The Lloyd farmhouse in Caln Township has a star-studded genealogy, a background that reads like a who’s who of American history.
William Penn himself sold the land it sits on to a wealthy family, a grant that paved the way for the creation of the state. A century later, it became an unofficial stop on the Underground Railroad, according to local histories of the pipeline to freedom. All the while, its caretakers maintained crops that state historians have described as an early example of the agriculture that would come to dominate the region.
But after years of deterioration and multiple owners, the 1757 building’s history is coming to a close, unless a frantic scramble by residents and local historians can stop it. They’ve embarked on a last-ditch effort to grant the farmhouse historic status, working against the demolition permit its owner has received from officials in this central Chester County community.
“The saddest part of this, from my perspective, is that all these historians from up and down the Main Line have contributed to this, and it’s had no effect,” said Cheryl Spaulding, who lives across the street. “I’m not surprised this is going to be developed, but other projects have kept these houses, incorporated them into their design and ultimately saved them."
Harry Miller III, the Delaware-based developer who purchased the 61 acres the farmhouse sits on, did not answer multiple requests for comment. Neither did Justin Olear, a vice president in Miller’s company Regal Builders, who applied for the demolition permit from the township.
Nor did the two respond to State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat who represents parts of Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. In a letter sent to Miller on Tuesday, Muth offered to “mediate a conversation” between him and township residents.
Miller, through Wild Meadows LLC, bought the land from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for just over $4 million last April, county records show. During the archdiocese’s 22-year-stewardship, the house sat relatively empty, used occasionally as a meeting space for prayer groups and catechism classes for nearby St. Joseph’s Parish. The archdiocese sold the property to ease some of its debts.
At a public meeting with residents last month, Miller revealed plans to construct two four-story apartment buildings with underground parking and 120 single-family homes for people 55 and older. Miller also plans to add small commercial properties to the complex, but that proposal — which would require a zoning change — was sent back to him for revision by the township commissioners.
The temporary rejection, according to Board President Jennifer Breton, was due in part to the massive turnout of residents at a hearing on the zoning change in December. The overflow crowd, which wrapped around the township building where the hearing was supposed to be held, forced the cancellation of the meeting.
“The board obviously is concerned about the community’s feelings. We’re not immune to that,” Breton said. “My hope is that people can get the true facts of the situation and understand we’re not the bad guys necessarily. We’re trying to do the best thing we can for everyone involved, both residents and developers.”
In the months since that hearing, residents have packed into supervisors’ meetings to sound off on Miller’s vision. The comments typically revolve around concerns about the traffic impact that 120 new homes would have on the already-congested area, or of the loss of open space in the rural township. But more recently, they’ve focused on saving a farmhouse that’s older than the United States itself.
Breton and her colleagues maintain that their hands are tied.
“If the applicant meets all the requirements laid out in the construction code, the township has no legal right to not give the permit," said Kristin Denne, the township manager. “And not doing so would, frankly, be prejudicial and be a violation of his property rights."
Denne said the demolition permit was issued to Olear in early January, and that he has 180 days to act on it. The township has a historical zoning overlay that grants additional protections, but the Lloyd farm does not fall within it.
In recent weeks, as the preservation push has grown more active, residents noted that the access road to the property has been blocked by large logs, accompanied by new signs warning against trespassing on private property.
The physical obstacles haven’t deterred Robin Ashby, president of the nearby Downingtown Historical Society.
“It is an eleventh-hour push here,” said Ashby, whose organization helped sponsor the farmhouse’s application to the National Register of Historic Places’ “Most Endangered Places" listing. Each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation chooses 11 properties in each state that it deems worthy of “emergency inclusion.”
“For us, this represents one of the earliest structures in the area,” Ashby said. “The residents aren’t necessarily against the development of this tract of land. It’s just a thoughtful approach to keeping an element that really is irreplaceable.”
State records show that theirs isn’t first attempt at preserving the farmhouse. An appraisal of the property’s historic value was completed in 1982, according to Howard Pollman, director of external affairs for the state Historical and Museum Commission. At the time, it was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register, but no further action was taken, he said.
Two decades later, a developer wrote to the state commission asking about a series of historic properties in the township. The Lloyd farm was one of the ones assessed during the 2014 inquiry, during which it was noted that it was no longer eligible for preservation status because of “loss of integrity," according to records provided by Pollman.
But historical status can’t in and of itself prevent demolition, according to Paul Steinke, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
“We’re sometimes faced with the situation where all we have to go on is the persuasions of the developer,” Steinke said. "Now, sometimes the local government can help with that, to go to the developer to try to make that case it should be preserved.
“But it’s devilishly difficult in many situations to get a property owner to comply,” he added.