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The Haas family gave Stoneleigh gardens to the public. Lower Merion Schools should keep their hands off of it | Maria Panaritis

They don't make philanthropists like the Haas family anymore. So why does an elite Main Line school district want to destroy the family's gift, which is like no other, in our billionaires-win-all day and age?

This painting of Stoneleigh — a Villanova estate formerly belonging to the Haas family that was recently turned in a free public garden — is by Dana McGahey. The Lower Merion Township School District is threatening to condemn the garden to build a new school.
This painting of Stoneleigh — a Villanova estate formerly belonging to the Haas family that was recently turned in a free public garden — is by Dana McGahey. The Lower Merion Township School District is threatening to condemn the garden to build a new school.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The last thing we should be talking about, with the troubles facing so many of us these days, is a land squabble between one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest school districts and a 42-acre bequest made by one of the wealthiest families the region has known.

But spend more than a few minutes at the Main Line oasis known as Stoneleigh and it's impossible to conclude anything but this: Lower Merion Township School District's threat to seize all or part of the newly public garden, a gift from the famously low-key Haas chemical-fortune family, is unseemly. And it must be stopped.

One of Pennsylvania's most elite public school districts wants to build a new middle school at Stoneleigh. But the longtime Haas homestead that opened to the public just a few weeks ago must be preserved. To plow it over is to defile the type of humanistic giving that has become scarce in our increasingly billionaires-take-all way of American life.

Stoneleigh is for the people, and from a family whose members have dispensed with their fortune for generations by hardly ever having so much as the Haas name attached to their gifts. Funny how their William Penn Foundation has managed to give millions to worthy causes for decades without requiring naming rights on countless gifts.

You can feel the family's democratic embrace as you venture into Stoneleigh. A stroll through the beautiful grounds looks and feels magical — sacred, even. Its winding walkways and shady groves envelop you in tenderness, shown and spoken.

Such a place is a spartan bench beneath a canopy of soaring, lean trees not far from the stone mansion that anchors this estate near Villanova University. The bench beckons you to be still. Squirrels scratch across branches soaring far above as birds chirp. A granite slab at eye level whispers a message from the estate's longtime owners, former Rohm & Haas Co. chairman John C. Haas and his wife, Chara, both of whom died in recent years.

"In loving memory of John Charles Haas and Chara Cooper Haas who were so passionately devoted to preserving the spirit of these grounds. We hope that you enjoy your visit here, and when you depart, may a bit of the peacefulness and beauty, which is so much a part of Stoneleigh, be with you."

The mansion is just as welcoming. Its grand porch invites further rest with high-backed wooden chairs facing a lawn so magnificent it could be an opening shot to Downton Abbey. There is nothing garish here. Nature gets center stage.

"It's just really peaceful," Dana McGahey said as she stood by the base of an enormous tree in front of the mansion, equipped with oil paint, canvas, easel, and her artist's eye for a landscape. "In King of Prussia, where I live, our houses are boxes."

All around, people were strolling about. Some had pulled into the parking lot in modest Fords and Dodges. Others had pulled into the same free-of-charge lot driving Acuras and Porsches.

The only price of entry: Being human.

We are living in a scary time in which coarseness and anger have shoved kindness to the margins of public discourse. Stoneleigh, however, is  like a netherworld where all heal as they kneel before nature.

Our public institutions must recognize and preserve this sort of humanistic giving, and this sort of humanistic refuge.

Did they not see, in the Abington School District, the divisive result of leaders tiptoeing around the myriad demands of hedge fund billionaire Stephen Schwarzman in return for his $25 million donation to go toward the $100 million renovation and expansion of the high school?

Surely they did. But maybe they see the Haas family as pushovers. These are givers whose philanthropy has been absent neurosis and aggression. Perhaps the school district smells opportunity. Maybe that's why, with Stoneleigh days away from opening to the public for the first time last month, word spread that the district planned to possibly take over all or part of the property bestowed to the Natural Lands nonprofit.

How fitting, then, that it's the people who are fighting on the Haas family's behalf.

How poetic and utterly perfect.

A kiosk greeting newcomers with stacks of trail maps has become as much the spot where visitors such as birding enthusiast Phil Spear have been picking up "Save Stoneleigh" lawn signs. A wicker basket also fills daily with protest postcards to complement a petition that's so far amassed more than 20,000 signatures.

The leaders of more than 30 public gardens and arboretums, including the president of Longwood Gardens, also signed on to a letter on May 24 asking the school district to leave Stoneleigh intact.

Spear had just thrown a  yard sign into the trunk of his car when I asked the Haverford man his opinion of things. He'd just walked through Stoneleigh for the first time; couldn't have been more impressed. Places like these simply don't exist anywhere near communities as congested and costly as the Philly suburbs.

"I was a teacher," Spear said, "so I value schools. You can build a school in any number of different places. But once this is gone, it's gone."

I met a woman who used to work in the Rohm & Haas executive suite in Center City but who'd never set foot on her old boss' home until I ran into her at Stoneleigh.

Kathy McCafferty couldn't stop talking about how humble John Haas was. You'd never know, she said, that this incredibly powerful man also worked with the Boys' and Girls' Club of Bridesburg, the riverfront Philly enclave where the company long had a chemical plant.

She looked off into the distance and muttered about how they don't make philanthropists that way anymore. The school district, she added, was in the wrong.

"I think it's disgraceful," she said.

Right on all counts.