Roy and Ann Wilson pay $23,000 in taxes each year to live in their historic home in Whitemarsh Township. And the couple estimate they spend thousands annually for repairs to the three century-old buildings on their property in the Plymouth Meeting Historic District.
It’s tiring. It’s expensive. So the Wilsons — who own and live on the 10-acre site, once a safe house on the Underground Railroad and a meeting house for abolitionists — say it’s time to sell.
It’s a decision that has some preservationists fearful that the land’s unique place in pre-Civil War lore will be lost.
“Massive amounts of money have gone into fixing these buildings,” said Roy Wilson, 67, who has lived with his wife, Ann, on the sprawling property since the 1980s. Ann Wilson and her two siblings are the descendants of abolitionists George Corson and Martha Maulsby Corson, who provided runaway slaves with food and a safe place to hide on their property.
The answer to the Wilsons’ plight?
Development company K. Hovnanian Homes wants to buy the property, which notably houses a converted stone barn where the Wilsons live; Hovenden House, the Underground Railroad stop; and Abolition Hall, where up to 200 people gathered in the name of abolitionism.
Under a proposed plan, Hovnanian plans to not touch the historical buildings on the Wilsons’ property, but is seeking to build dozens of townhouses on the property’s eight or so acres of unused farm fields.
The plan Hovnanian proposed “looked fine,” Roy Wilson said. But some Whitemarsh Township residents believe the current plans will “box in” the three buildings, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hovnanian has not disclosed the cost of the proposed sale, but the property is currently assessed at $958,640, according to township records.
The townhouse plan has prompted the creation of a local activist group, Friends of Abolition Hall, whose members say they aren’t against development but argue the current plan “shoehorns” the three historic structures onto little more than one acre.
Sydelle Zove, a Friends of Abolition Hall member, said the group’s goal is to preserve all the buildings. But it’s Abolition Hall that draws special attention because of its place in history. It is the site where Frederick Douglass and Lucretia A. Mott, two of the most recognizable and outspoken critics of slavery, once spoke.
Abolition Hall later became the art studio for Thomas Hovenden, a painter and the son-in-law of George Corson and Martha Maulsby Corson. Hovenden, the husband of Helen Corson Hovenden, painted Last Moments of John Brown, which showed Brown, the abolitionist who in 1859 directed a raid on a federal armory in now-West Virginia, kissing a baby before he was hanged as punishment for the raid.
Zove said Friends of Abolition Hall would like Hovnanian to reduce the number of proposed townhouses — 67 — and move the new dwellings farther away from Abolition Hall and the two other buildings.
“It’s not just that site,” Michael Coard, an attorney and the founder of Philadelphia-based organization Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, said of Abolition Hall. “It’s the area around it that must be respected.”
Respect or not, if a developer follows the law, “technically, they have every right” to build,” said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University. But Miller said of Abolition Hall: “It’s not a monument. It’s a place of memory — it’s a place of real. It’s there. There’s a real story.”
In a May 21 letter sent to the Montgomery County commissioners, Barry McCarron, president of Hovnanian’s Northeast Division, said: “We have listened to and met with neighbors and community leaders through all stages of the development process, including preservationists and local officials. We adopted many of their suggestions into our proposed plan.”
The letter continues to say an open space operating as a welcome park “will be owned by members of the Whitemarsh community, as part of the development’s homeowners association.”
But Zove said more needs to be done.
“It deserves a better plan than the only one currently under review by Whitemarsh Township and presented by K. Hovnanian,” said Zove, who is an ardent supporter of a welcome park.
Charles L. Guttenplan, the director of planning and zoning for Whitemarsh Township, said while local hearings for the Wilsons’ property are ongoing, “it’s not appropriate to make statements at this time.”
In addition to the welcome park, Zove said the Friends of Abolition Hall want Hovnanian to fund an assessment that would analyze the condition of the historic structures. Zove said she’d like the assessment to include how the buildings could be marketed, renovated and used as a space to reside or operate a business.
“Some of us would like to see a way to preserve Abolition Hall for public purpose, but I don’t know if that’s possible,” Zove said.
No officials with Hovnanian have presented potential preservation plans at public meetings, Zove said.
“The community feels a certain ownership over a certain site,” said Barry Rauhauser, the executive director of the Historical Society of Montgomery County. “I think when people are looking at preservation in the United States, one of the hardest things to remember is private property is one of the hallmarks of our American identity.”
Zove and Coard said they will attend a Whitemarsh Township hearing on the Wilsons’ property June 14.
Roy Wilson said he and his wife can’t continue upkeep of the property for the rest of their lives.
“It can’t keep going on like this forever,” he said. “It’s not possible.”