The proposed development plan for the historic Corson homestead at Butler and Germantown Pikes in the heart of the Plymouth Meeting National Historic Register District is cause for profound concern. As drawn, this plan fails to recognize the unmatched and nuanced history of this once busy station on the Underground Railroad.
The development proposal — under review by the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors — depicts 67 townhouses. They will be erected upon land that had been continuously cultivated since the mid-1700s, land that helped sustain the Corson family (and the generation before them) during the half-century of anti-slavery activism that made this homestead a hub of Underground Railroad activities.
Furthermore, the development comes within 50 feet of Abolition Hall, which George Corson constructed in 1856 to welcome seekers and speakers, including Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Compounding this failure is the absence of an appropriate accommodation of the homestead’s subsequent historical chapter; in 1881, internationally acclaimed genre artist Thomas Hovenden married into the Corson family, and it was here that he painted The Last Moments of John Brown, a work that has long been in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Based on these details, one could argue that no development should take place at this site, that its role in our nation’s history is unparalleled.
In fact, in 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a letter in which it noted that the original nomination “minimized significant historical associations that might have caused scholars in recent decades to reconsider the property for additional eligibility, including NHL [National Historic Landmarks] eligibility.” Like the Friends of Abolition Hall, the citizens group granted standing and now objecting to the current plan, I, too, respect private property rights, and believe that the historical significance of this homestead demands a far better plan.
In 1969, Nancy Corson, great-granddaughter of George Corson, wrote of her ancestral homestead: “In the interest of preserving both historic and natural resources, this entire property should be registered as a Historic Place by the National Park Service.” Indeed, in early 1971, the U.S. Department of the Interior certified the nominations of the Plymouth Meeting Historic District and those of six contributing properties, including the Corson homestead and its three historic structures — Hovenden House and Abolition Hall/Stone Barn.
But it is Whitemarsh Township’s own ordinances that make the especially clear and compelling case against the proposed subdivision and townhouse plan. Chapter 10 of the Township Code opens with this statement, “…it is the purpose and intent of the Township to promote, protect, enhance, perpetuate, and preserve historic districts…” This statement of purpose closes with, “…and to preserve and protect the cultural, historical and architectural assets of the Township for which the Township has been determined to be of local, state or national, historical and/or architectural significance.” If approved without modification, the development proposal presently under review undermines the integrity of the Plymouth Meeting Historic District and threatens the National Register listing of the Hovenden House and Abolition Hall/Stone Barn.
The Corson homestead is hallowed ground. The families who lived and worked there are heroes in the narrative of our nation; the men, women, and children who fled the abomination of slavery, reaching well beyond their grasp despite overwhelming odds, deserve to be remembered.
I call for the suspension of the Conditional Use hearing now unfolding before the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors, pending the outcome of bona fide negotiations that include the developer and the objectors. Additionally, I implore Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to harness public resources for use in supporting a site plan that respects the resonant history of this homestead.
Charles L. Blockson is curator emeritus and founder of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Libraries and the former chairperson of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Advisory Committee.