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Stoneleigh’s likely safe but Lower Merion landmarks are still under siege | Opinion

The Lower Merion School District should engage a community process that would explore options for retaining the Clairemont mansion in a way that will connect the new school with the heritage of the community.

The ongoing threat to Stoneleigh's natural garden and historic mansion was reduced but not eliminated by swift action by the Pa. General Assembly and Gov. Wolf earlier this summer. On June 24, the governor signed a bill (HB 2468) that will test the power of authorities vested with eminent domain rights to condemn land that is protected by conservation easements.

HB 2468, which had bipartisan support in the General Assembly, was prompted by the Lower Merion School District's proposal to condemn Stoneleigh, a 42-acre free and public garden in Villanova, for its new middle school. Fortunately, the provisions of HB 2468, which require authorities to demonstrate that there is no "reasonable and prudent alternative" to condemnation, greatly diminish the probability that the school district can spoil Stoneleigh's natural garden or imperil its historic Tudor Revival mansion.

>> READ MORE: Is Stoneleigh safe? Lower Merion district buys nearby property for middle school

Stoneleigh is part of collection of historic assets in the township that dates from the late 17th century to the mid-20th century. This collection complements and completes the architectural portfolio of the region and of Philadelphia, recognized as a World Heritage City.

In its continued search for a middle school site, however, the School District has not retreated from its hard stand that historic properties in the township are disposable.

The district recently signed an agreement of sale to purchase Clairemont, a Beaux-Arts mansion in Villanova designed by distinguished architect Horace Trumbauer for Morris L. Clothier, chairman of Strawbridge and Clothier. The Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the campus at Duke University, and stately residences such as The Elms in Newport, R.I., Lynnewood Hall in Jenkintown, and Gray Towers in Glenside (now Arcadia University) are among the notable and recognizable commissions that Trumbauer's firm secured and completed during the early 20th century.

Clairemont is not a property that that school district or any other developer should view as disposable. In fact, the school district, the community, potential developers, and Lower Merion Township should treat this exceptional building as an opportunity to showcase and celebrate an asset that both tells the story of Lower Merion and enriches its landscape. They should creatively adapt this historic property so that it can remain useful well into the future and make adaptive reuse strategies both the "new normal" and an exciting prospect in a fully built-out community.

>> READ MORE: Lower Merion parents: A Stoneleigh alternative that's good for schools and the community | Opinion

With its recent purchase of Clairemont, the district has a rare opportunity to design an exceptional school campus that incorporates Lower Merion's storied history and its distinctive architecture. Options for adaptive reuse could include, at the least, judiciously and sensitively incorporating key exterior, character-defining features, such as the building's primary and monumental facades, into a new design.

We call on the Lower Merion School District to engage a community process that would explore options for retaining significant parts of the existing Clairemont mansion in a way that will connect the new school with the heritage of the community it is intended to serve.

Paul Steinke is executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Kathleen M. Abplanalp is director of historic preservation for the Lower Merion Conservancy. The Preservation Alliance holds the façade easement on Stoneleigh's mansion and the Lower Merion Conservancy holds the conservation easement on the 42-acre property.