Three Township Treasures
Lower Merion owns and maintains three beautiful old buildings that span a period from the early 1700s to the late 1800s. Appleford, Ashbridge House and the Bryn Mawr Community Building are used for offices of various nonprofit groups in the Township and are available to rent for meetings, community events, and social occasions.
A beautiful 22-acre Villanova estate, Appleford (named for the surrounding apple orchards) started as a simple, one and-a-half story stone farmhouse, built in 1728. A two story section was added in 1780. In 1798 the next owner, prosperous Peter Pechin, increased the building further and located his tannery in a separate outbuilding.
In 1867, Moro Phillips, a Philadelphian in the chemical and fertilizer business, bought the property for $15,375. The family soon amassed over 800 acres in Villanova. This 113-acre estate was inherited by the son, Frederick Phillips, and then the ownership passed to Samuel G. Smyth in the early 1900s.
Subsequent owners, Anabel and Lewis Parsons, contracted an important colonial revival architect, R. Brognard Okie, to integrate and expand the estate in 1926-27. Earlier stone work was replicated; wood siding and partially stuccoed stone facade is characteristic of Okie’s “colonial” style.
In the 1930s an important landscape architect, Thomas Sears, worked with the Parsons to design the gardens and recapture the formal setting seen today. Upon Mrs. Parson’s death in 1973, she passed Appleford to Lower Merion Township as a perpetual trust.
Built of multi-colored field stones with Georgian period proportions, Ashbridge House was erected in 1769 by Rees Thomas III and his father, William. A datestone above the present front porch, marks the event with their names and their wives’ initials: “E” for William’s wife, Elizabeth and “P” for Rees’ wife, Priscilla. The house rested on part of an original land grant of 625 acres purchased by the grandfather, Rees Thomas after 1683.
By 1845, George Dunn had purchased the house and 155 acres. Five years later, Peter Pechin bought the property at “public venue.” Pechin’s daughter, Rebecca Emily, inherited the farm and married Joshua Ashbridge. The Ashbridges subsequently purchased other nearby acres from the Thomas heirs.
Around 1863, Joshua gave land for a passenger station to the Pennsylvania Railroad to be named Rosemont. Through the generosity of their daughter, Emily Ashbridge, the house and grounds were left to Lower Merion Township in 1940. The grounds and specimen trees are a memorial to the soldiers of World Wars I and II who were from the community.
The story of Ashbridge House parallels the stages of growth in Lower Merion Township. From large holdings of Welsh Quaker settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the land has systematically been divided by subsequent generations. A few estates, such as Ashbridge, are now prized for their open space and their use by the whole community.
Samuel Black’s Upland
The Bryn Mawr Community Building was once the estate of Samuel Anderson Black (1820-1890), a major owner of farmland in this and surrounding counties. A prosperous lawyer, he was long associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Black himself designed the gracious stone home he called Upland, near the corner of Bryn Mawr and Lancaster Avenues. Much admired, it was hailed as one of the first “modern” residences in town.
A generous man, he gave both a new house and land to many of his relatives, a descendant reported. After his death, his estate (on four acres with two outbuildings and a springhouse) passed to his widow, Elizabeth C. Black. She and her family lived at Upland through the turn of the century.
The house was enlarged and drastically restyled c. 1908. It remained in the Black family through the mid-1920s. The property then passed to the township and by 1926 it was the Bryn Mawr Memorial Association War and Community House.
Today it sits beside Ludington Library and houses two vital nonprofit groups: ElderNet senior assistance services and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. The Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services is housed in Upland’s old springhouse in the rear.
The facilities are available to the community for diverse uses: civic gatherings, AA meetings, chess and bridge matches, conferences, and nonprofit group get togethers.
Change at Warp Speed. Some say there was a trading post for exchange of goods between Swedish settlers and local Indians along a trail to the Susquehanna River that became the road to Lancaster (now Montgomery Avenue). Welsh Quakers and others began to arrive in 1682-3 and could buy venison and fowl from the Indians in their dooryards once they had house, door and yard. Taverns, the gathering places, began almost immediately, some even in the early “caves” in Philadelphia. But the yoemen farmer and his wife grew the raw material and processed it or trained a hired-hand to do the work…or did without.
Philadelpha Trades. Stores, as we know them, were slow to appear in Philadelphia because merchants and artisans were limited to selling in stalls in the city market at High (Market) and Front streets, and after 1693, at Second Street. Market days were Wednesdays and Sundays, though some vendors sold there all week long. Tailors, tanners, chandlers, pewterers, goldsmiths, weavers, coopers…on and on goes the list…made a living. Ready made shoes were evidently nonexistent, and the cordwainers (shoemakers), who had their favored customers, were early to organize but were tried at court for “conspiring to raise their wages.” Gradually in colonial Philadelphia luxury goods came into the port and ladies flocked to milliners, glove makers, stylish fabric merchants…but still farm wives would not or could not show interest.
Farm Trades. There were not many wagons in use until the Revolution, and horses transported food and raw materials to town and carried items for farm wives…possibly coffee, tea, household items…back to the farms.
Most commerce was carried on near the wharves. Diarist Joseph Price, a carpenter and builder, but also a farmer with a scholarly bent, had to go into Philadelphia to buy boards, screws, window glass, nails, paint, glue, varnish, hardware. For the household, he purchased a coffee mill, sugar, salt…for the farm, a plow… and for his own education, books (and eyeglasses).
Cloverseed he was able to buy at the Buck Inn. Farmers hereabouts slaughtered their own hogs, bought produce from each other, brought flour from the local mills, and were fairly self-sufficient.
Country Progress. Fifty years later, toward the end of the 19th century, changes came thick and fast. Communities had coalesced, usually around a tavern, and blacksmiths picked locations on principal roads. With the advent of more wagon traffic, the wheelwright set up shop, sometimes side by side with the blacksmith. One hundred years ago, more or less, Lower Merion Township had two restaurants, one grocery, two confectionery shops, one provisioner, three flour and feed stores, three drug stores, 14 general stores, and a dozen assorted other emporia, two coalyards among them. We may smile at so few shopping opportunities, but in those days Lower Merion had nine hotels. Today? None.
Fare and Transport. Among businesses listed by William J. Buck in 1884, food and transportation with their adjunct services accounted for most of our commerce. Sometimes the two categories coincided.
For many years and into the post-World War II era, the well-to-do sent their butlers or maids to the railroad station in the morning to hand up a list of needs…principally groceries…to the conductor, and in the afternoon, came back to collect the bags and baskets of provisions at the station.
Savvy shopkeepers then stepped in to supply and deliver telephone orders; roving meat, butter and eggs, bread, and milk men made the rounds to homes. Such service ended by the 1960s, bowing to the inevitable…the supermarkets.
Modes of locomotion fascinated the first photographers as our collection of pictures show. And closely behind transportation came gastronomy. ‘Twas ever thus. ‘Tis ever so.
- Albrecht’s Farmers’ Market, built in 1928, housed the family’s flower business that started in 1914. In recent years, the building was developed to feature many produce stands.
- Ardmore Farmers’ Market opened as the Suburban Theatre in 1937. By 1980, it was converted to a food market called the St. James Market… and two years later changed to the current name.
- At both markets, suburban shoppers delight in the availability of a fresh supply of farm grown vegetables and fruits, choice meats and poultry, a variety of dairy products, baked goods, flowers and many other local goodies.
Mapes (originally Davis’) was started by Charles E. Davis in 1897 on Main Street in Narberth. In 1908, his brother, Howard Eugene Davis, bought the store. He ran it with his wife, Sarah, and son Eugene until his death in 1954.
- The glory days of Davis’ store were during the era of Narberth’s National Football League commissioner Bert Bell (in office 1946-59) when what had been a regional sports hangout and “hot-stove league” gathering place around the cracker barrel during the pre-World War II period when the town’s semi-pro baseball team won most of the pennants in the Main Line League suddenly captured the national limelight attracting sports writers, coaches, athletes (and their fans) for discussions with Bell.
- Bert Bell held forth there daily in conversations that often started in front of the general store and then moved to the soda fountain or booths with a crowd of regulars to talk football. He even made some of his NFL polices based on those talk sessions.
- In the early 1960s, William Mapes, a retired textile salesman from New York City, purchased the business. His friendly personality and traditional ways fit the small town character of Narberth until his death in 1973 at age 97. Mapes’ manager, Frank Hess, became the owner that year yet considered selling the business at his retirement. Then Raymond Benner, a longtime patron, invested in this cherished family style Narberth fixture.
From 1913 to 1973, parents attending graduation ceremonies at local colleges found gracious lodging at Haverford Hotel. In those days, 50 rooms were available at “The Main Line’s Finest.”
- Located at the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Grays Lane, management advertised with pride: “Garage on Premises. Air Conditioned Lounge and Restaurant.” The hotel was a welcoming place with a columned porch and porte-cochère. The bedrooms had Chippendale desks, Chinese art, mahogany cabinets, brass sconces and flattering lighting.
- President Eisenhower’s granddaughter enjoyed her wedding reception here, and many a party brightened spacious public rooms through those 60 years. (A lady who wouldn’t dream of lunch at a bar, could, and often did, enjoy a glass of wine here with a meal at midday.)
- After a “house sale,” when many neighbors bought items for souvenirs of happy times gone by, the building was torn down and a condominium on Gray’s Lane, designed by Vincent Kling, was built on the site.
Back in 1876, almost all the states built houses to show their native products and to serve as headquarters for visitors from home at the great International Exhibition in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park…a huge celebration of the nation’s centennial.
- Wisconsin built a wood house, “a simple structure, not pretty, merely useful…” It stood several blocks back of Ohio House, which still stands, corner of Belmont Avenue and South George’s Hill Road on its original spot.
- The Simes estate bought Wisconsin House when the giant fair closed. But when it was being moved to Lower Merion, the transporter broke down on Conshohocken State Road near Belmont Avenue and left the house in the middle of the street where it was an obstruction for more than a year. Eventually it was installed, minus part of its porches, near what is now the intersection of Union Avenue and Conshohocken State Road (not far past City Avenue), approximately where the present Bala-Cynwyd post office is situated. The neighborhood around the building was known locally as “Wisconsinville.”
- It became a hotel operated by Phipps and Bair, then by Dan Titlow, and finally was owned by William H. Doble, a noted horse trainer, followed by his son William, Jr., whose brother Budd carried his father’s skills with horses even further, and generally was recognized as the greatest trainer and driver of trotting horses.
- Around the bar at Wisconsin House, “trotter” enthusiasts, as distinguished from “pacers” (who gathered at the General Wayne Inn in Merion), toasted their favorites. Budd Doble made his fortune with winning horses, most famous of which was Nancy Hanks, the horse that won three world trotting records (best time: 2 minutes, 4 seconds) around the mile oval at the Belmont Driving Park. Mrs. Adelaide Doble, widow of William, Jr., lived in Wisconsin House, no longer a hotel, almost to her death in 1960. The place was visibly run-down, a worry to the Union Fire Association men as a fire hazard. It and eight small rental houses behind it were sold for $40,000 in 1961, and razed.