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Will Abolition Hall and Area Be Abolished?

Abolition Hall is where Frederick Douglass rallied Philadelphia-area abolitionists to revolt against slavery in general and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in particular. It is the place that was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad. It is where the riveting portrait of John Brown approaching the gallows was painted.

It is also a site listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places that, in addition, has its own Pennsylvania State Historical Marker. Moreover, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia included it on its list of “Places to Save,” a public registry that “focuses attention and energy towards special places at risk of being lost.”

Located on the northeast corner of Germantown and Butler Pikes near Chestnut Hill in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, Abolition Hall and its surrounding fields are at the center of a confrontational legal dispute. A group called Friends of Abolition Hall (FAH), headed by its convener, Sydelle Zove, alleges that a housing developer, K. Hovnanian, has plans that would degrade this venerated area. She adds that things might get even worse because Abolition Hall ultimately could succumb to “demolition by neglect” (like nearby properties have), which, in turn, could lead to neighbors’ complaints of economic hardship resulting in their request for active demolition.

Abolition Hall was built in 1856 by George Corson, a Quaker abolitionist. It, its adjacent family home, and purportedly its adjacent fields were where Black men, women, and children took shelter in courageous attempts to flee slavery. Zove says the developer proposes to “subdivide and reconfigure” this historic homestead to construct 67 townhouses on the open fields directly next to the hall. Once divided, notes Zove, the developer plans to sell the hall, the stone barn, and the Thomas Hovenden House- all listed on the aforementioned National Register. She continues by pointing out that it’s not just the hall that’s in jeopardy but also the “fields where cornstalks hid fugitives”- fields she describes as an “integral part of the site.”

But that’s disputed by the developer who says, “As recently stated by one of the Corson heirs who has lived on the property since 1980 and is a former member of a local historical society, African Americans were sheltered in Abolition Hall, ‘not the adjacent fields,’ until they moved to the next station as part of the Underground Railroad.” Interesting. Who’s right about this and other issues? Well, you can find out on June 14. More about that later in this article.

The developer also claims it has done and is doing the right thing. And it lists, among other accomplishments, the following: “It eliminated the proposed dedication of right-of-way for the future relocation of Butler Pike between Abolition Hall and the Hovenden House by others; it realigned the roadway network to eliminate townhouses in the area directly adjacent to Abolition Hall where it (i.e., the developer) has established a large open space area suitable for a welcome park; it eliminated the townhomes fronting along Butler Pike to preserve the view to and from Abolition Hall, pushing townhomes along the southern boundary so they are further from Abolition Hall.”

FAH clearly disputes some or most of that and certainly disputes the productive efficacy of some or most of it. And more important, it argues that the developer hasn’t done or even said enough commensurate with the historical and cultural solemnity of the entire site. Specifically, Zove’s major contention is that the developer’s application for “conditional use” approval is fatally flawed because it fails to meet the mandates of the local zoning code, which require protections for historical and natural resources, as well as the mandates of the Environmental Rights Amendment of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

But the flaw, she states, could easily be resolved if the developer simply further “reduces the number of townhouses by eliminating the clusters closest to the historic structures, sets aside approximately two acres of land immediately adjacent to Abolition Hall and the barn for a publicly accessible ‘Welcome Park,’ and undertakes reasonable due diligence with regard to the historic structures to determine what improvements would be required to stabilize them, explore potential reuse and repurposing options, and assemble a responsible marketing plan.”

If you think Zove is totally indifferent to the developer’s property rights, to its contractual obligation to the sellers, to its construction and infrastructure costs, and to its reduced profits stemming from fewer units, you’d be wrong. In fact, she says “To help make… [FAH’s] vision possible yet allow the developer to realize a return on its investment, we are calling upon Whitemarsh Township to invest available and ample ‘Open Space’ funds in acquiring the land (or a conservation easement) for the ‘Welcome Park’.… Such an investment would offset the developer’s loss of revenue from a reduction in the number of townhouses.”

The Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors will address this Abolition Hall/adjacent fields issue at its next meeting, actually hearing, on June 14 at 7:00 pm at 616 Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill. It’s open to the public. Free round-trip transportation for this approximately 20 minute drive will be provided by Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) at 6:00 from Zion Baptist Church at Broad and Venango Streets. For more information, call ATAC at (215)552-8751.

In addition to attending, FAH and ATAC want you to remember that just as “Freedom ain’t free,” neither is excellent legal representation. Although the top-notch attorney representing FAH is doing it at a remarkably low rate, there are still costs involved. You can help defray those costs by donating to FAH through its non-profit organization called Preservation Pennsylvania. All donations are tax deductible. You can easily donate by clicking on the Donate to Abolition Hall button on the Program tab at preservationpa.org.

Despite their zealous advocacy, Zove and FAH make it clear that “The developer… and concerned citizens can collaborate in seeking a path forward that protects the legacy of this unique property [and surrounding field].” That just might work in light of the developer’s statement that “The proposed development will use only 70 percent of the allowed density on the site and will include open space that could function as a ‘Welcome Park’ adjacent to the historic neighboring Abolition Hall with access to the historic building.”

“Collaborate.” That sounds like compromise. And that sounds great not only to me but especially to my enslaved and escaped ancestors. Let’s see what happens on June 14.

Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1-FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.

(1) comment

Mary Celine Childs, Plymouth Meeting, PA

The Abolition Hall and Hovenden House are key to our community. Gone from our area are other important facades that were taken away when the importance of historic sites was not as much an issue as it is now. Our whole country realizes that once these historic structures are gone, there will never by anything left for future generations to visit and reflect on how our Nation suffered in the past . We never want history to repeat itself and so we need reminders to keep us on the right road. All the slaves and run-away blacks were taken from Abolition Hall and the surrounding Plymouth Meeting houses by horse and cart in the dark of night to FREEDOM in Canada. Those were courageous people (Quakers) risking their very lives for our fellow man! We cannot let the progress of today obliterate how we go to this time and place!! We know that life has to change to support the growth of our precious nation but not at the expense of such a PRECIOUS ICONIC HISTORICAL SHRINE! This is how it is explained in many articles on the web and in the history books. It is a SHRINE! Save it! PLEASE! Find a way.

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