Bob Burch walks around his breathtaking 70-acre Gladwyne property in awe.
On the lush grounds, the 65-year-old has lived for two decades, raised five children with his wife, Susan, and hosted countless parties, weddings, and community fund-raisers. But the businessman, a product of the Philadelphia region, said he still appreciates the space, somehow both majestic and intimate.
“We are lucky to be here,” he said as he gave a tour of the property on a recent afternoon. “We love it. No one deserves to have something like this.”
In Burch’s ideal world, the acreage would stay mostly preserved, he said, with 31 spectacular cottages forming a residential village in sync with the French Normandy style of the 14,000-square-foot, 20-room manor home, once owned by an heir to Campbell Soup.
But zoning rules stand in his way, Burch said, and he’s all but lost hope that he’ll get enough support from Lower Merion Township officials and neighbors to make the project possible.
This spring Burch submitted another iteration of his redevelopment plan, a design that included a 170-unit continuing-care retirement community and 18 single-family homes. It’s his fallback option, he said, and he hoped that would be made clear to neighbors when the tentative sketch plan became public. It wasn’t, he said, and community backlash swiftly followed.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Burch said, “but I was disappointed — because it wasn’t necessary.”
Opponents, he said, didn’t know the whole story.
Sitting at a round table in the manor home, nestled between a kitchen and brightly colored sitting room overlooking a side patio, Burch laid out that story, poring over possible projects, marking up paper sketch plans, and pulling up documents on his laptop.
He’s been trying to sell the estate for years, he said, originally asking $24.5 million, then dropping to $19.5 million and finally to $16.7 million. Although the home is now technically off the market, Burch said he’d be willing to sell to the right person at the right price.
To be clear, it’s not that the Burch family wants to move out. In fact, he said, he, his wife, and their younger children may continue to live on a smaller portion of the property after it’s redeveloped. He just doesn’t want to go through the stress, he said, of selling the estate in his 70s.
Over five years, Burch said he received only one offer — a buyer who wanted to build a drug-and-alcohol recovery center and a continuing-care retirement community with dementia and Alzheimer’s care. Burch passed, he said, but it opened his eyes to what was permitted on the sprawling property.
He started dreaming up the idea for a village, complete with a quaint pub and community space that included a pool (there are two on the grounds) and walking trails through the undeveloped woods and meadows that take up half of his property. He worked on a plan with a world-class team, including the director of London-based Adam Architecture, Hugh Petter, and talked with municipal officials.
Last year, it became clear the path to creating such a development would be an uphill, possibly fruitless, battle against zoning rules and neighborhood opposition. Burch said he figured he should preserve his right to construct a retirement community under the current zoning code, which is set to change soon.
But he doesn’t really want to build a retirement home, he said, even though that would make him the most money.
“I’ll do the retirement village,” he said, “but you’re going to have to force me to do it.”
After telling this same story to 50 neighbors during two recent meetings in his home, he said, feedback has been virtually nonexistent on his preferred plan, the residential village concept, which in his opinion would best maintain the heritage of the historic property.
Built in 1929, the estate was designed by renowned architect and Germantown native Edmund Gilchrist for stockbroker Rodman Ellison Griscom, the son of shipping magnate Clement Acton Griscom.
After Griscom’s death, the estate was bought in 1944 by John T. Dorrance Jr., the chairman of Campbell Soup Co. and son of the company’s founder.
In 1999, the Burch family bought the property for more than $9 million, changing its name from Cedar Crest to Linden Hill. Burch, for the record, said he doesn’t care what you call it.
He does care, he said, about its future.
In the next several weeks, Burch said he plans to submit another plan, an alternative to the retirement-home option and a proposal that is closer to his village dream.
If that proposal were to be approved, he said, his team would divide the existing buildings into eight residential units, construct 16 new ones, and sell seven additional parcels around the estate’s perimeter as conservation lots, which he’d hope would be kept as open space.
“We’re going to make it so spectacular,” Burch said. “You’re going to be blown away.”
It’s unknown, however, how that plan will be received once submitted.
Gladwyne residents are typically quiet, said Lower Merion Township Commissioner Joshua Grimes. As their municipal representative, he seldom hears from them.
So he was taken aback this spring, he said, when he was contacted by about 70 people, most of whom adamantly opposed the idea of a retirement community being built on “one of only a few remaining great estates.”
“This was very unusual and extraordinary,” Grimes said. “Proposing a continuing-care facility in that part of Gladwyne is a very dramatic change for an area that has been particularly preserved and maintained.”
Gladwyne wasn’t always so pristine, said Kathleen Abplanalp, director of historic preservation at the Lower Merion Conservancy.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, a couple of dozen mills were “humming along the [Mill] Creek," she said.
“These mills drove the economy of Lower Merion,” Abplanalp said. “It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the area was considered a very desirable place to live.”
By 1900, almost every mill along the creek had been abandoned or repurposed, she said, and amid the rolling green hills, large estates were constructed with the help of esteemed architects. Bankers and shipping, oil, and railroad magnates moved in, she said, attracted by Gladwyne’s pastoral nature and proximity to the city, where many of them worked.
Today, folks move there to live in a quiet, residential community that’s relatively undeveloped, said A.J. Kait, president of the Gladwyne Civic Association, which is opposed to the retirement-community plan and encourages Burch to submit an alternate proposal.
Where the Burch estate sits, he said, is “not on the way to anything." Monk Road leads to a dead end, so usually the only cars on the narrow, winding street are heading to or from one of the grand homes nearby.
“It’s almost wild in some respects,” Kait said. “You feel like you’re out in the countryside, even though you’re maybe half a mile off the [Schuylkill] Expressway.”
Commissioner Grimes shares many residents’ concerns about a possible retirement facility leading to more traffic, he said, and not fitting in with the character of the neighborhood.
Some might dismiss those concerns as “first-world problems" of wealthy people living in ornate, multimillion-dollar homes. But Grimes said it isn’t that simple.
“These are people with families,” Grimes said. “These are people who’ve worked all their lives to afford the houses they live in.”
For his part, Grimes isn’t opposed to all types of redevelopment — after all, properties naturally change over time — but he said he’s reluctant to support a plan without thinking long and hard about whether it fits in the neighborhood.
While there’s not the same market for sprawling estates as there once was, he said, he’s not sure that means a senior living facility would work on Monk Road.
Does he think a different iteration of Burch’s plan might be more suitable?
Perhaps, he said.
“From my perspective, development isn’t unreasonable, but we have one shot to get it right," he said. “Because once [a property] is developed, we’re changing it, probably forever.”
Burch is acutely aware of that. Regardless of which plan is approved, he said he will keep the history of the estate alive. He just hopes, he said, neighbors will share their thoughts on the possibilities.