Lindenwold Castle, which the Asbestos King had architects design to look like Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom, and the Gothic homes for his company’s managers on its flank, diminishing in size and splendor the closer they stood to the asbestos factories and the “White Mountains” of refuse that lay beyond.
After the ups and eventual downs of the town’s asbestos industry, it finally left the borough in the early 1980s with lawsuits and a dilapidating downtown in its wake. Ambler underwent a resurgence, fueled by individuals, local government, and groups like Ambler Main Street that encouraged investment, along with citizens’ groups that helped keep overdevelopment in check. Slowly, but surely, businesses began lining up to open in downtown Ambler, its time-tested charm offering a major part of the appeal.
Both ends of this suburban corridor are being developed now. 104 homes and an accompanying senior living community complex are consuming the once-wooded grounds of the former Mattison Estate. Abutting the capped-and-covered White Mountains, a 114-unit apartment complex, dubbed The Crossings at Ambler Station, has risen in, and above, their shadows.
Things now stand at a tipping point. The question that remains: what is to happen to the historical assets of the borough that lie in between, including Ambler’s charming downtown, which still retains many intact architectural elements from that era? Will it all be swallowed up by new development as well? A small group of local residents is doing what it can to prevent that from happening.
The Ambler Storytellers are a rag-tag group of local preservationists who came together over a common purpose: to protect the character of the town they have come to call their own and to keep the charms that had brought them there in the first place.
Longtime resident Bernadette Dougherty was already in Ambler during the town’s nadir. She helped facilitate the purchase of the Ambler Theater, the redevelopment of which is often cited as a watershed moment in the town’s turnaround. She was also directly involved in the preservation of several other historical buildings and helped lead Ambler Main Street through its early years. A founding member of the Storytellers, Dougherty lobbied for preservation measures on her own, but has come back to the group to help lead its current efforts.
Mary Spross came to the preservation group with her experience in Manayunk still fresh on her mind, where she and her husband planned to settle down in the quaint rowhouse they had purchased. That is, until a developer razed Levering Arbuckle House at 4649 Umbria Street, a historic property directly behind hers, which dated back to the late 1700s. A new apartment complex was built in its place straight through the former open space and parking areas that completely obliterated her view. Although the building had been declared historically and archeologically significant by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, in the end, there was nothing she or her neighbors could do to stop its demolition nor the monstrosity that rose in its place.
Early on, Carol Kalos, president of the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society (WVHS), came on board. She helped give the preservation group a badge of legitimacy and a platform for its efforts, helping spread the word to like-minded preservationists. Kalos’ zeal, coupled with the infrastructure of the WVHS, helped push the group to a new plateau.
Efforts began toward establishing a 90-day demolition delay ordinance, based off the borough’s adopted 2019 Open Space Plan that championed the preservation of 24 specific buildings, along with the Ambler Borough Commercial Historic District on Butler Avenue. Similar protected districts were already in place in West Chester, Newtown, and neighboring North Wales.
Such an ordinance had been attempted in the prior decade, but back then, the Amber Borough Council failed to even bring it up for a vote. This time, things seemed different, especially in the wake of the widespread uproar over the Mattison Estate, which actually sits on the other side of Bethlehem Pike from Ambler in present-day Upper Dublin Township. Spross shared her experience in Manayunk in a presentation to the council, where it seemed to find a receptive audience and elevated interest in such a measure even more. Things looked promising.
By the next meeting, the ground had shifted. Doubts surfaced about the need for such an ordinance and whether the council was the right place to take on such a discussion. After some more deliberation, which included vigorous opposition to any such ordinance by Michael Golden, whose building at 34 E. Butler Avenue is on the Open Space Plan’s list of 24 preserved properties and once housed Ambler’s Wyndham Hotel, the council turned the issue over to the borough’s Planning Commission. While initially frustrating for the Ambler Storytellers, the commission ultimately proved to be the natural landing spot for the push forward. The proposed ordinance would spend the next six months wending its way through various incarnations on its way back to council.
With the Planning Commission, the ordinance appeared to get off to a promising start as well, only to be derailed in a subsequent meeting when Golden and several other local business owners spoke out forcefully against such a measure. Fear of treading on property rights, which was a key element of concern all along, had surfaced again, virtually paralyzing some members of the commission.
Tim Deck, co-owner of Deck’s Hardware, a fixture in Ambler and also on the list of 24, expressed his concerns as well. Perhaps more than any other building, Deck’s demonstrated the complexity and nuance of the move toward such an ordinance. The store itself is actually a conglomeration of buildings, the centerpiece of which dates to 1875. The other interconnected sections of the store include a former stable that wasn’t added until later. Deck also stated that neither his nor his brother’s children planned to take over the business, and that the property is all they have to leave them.
After much deliberation, the Planning Commission finally cobbled together an ordinance that merely delayed any planned demolition for up to 90 days for any buildings built before 1935, a date that marked the demise of Mattison’s business during the Great Depression. While falling short of the Ambler Storytellers’ original goals, this would have allowed more time for alternatives to demolition to emerge, including ideas for adaptive reuse from the greater community. For example, another building on the list of 24, the former Evan Ambler House, present-day Bridget’s Steakhouse, went up for sale in 2004 and a prospective buyer sought to raze it. Community members came together to find a new buyer, who agreed to keep and repurpose it into what it is today. The proposed ordinance would have merely codified the time for such a process, with the end result being left up to the property owners themselves.
The new version of the proposed demolition delay ordinance went back to the council, where some members saw it as ineffective, but better than nothing, while others saw it as unnecessary. A vote was proposed on whether or not to continue the discussion. As the fate of any ordinance hung in the balance, Ambler’s mayor, Jeanne Sorg, cast a thumbs-down as the deciding vote, declaring, “Without any teeth, I don’t see the point of it, so I’m voting to discontinue it.”
This, it would seem, was the end. The realization that any building anywhere in the borough could be demolished at any time for the nominal fee of $75 sank in. SEPTA announced its planned demolition of the historic Freight House at Ambler Station right before the ordinance was voted down. Not long after, the owners of Deck’s Hardware revealed their plans to close by the end of the year. The fate of its buildings currently hangs in the balance.
However, the Ambler Storytellers are not done. They have, hopefully, helped establish that Ambler is a town that values its history. Like-minded homeowners, business owners, local government, community members, and even outside real estate developers who share that vision can all benefit culturally and financially from protecting and adaptively reusing the town’s most vital resources. In the meantime, the preservation group is working with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office to nominate the Butler Avenue Commercial District to the National Register of Historic Places and is offering historic downtown tours, which will resume in April. The Ambler Storytellers