In a recent column, architecture critic Inga Saffron compellingly addressed the wave of church demolitions sparked by the city's development pressures. But it is not just Philadelphia's history that is at risk in response to the real estate boom. A few miles northwest of the city, in the historic village of Plymouth Meeting, developers have their sights set on several properties that have long been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One, in particular, although not a church, was a sanctuary — a safe and welcoming stop on the Underground Railroad.
Abolition Hall, one of six National Register-listed structures in the Plymouth Meeting National Historic Register District (Pennsylvania's first such district, listed in 1971), was constructed in 1856 by Quaker-born abolitionist George Corson. It was here that Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott spoke passionately, to as many as 200 fellow activists, of the abomination of slavery, and it was here and in the adjacent barn and family home that men, women, and children took shelter and were comforted as they fled slave catchers emboldened by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (a congressional act that was commonly referred to as the "Bloodhound Law").
Currently the homestead is under agreement of sale to K. Hovnanian; the builder proposes to subdivide and reconfigure the lot. On the fields where cornstalks hid fugitives, he will construct 67 townhouses. The historic structures will be jettisoned — confined to a parcel of just over one acre, and sold to the highest bidder. The developer's attorney says the structures are being "preserved," but in this instance, that merely means they will not be demolished; she has yet to describe how these precious resources will be marketed, what it might cost to stabilize or restore them, or how they might be repurposed.
The fate of this historic homestead lies before the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors. They will rule on the developer's application for conditional use approval. The Friends of Abolition Hall, a grassroots group formed in response to the proposal to subdivide the homestead and construct the townhouses, asserts that the developer has failed to meet the requirements of the Zoning Code.
Unlike the architect-designed church at 43rd and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, Abolition Hall, the Hovenden House, and the adjacent stone barn are not examples of "dazzling architecture," however they are historical gems, intricately faceted, each having had a formidable role in local and national history. In April 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and National Park Service, Northeast Region, issued a letter stating that "Nearly fifty years after [the National Register of Historic Places] determination, we find that the nomination captured the necessary documentation for National Register Listing, but 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 . . . and we would encourage the property owners to pursue a nomination."
To allow the proposed townhouse project to proceed through the standard land development process absent appropriate due diligence by the developer with regard to the stabilization, restoration, reuse, and marketing of the historic structures is to turn our backs on the Americans who lived here, those who sought shelter here, and others who spoke boldly in opposition to the institution of slavery.
The Corson homestead, so named for George Corson, the farmer and lime burner who converted his carriage shed to a safe gathering hall, deserves our full attention. Surely the developer, the township, officials from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Department of the Interior, and concerned citizens can collaborate in seeking a path forward that protects the legacy of this unique property. History matters, and together we can do better.