You'll have to squint a little, but if you stand at the crossroads of Germantown and Butler Pikes, you can easily imagine how Plymouth Meeting village looked in the 1850s, when it was a stop on the Underground Railroad and a hotbed of the antislavery movement.
By a stroke of good fortune, all four corners of this busy intersection are still occupied by historic buildings. The sturdy Quaker meetinghouse, which gives the village its name, has held its spot on the southwest corner since 1708. Across the street, the old tinsmith shop has been converted into a real estate office but otherwise remains intact. Same for the Leedom house, which dates from 1830. Next door stands the Corson property, where George Corson braved the wrath of his neighbors to help escaped slaves make their way to freedom. Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott gave such rousing speeches in Corson's stone barn that it became known as Abolition Hall.
For many people in the region, Plymouth Meeting will always be synonymous with the 20th-century shopping mall and the chaotic interchange that links the Pennsylvania Turnpike with I-476. But barely a mile away from that busy highway is a sleepy colonial-era village shaded by tall trees and dotted with 19th-century lime kilns. Despite the not-inconsiderable suburban incursions, the center of Whitemarsh Township has managed to retain a rural feel. But the same intense housing development that is sweeping Philadelphia and its inner-ring suburbs is now imperiling a collection of buildings that are as important to American history as those found around Independence Hall and Germantown.
The latest proposal would dump 67 townhouses right into the heart of the village and dramatically disrupt the historic ensemble. K. Hovnanian Homes wants to cram the townhouses behind the main house on the 10-acre Corson property. Although the house and Abolition Hall would remain standing, the new buildings would come virtually to their back doors. Hovnanian would leave the two historic buildings with 1.4 acres between them. It's hard to imagine how they could thrive on such tiny plots.
It's been seven months since Whitemarsh supervisors began holding hearings on Hovnanian's proposal. Although several procedural hurdles lie ahead at the local and county levels, the five-member board is expected to render its verdict Oct. 25. All indicators suggest the board will cave to the developer and allow this important National Register site to be compromised. Throughout the long hours of testimony, it has treated Hovnanian's townhouses as if they were just another subdivision in an open field. But this proposal is more equivalent to putting townhouses in the park behind Independence Hall.
The buildings around Independence Mall are under the care of the National Park Service, so such an intrusion could never happen. Unfortunately, the ones in Plymouth Meeting lack that protection, even though they are part of the first National Register District created in Pennsylvania.
Still, the park service has formally objected to Hovnanian's plan. "It's not just the two buildings. This was a farm, and the landscape gave them context," argued Bill Bolger, who recently retired as the Park Service's historic landmarks program manager for the region. "Hovnanian is being as grabby as it can be."
The main fight against the Hovnanian plan has been waged by a local group called Friends of Abolition Hall. Although the group has mounted a mighty resistance, members complain that the Whitemarsh supervisors have shut out several of its expert witnesses. As a result, the hearings have become narrowly focused on traffic and wetlands, instead of how to protect these national treasures. Other than asking Hovnanian to incorporate colonial-style windows into its townhouse design, the Whitemarsh-Plymouth historic review board has so far remained silent.
What's astonishing is that the Friends of Abolition Hall isn't asking for much. It's not trying to stop the townhouse development. It just wants fewer houses built on the site so a more dignified buffer can be created. Hovnanian has responded by locating a retention basin next to Abolition Hall in its plan. In true developer-speak, it refers to this future holding pond as a "Welcome Park."
Because the basin area will have several spaces for visitor parking, Hovnanian's Barry McCarron argues that the development, will be an "improvement over the current situation."
Hovnanian, which builds about 550 houses a year in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, seems oblivious to the momentous role these two buildings played in American history. Whitemarsh was already a thriving farming area when George Corson and his family arrived in 1810, according to an account in The Truthseeker magazine by historian David Contosta, a professor at Chestnut Hill College. Like many Pennsylvania Quakers, the Corsons were fiercely opposed to slavery. But the debates became so heated that the Quaker meetinghouse across the street eventually decided to ban abolitionist speakers. George Corson responded by putting an addition on his barn to accommodate antislavery rallies.
Corson was already using his house, which faces Germantown Pike, to shelter escaped slaves making their way north along the main route of the Underground Railroad. Most had crossed into Pennsylvania from Maryland, which was still a slave state. The escapees traveled at night to avoid detection, often hidden in wagons under piles of hay.
They found shelter at Germantown's Johnson House, one of the most famous stops on the Underground Railroad. From there it was an eight-mile wagon ride to the Corson property, a trip that could be accomplished in a single night. After allowing the escapees to rest up, the Corsons would ferry them to the next stop in Bucks County, with the goal of reaching Canada. Only when they crossed the border would they be safe from America's fugitive slave-catchers.
"The bravery of all these people is astonishing," Contosta marveled. Corson risked fines, arrest and, potentially, bodily harm to shelter people fleeing the Southern slave plantations. Had the escapees been caught on their journey north, they would have been brutally flogged.
Abolition Hall's history is particularly resonant now, as the United States debates the future of its Confederate monuments. While they are painful reminders for African Americans of slavery and the Jim Crow era, places like Abolition Hall offer vivid physical evidence of their ancestors' determined struggle for freedom. "Abolition Hall has so much to teach us about how to take a stand in a constructive way," said David Miller, an elder at the Plymouth Meeting Friends.
The property's abolitionist history is only part of the story. After George Corson's death, the property passed to his daughter Helen and her husband, Thomas Hovenden, a noted painter. At the time, Hovenden was as famous as Thomas Eakins. His best-known work, The Last Moments of John Brown, was painted in the front parlor. That work now hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has sent a letter protesting the developer's treatment of the site.
The Whitemarsh supervisors have the power to demand that Hovnanian revise its plan to fully respect this important historic site. At the very least, Hovnanian should create a meaningful buffer to ensure the two Corson buildings are not visually strangled by its townhouse development. What happens in Plymouth Meeting isn't merely a local story; this history belongs to the whole country.