Developers and Preservationists Clash Over Underground Railroad Stop

Opponents say a plan to build 67 townhomes near Hovenden House and Abolitionist Hall outside Philadelphia will destroy the area’s heritage space

Hovenden House
Hovenden House. Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted 4-to-0 to the allow the construction of 67 townhomes on fallow farm fields in Plymouth Meeting, an area outside Philadelphia. While suburban development is usually a local story, this one is getting more widespread attention. That’s because the location is on property that was once an Underground Railroad stop and piece of abolitionist history.

As Katie Park at the The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the property in question is a 10-acre parcel in the Plymouth Meeting Historic District that includes two important buildings, Hovenden House and Abolition Hall. Hovenden House was where abolitionists George Corson and Martha Maulsby Corson lived, and it was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses that helped enslaved Africans escape bondage. Abolition Hall, according to Ingra Saffron in a separate article for the Inquirer, earned its name because of the “rousing speeches” that leaders of the movement—luminaries including the likes of Frederick Douglass and Lucretia A. Mott—gave in the stone barn next door to the house that could fit some 200 people. Later on, it was used by Thomas Hovenden, an important American painter in the last half of the 19th century, as a studio space.

The property is now owned by Roy Wilson and his wife Ann, who is a descendant of the Corsons. The pair have lived on the property since the 1980s, but the constant expensive repairs on the historic buildings, plus a $23,000 per year tax bill, became too much. That’s why they agreed to sell the land to K. Hovnanian Homes, which proposes to build the 67 townhomes on 8 acres of abandoned farm fields, leaving the area where the house and hall stand alone to be sold off separately.

That plan has ruffled the feathers of historical preservationists, as Park reports, who believe that the development would box in the historic site and change the nature of the historic district. “It's not just that site,” activist Michael Coard says. “It’s the area around it that must be respected.”

As Saffron argues in the Inquirer, placing 67 townhouses “right into the heart of the village” would “dramatically disrupt the historic ensemble.”

“Although the house and Abolition Hall would remain standing, “ she writes, “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.”

The developer, for its part, has said that it has done all it can to respect the nature of the area, incorporating greenspace into its plans and not building as densely as the law allows.

“We adjusted our proposed plans after several meetings and discussions with neighbors, preservationists, and community leaders to ensure the future preservation of the Hovenden House and Abolition Hall,” the company said in a statement, according to Peter Crimmins at WHYY. “Our plan also creates natural open space adjacent to this historic site that could be used as a welcome park.”

The resolution passed by the board of supervisors comes with 22 conditions, reports Kevin Tierney at local news site More Than the Curve.

There are some indications that Friends of Abolition Hall may sue to stop the process, Tierney notes. “[The developer] asserts that that constitutes historic preservation,” Sydelle Zove of the Friends of Abolition Hall tells Crimmins of WHYY. “By virtue of his not demolishing historic structures, he is preserving them. I don’t think you would find anyone involved in historic preservation who would support the notion that, by not demolishing, you are preserving.”

Whatever happens, the story touches on questions larger than any one heritage site. In recent years, historians and preservationists have increased their focus on preserving the physical history of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement. Last year the National Park Service purchased the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York, and in March it also opened the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland. In Columbia, Maryland, locals are currently working to get a cave where enslaved people were hidden documented and recognized as a Railroad site, and earlier this year in Philadelphia, a house owned by abolitionist William Still, who helped hundreds make it to freedom, was added to the city’s Register of Historic Places.

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