On sale and at risk: A stately link to Stratford's past

Tomlinson Mansion is the sole survivor among three landmarks depicted on Stratford’s official seal. Preservationists worry about development at the site.

Stratford's White Horse Tavern was built in 1740 and dismantled in 1965.

The borough's 275-year-old black oak tree died eight years ago.

And local preservationists fear the 1844 Ephraim Tomlinson Mansion - the sole survivor among the three landmarks depicted on Stratford's official seal - also could disappear.

"Every time you lose part of your past, you lose part of yourself," said Ed Claypoole, a member of the borough's Historic Preservation Commission.

Once the centerpiece of a busy little village that included three farms, a gristmill, and a sawmill, the handsome brick structure occupies one of three sites the borough of 7,000 hopes to see redeveloped.

"There has not been any significant building in Stratford since the early 1960s, and if someone is going to do a type of [project] that meets with the character of the town, certainly the mayor and council are not going to be a roadblock," Councilwoman Holly Tate said.

"And if there's a way that makes sense for a developer interested in the site to attempt to save the house, that would be what we would hope for," she added.

"This is the oldest building in Stratford," former Mayor John Gentless said, standing outside the house with Claypoole and several other local preservationists and history buffs.

"It would be a shame to lose it."

I agree; businessman Ephraim Tomlinson, who built it, was descended from Joseph Tomlinson, a Quaker from England who arrived in South Jersey in 1686. The house was constructed in a grand style that Gentless describes as "Italianate vernacular with Greek Revival influences" and rises at the crest of a hill above Big Timber Creek.

In Stratford, a 1.59-square-mile Camden County suburb of pleasant residential areas and generic, somewhat faded commercial strips, the mansion is something special.

It was last occupied by a Christian academy and previously was the home of a YWCA complex, military school, and maternity hospital. Along with three adjacent, newer and more ordinary buildings, it has been vacant and for sale since 2015.

The 10-acre property is listed by Wolf Commercial Real Estate (wolfcre.com) for $950,000. Christopher R. Henderson, senior associate, declined to comment on the status of the property.

Paul Keiser who's writing a book about Walt Whitman; borough shade tree commission member Jake Gambon; and historical commission member Rosemary Simpkins noted that the Tomlinson property played a prominent role in the life of the community for 170 years.

Gambon said archival materials he and others have found suggest the borough in the 1970s viewed the property as historic and planned to protect it.

Nevertheless, "we have no [such] restricted area, and no designation of historic in our code book or on our map," Borough Clerk John Keenan said.

He also said the borough has focused more attention on the 22-acre former Bradlees and the 7-acre Laurel Mills shopping centers because they are "such a blighted influence" on their surroundings.

While Stratford has lost its share of vintage buildings, the Quaker Store - a charming relic of an era when families enjoyed "motoring" on the White Horse Pike - has been saved from demolition by a grassroots campaign.

"We've had open houses at the Quaker Store, and the response we get is incredible," said Claypoole.

The Tomlinson Mansion is a bigger and more difficult challenge. There is active interest from potential buyers, and the building "has significant structural issues that would be expensive to even attempt to remedy," Tate said.

But the building appears to be in relatively good condition otherwise. Its footprint is modest, there's plenty of ground around it, and any redevelopment project would require borough review.

So even a little town starved for new tax ratables, like Stratford, has some leverage.

Utilizing that leverage in a creative way - in partnership, say, with a grassroots preservation campaign - could persuade the next owner that Stratford is not only determined to redevelop shopping centers, but serious about preserving a bit of its distinctive character, too.

Serious in the way Stratford's leaders were nearly a century ago when they put the house Ephraim Tomlinson built on the official seal of their new borough.

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