Op-Ed: Saving the Town that Asbestos Built

February 2, 2023 | by Michael Frost

In 1912, asbestos magnate Richard Van Zeelust Mattison remodeled his mansion in Ambler to resemble Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom. The historic grounds of Mattison’s 45-acre estate, last owned by St. Mary’s Villa for Children and Families, was cleared in 2019 for 104 high-end homes and a luxury retirement community complex. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Ambler Theater, the Spanish Colonial jewel of Butler Avenue, opened in 1928 and was designed by Phillip Harrison. The nonprofit group Ambler Theatre, Inc. purchased the building in 2001 and spent $2 million restoring the theater to its original glory. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The owners of this old bank at 1 W. Butler Avenue converted the building into a restaurant. Harry’s Taproom opened in 2022. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Art Deco at its finest at the old Ambler Department Store at 41 E. Butler Avenue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Another old bank on Butler Avenue was converted into the offices of a law firm. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

This ornate brick garage at 125-127 W. Butler Pike was built in 1918 for asbestos manufacturing giant Keasbey and Mattison Company. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The former Wyndham Hotel at Butler Avenue and Spring Garden Street was built in the late 1800s. It is now occupied by the restaurant Gypsy Blu. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Community members and the present owner of Bridget’s Steakhouse saved the former Evan Ambler House from demolition after a prospective buyer sought to demolish it. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Deck’s Hardware at 27 N. Main Street has been in operation since 1908. The store is a collection of buildings, the oldest of which was constructed in 1875. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

SEPTA plans to demolish this old freight house at Ambler Station rather than continue to maintain it. Efforts are underway by the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society (WVHS) to raise $25,000 to move the building. Right across the tracks is the former Ambler train station, which was saved by the WVHS in 1985. It was converted and occupied by Trax Restaurant & Cafe for 20 years. La Provence, a French BYOB, recently renovated the old station and opened for business in 2019. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

The former headquarters of the Colony Club of Ambler, a women’s civic organization founded in 1912, was originally built for the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Ambler and was later used by the Knights of Malta. The owner is currently adapting the historic structure at Ridge Avenue and Race Street into residential units. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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 


About the Author

Michael Frost is a writer and teacher who has lived in Ambler for the past 12 years.


  1. Judy Giuliano says:

    Thank you so much for this comprehensive look at Ambler-it’s past and it’s future. I have lived in Ambler for over 20years and have seen many changes. Most have been positive but I fear developers who don’t really care about Ambler’s charm and history will ruin a good thing. Thanks for bringing this situation to light.

    1. Vince D. says:

      Well Done! I’ve lived in Ambler for the past 3 years and have fallen in love with the place and people. Restaurant and shop owners are happy to see you on the street and greet you like an old friend.

      It’s a simple solution, renovate and maintain structures. It’s been happening in Europe for centuries. Why do we have such a hard time with it.

  2. Dimare Patricia says:

    I grew up there and went to school there on Forrest avenue.
    I loved to ice skate at the castle.
    Went to kindergarten across the street.
    Why destroy this great houses and buildings, hope you can save them
    Now I am going back 70 years.

  3. Tom Kearney says:

    Amazing how Upper Dublin thumbed their noses at the citizenry who live here and admired St Mary’s. It is abominable What UD allowed to happen at St Mary’s. We have lived in Ambler since 1971, and have witnessed many changes…some good some bad, but this travesty at St Mary’s is the worst.

    1. Brian Solodar says:

      Tax revenue pure and simple.

  4. Lori Kaufmann says:

    Excellent read – when I tore my ACL and was confined to a wheelchair for months on end, I was still able to enjoy the hidden gifts my quaint town has to offer. I look forward to enriching and protecting the historical warmth of Ambler along with my offspring (and their offspring), for years to come.

  5. Judith A. Cassidy says:

    My husband Jim Cassidy grew up in Ambler where his father had a Insurance and Real Estate business. Jim can remember the kids sliding down the White mountains; knew all the Lapatina Family whose family owned the furniture store located in the old Fire Station where Gravity Hair is now located. There was an Opera House down by the RR tracks built by Mattison, and those businessmen james Cassidy, joseph Lapatina, Nimblock, The Deck bros.Gerhart’ Antiques, Ralph Delconnti Jewelry, Deens Electric, MallozisGrocery Store, Reagens Shoes, Ambler Fashion Shop, Polarmos Grocery, Getners Baker for the best Sticky Buns, Brensman and Brady Drugs, Charlie Gannon at Sherwin William, Brandonberg Stationary, Newt Howard Photography, Tony Laguda Tuxedos, Berney Lindenfeld Ambler Menswear, Harris Department Store, Ambler Savings, Ambler National Bank, Kate Bowers if the Wyndim Hotel, Ambker Theater, and many mire

  6. Michael Breslin says:

    Thanks for this article. My family lived in Ambler from 1941 to 1951and our son currently lives in Upper Dublin so I still am familiar with Ambler. I actually went to school with Jim Cassidy from first through sixth grade and considered him my best friend at the time so his wife’s comments caught my eye and brought back a lot of memories of Ambler in the 40’s – a great place and time to be a kid.

  7. Frances Prichett Kamen says:

    Thank you for publishing this interesting, but disturbing, article. I grew up on the outskirts of Ambler from the mid-1950s, but now live in Southern California, where historic buildings are completely disregarded and overdevelopment is rampant. I remember all of the shops and businesses mentioned by Judith Cassidy and on recent, but rare, visits to Ambler, I have been encouraged by how many charming and historic buildings remain and have been repurposed. But clearly they are as much under threat there as they are in CA. I hope that everyone who cares will continue to fight for these architectural gems – once they are gone, they are gone, and the history and sense of place dies with them.

  8. Neil Binkley says:

    Thank you for this thoroughly-researched article. It could serve useful for those wishing to preserve the town. As an Ambler resident of 17 years of a 100 year old house, I too see the value in maintaining the historic charm of our town. Removing the small-town, Main St. feeling of this walkable town would destroy the reason why so many in our area are attracted to it. In this day and age: it’s easy to find strip malls and character-less corridors of non-walkable towns. Let’s not destroy what makes it special. With respect to property rights: I think that is also a very important discussion that must always be respected. I think there are ways to accommodate both sides of the “issue”, and I hope that our borough council and Mayor build upon what I see as an unresolved issue.

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