Sunday, February 15, 2009

Preservation Prevented

I've been involved with historic preservation long enough to know that old buildings can disappear fast no matter who values them nor how much. Even so, I still can't quite believe how quickly the old Shoemaker House vanished. Wreckers razed the three-hundred year-old building early last week after reports of a fuel oil leak led Upper Dublin Township Fire Marshal Timothy Schuck to the house, which stood on a remote corner of Temple University's Ambler Campus. A local news report failed to explain why the building was demolished, although rumors suggest that Schuck made the final call. One way or another, it was a significant decision that resulted in the destruction of one of the Delaware Valley's oldest standing buildings.

There's certainly nothing unique about this story; this sort of thing happens all the time. The great irony in this case, however, is that I and several other Temple colleagues had recently pooled our resources toward resuscitating the old Shoemaker House. Our plan wasn't to restore the place, but rather to stabilize it and create there a living classroom where faculty might encourage students to consider the complicated intersections between history, the environment, and a sustainable future. In fact, we had just submitted a grant proposal that I'm fairly confident would have been supported. How we proceed now is unclear. All hope is not lost, but still I can't help but marvel at the shear scope of miscommunication and historical disregard responsible for the Shoemaker House's untimely demise.

What follows is a brief history of the Shoemaker House excerpted from the grant proposal we hoped would protect the building. As you can tell by the before-and-after pictures, there remains precious little to protect:

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Temple University’s Ambler College campus, just south of the soccer fields near the corner of Butler Pike and Meetinghouse Road, stands a tumbledown stone building half reclaimed by the overgrowth that surrounds it. The Shoemaker House’s humble façade obscures its rich history. Built nearly three hundred years ago, this building ranks among the oldest surviving structures in Upper Dublin Township, let alone in all of southeastern Pennsylvania. Its story is indelibly linked with the story of Pennsylvania and, consequently, the story of our nation.

The land that encompasses Ambler College today lay at the periphery of Philadelphia’s rural hinterland by the late seventeenth century. Opportunities abounded there for wealthy investors like Samuel Finney who, sympathetic to William Penn’s liberal policies, purchased land in 1699 and erected a log structure on the present Shoemaker House site. Although we do not know what that first building looked like or what it was used for, we do know that it represented Finney’s success in a burgeoning Atlantic World. Finney, who had been born into a wealthy North West England family, apprenticed at an early age with a West Indian merchant out of London. The merchant trade served Finney well, eventually leading him to Barbados where he built a fortune on the backs of African slaves forced to labor on sugar and cotton plantations. In the meantime, Finney’s ascent within planter society brought him into a wide circle of prominent friends including William Penn.

Penn’s affiliation with a slave-owning planter may seem strange today, but it is precisely in this way that the Shoemaker House preserves our nuanced past. In this case, it reminds us that slavery existed throughout the colonies, and that even Quakers like William Penn were complicit. It was more likely money than morals that bound Finney to Penn. Their bond appears to have been remarkably strong. Not only did Penn travel with Finney to Pennsylvania in 1699, he also appointed him to the colony’s provincial council in 1703 on which Finney served as judge periodically between 1702 and 1706 and for a final term before his death in 1711. All the while, Finney bought thousands of acres of land and played an integral role in the early history of Upper Dublin Township, which was established under his watch in 1701. Consequently, although the Shoemaker House likely began as little more than a log shed on Finney’s property, by linking us to him it brings into focus the heady mix of religion, slavery, and economic mobility underlying our nation’s shared heritage.

But Finney’s story is only one of many we discover by studying the Shoemaker House. For nearly three hundred years the building has changed with each new owner. Cadwallader Ellis, who traveled to Pennsylvania among the first waves of Welsh Quakers inspired by William Penn, purchased the log building from Finney in 1706. Ellis improved Finney’s building, possibly rebuilding it in stone, to provide shelter for his family. Unlike Finney, for whom settling in Pennsylvania capped a long life of achievement, Ellis aspired from humble beginnings to build a new life of faith and prosperity in the New World. By 1725 the Shoemaker House had grown even more, mirroring the accomplishments of Ellis and his successors. In this way, the Shoemaker House passed from one owner to the next, reflecting in its architectural evolution the struggles and achievements of each generation. The house attained roughly its current configuration in the hands of the Shoemaker family who, besides giving it its name, owned the building for an incredible one hundred and fifty years. Their story alone is worth telling and reminds us that, despite appearances, the unassuming Shoemaker House preserves in its crumbling mortar a memory of profound depth.

The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women purchased the old house from the Shoemaker family in a “good state of repair” in 1943. Over the years, however, inappropriate use and misguided additions compromised the building’s structural integrity. Temple University inadvertently acquired the building (and, briefly, its last tenants) in 1958 when Ambler Junior College merged with the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture. Despite the following decades’ embrace of historical preservation, Temple disregarded the Shoemaker House and even threatened to demolish it only months after the Ambler Women’s Committee published a 1972 report demonstrating the building’s significance. Renewed attempts to protect the building in subsequent decades raised awareness, but never secured financial support. Most recently, the Ambler Campus Council for a Sustainable Campus has brought together volunteers to clear the site of overgrowth and hopes to link these activities with a speaker series concerning sustainability and historic preservation. Without substantial support, however, the future of this remarkable building hangs in the balance.

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At February 16, 2009 at 8:32 AM , Blogger Jules Mermelstein said...

The reason the house had to be demolished, and quickly, was that there was no other way to reach the underground tank (that nobody at Temple knew was there) that was leaking oil/gasoline into a creek running downstream. Upper Dublin has a historical commission and we are into historic preservation. I am a history teacher as well as being President of the Board of Commissioners and realize the value of historic structures. However, emergencies sometimes require emergency personnel to take actions we would prefer they not have to take.

At February 17, 2009 at 9:54 PM , Blogger silentbacchus said...

"and we are into historic preservation" what a ludicrous statement from an academic. What a shame. It seems odd that a gas/oil tank would be located DIRECTLY under an eighteenth century building. Could a portion of the house been taken apart to get it out?

At February 18, 2009 at 5:59 AM , Blogger Jules Mermelstein said...

And why is "we are into historic perservation" a ludicrous statement when describing a township that has a historic preservation ordinance, and a historic preservation committee, and a Board of Commissioners that supports historic preservation?
The answer to whether part of the property could have been saved (safely) is "no". Obviously, the first choice was to not destroy it at all. Second choice would be to destroy as little as possible safely. Last choice was to destroy the whole thing. I guess Mr. Silentbacchus would have preferred the township allow the continuing pollution of the ground and ground water so as not to disturb the 18th century house. Although I believe in historic preservation, I believe in safety for those still living comes first. If that does not make me "pure" enough of a preservationist for you, I am sorry.

At February 23, 2009 at 12:52 PM , Blogger Larry Cebula said...

Wait a minute--how does an oil tank get "directly underneath" an 18th century house? Was it whale oil?!

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At April 17, 2010 at 2:18 PM , Blogger jim said...

As much as I am generally into the preservation of historical buildings, when you look at the initial condition of the structure and the fact that there was an environmental hazzard associated with leaving it in place, it was likely best that it was demolished.

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