Lower Merion Academy will be home to Historical Society

This is the second-most important building in Lower Merion

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

After decades of camping out in a couple of upstairs rooms of the Ashbridge House, the Lower Merion Historical Society will soon have enough room to properly present Lower Merion’s past.

Last week the society issued a contract for defining the use of the Lower Merion Academy as the new home of the society. The contract goes to a relatively young firm of Purdy O’Gwynn Barnhart Architects of Philadelphia. Young as they are, they have experience with historic structures. In addition to the architectural firm, Bruce E. Brooks and Associates is the engineering company responsible for the project.

Linda O’Gwynn will be the responsible partner. O’Gwynn came to the firm from a partnership with David Polk and did residential renovations and compatible additions, including several residences on the Main Line. “On each project we see what the client sees, and try to fulfill that vision. For the historical society, it’s very important that the fabric of the building remain the same we must be faithful to it,” she says.

Phase one calls for engineering, mechanical and structural aspects of project requirements to make the building environmentally controlled and more inhabitable. When that’s complete and costs can be determined then the historical society will seek grants to fund the project. “We’ve got great support from all the local, state and federal elected officials,” says Francis ” Phase two will be the actual construction.

“One important part will be an archive quality environment where we will keep the humidity, temperature and air quality constant. That’s the biggest requirement for having an air-conditioned facility,” says Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society. “The Lower Merion Academy Trustees, the school district and the historical society all agree that we need to better preserve of varied collections of books, documents, artifacts and atlases.”

The main work will be the introduction of mechanical systems, air conditioning, telephone system telecommunications. “One of the things we will consider is how to incorporate the interior’s history. It was redone in 1938, the alteration was basically a colonial revival. But they added bathrooms and did what was their version of modern update at the time.” O’Gwynn says.”Our thrust is modernizing, while preserving the old fabric.”

That fits with the concept, because even though there will be modern functions people will soon be able to search the society’s computers for documents, photos maps and archives of 300 years of history. There will be space to display important artifacts of Lower Merion and the nation’s past. And those rare and fragile components of our history need more protection.

“So many items are being lost to time,” says Farilyn Leopold, archivist for the society. “It will be so much better when we can keep original materials in a proper environment.”

That proper environment is correct in more than just a good air conditioning system, because the Academy has been used to store and spread knowledge since 1913. “This is the second-most important building in Lower Merion,” Francis says. Built in 1812, the Lower Merion Academy served to educate thousands of children, and in many ways was a trendsetter of what education became in America.

In the late 18th Century it was somewhat revolutionary that children other than those of the rich should receive an education. This was definitely a New World philosophy. Such populism wouldn’t take root generally in Europe for several more generations. But in the colonies the Quakers took the concept of equality seriously. One very nice thing about the Quakers is they kept very good records. Because of that we know a lot about the lives of people who lived here more than 200 years ago. That’s part of the symmetry of today’s historical society choice of homes.

The Lower Merion Academy was unusual in that from the beginning all were welcome. African-American children and the poor attended the school along with the children of the Welsh community. More unusual was that although at the time most schools were only for boys, from the beginning girls attended the Lower Merion Academy. That was due to the Quaker influence on the man who created the school.

Jacob Jones, was a devout Quaker who spent decades involved in the life of the Quaker community. His birth was recorded in the Merion Meeting Book of Births and Deaths for 1682-1806 as “Jacob, son of Jonathan & Gainor Jones, born on May 14, 1713. His grandfather was Dr. Edward Jones, one of the original patent holders from William Penn and a founder of the “Welsh Tract,” and

Jacob’s name begins to appear in the Radnor Monthly Meeting Minutes around March 14, 1752 when he and Mary Lawrence declared intentions (to marry) at Merion Meeting House. According to Meetinghouse records by June 11, 1752 Jacob and Mary were married.

After spending several years in Philadelphia, Jones returned to the Welsh Tract as a farmer and became active in the Merion Meeting starting in 1763. That year he became an Overseer of the Meeting and held many positions. He was one who visited wayward Friends — to try and get them to return to Meeting. He was also on the committee on education and became the group’s treasurer in January, 1772.

It’s noted that in 1776, Jacob counseled his nephew Algernon Roberts, for his “military appearance” and reminded him of “our ancient and Peaceable Testimony.” More than just discussing the subject, Jacob joined in difficult decisions — such as expelling Algernon and others from Meeting since they persisted in ” . . . the Practice of Bearing Arms.” That was recorded to have happened on May 10, 1776.

During the war Jacob was part of the Committee of Suffering which helped those Quakers who refused to serve. The group paid the fines that were levied against them. He was also active in Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings in the 1790s.

The best contemporary descriptions came from his nephew, Algernon Roberts. He described Jacob’s life in the Minute Book of the Academy Trustees as follows:

“On the twenty second day of the third Month/March One thousand Eight hundred and ten departed this life in the Ninety Seventh year of his age the aforenamed (sic) Jacob Jones by birth a Member of the Religious Society of Friends and an active useful Member thereof through his long life and was much Respected by his Neighbours; (sic) as a Honourable (sic) and Charitable Man and whose Memory will justly be held in deserved estimation as long as Science shall record virtue and Benevolance (sic) for by his Christian Phylanthophy (sic) and Munificance (sic) was founded the Lower Merion Benevolent School . . . “

When Jacob died, Joseph Price, who would later build the Academy, also comments in his diary, dated March 25, 1810. He speaks of Jacob’s passing, building his coffin and “Geard (sic) up and went to Burial, arivd (sic) at our yd. about 11 OC(o’clock) & had a Great Meeting 3 Preachers . . .”

This devout man lived to the age of 97, but had no children of his own. Instead in his will he left money to create a school. But more than that, it was to be a school for all. He seemed to believe all children should have an education, whether or not they could afford it.

Jacob Jones provided a trust and appointed trustees to make his dream become a reality. The Trustees fulfilled Jacob’s wishes by constructing a building, hiring teachers, governing the free school and admitting as many poor and orphan children from the Township as the proceeds of the trust would dictate.

In an agreement, signed on June 9, 1812, the Trustees selected Joseph Price and Nathan Lewis, contractors “for Building Lower Merion Benevolent School house.”

Trustees would pay $5,700 which the builders would use to pay for the materials and the wages for the workmen. The “architects” were to find the materials for building “a good and substantial stone house for a school and the accommodation of a Family, fifty five feet front and thirty six deep three stones high in the front and two stories and a Cellar back.”

The building was finished in 1813 and the contemporary requirements were as strict, although less technical, perhaps than today. The ground floor consisted of a dining room, cellar, and kitchen with a bake-oven fireplace, sink and flues for “boilers.” The dining room and kitchen floor were to be made of heart pine. In the wall of the dining room there was a flue so a stove could be used for heat.

The second floor was divided into three rooms . . . one for a large schoolroom, another for a small schoolroom, and the third room was for the “accommodation of a Family.” The large schoolroom had a master’s seat and desk with enough seats and tables for forty “scholars.”

Also detailed . . .
There were fireplaces in the two small rooms. The flooring was again heart pine. The third floor was divided into four rooms — one was to have the same dimensions as the large schoolroom below it, and the two smaller rooms, with fireplaces in each, were for the family. The fourth room was ” . . . a Committee or Library room. ” The flooring on this story was “good sap pine.”

The roof was “good heart Cedar shingles” with tin gutters and spouts, and five dormer windows.
The Lower Merion Benevolent School, as the Academy was originally named, opened its doors to students of both sexes on November 1, 1813.

The teachers lived on the property and paid the trustees of the school $.50 per student per term. In return they charged $3.00 per quarter, although there was a method compensation for providing stationary and firewood.’The boys were taught reading, writing English grammar, Vulgar and Decimal Arithmetic. Girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar and plain needlework.

One of the early teachers, Master Joshua Hoopes informed the parents and students about the “Rules” of the school:
– No student would be admitted if he/she had a contagious disease;
– Vacations occur every other seventh day, or Saturday, and for two weeks at harvest;
– Parents who did not send their children regularly were to pay as if they did;
– No student was to leave the school without the teacher’s permission;
– No use of profane or obscene language was permitted;
– No writing or injury to school property (especially wails or partitions);
– Prizes were to be purchased by parents/guardian of the children to whom they were awarded. Prizes were given each quarter to those scholars showing superior improvement.

From its opening in 1813 until 1914, the Academy served its community, rather than its congregation, as a school. It closed formally when the larger Cynwyd Elementary School was opened on the Academy grounds in 1914.

Now the building sits on the site of the Lower Merion’s Middle School, or perhaps it should still should be the other way around, at least philosophically.