Saving our Near Past

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published October 23, 2002

There are many views about progress, but one thing is always true: Nice things often are ephemeral. They wear out, they’re in the way, out of fashion, cost too much. Whatever the reason, it happens too often in America.

On the Main Line, ideas of what was keepable changed several times from its original pioneering days. The original structures, for the most part, simply don’t exist. Most of them were by the river or along the creeks and subject to nature’s watery whims.

But water was a sensible method of transportation. Also, the pioneers wanted to get shelter over their heads as soon as possible. Appearance could wait until the land was cleared and the crops were in.

In addition, most of them were wood. Few survived, and those that did were often at some time covered with stucco or brick and so remained unexposed to the weather. The Morgan Log Cabin in Montgomery County dates from 1685 and is a unique two-story log cabin that has been renovated. It, too, was covered for centuries with stucco.

Soon these cabins and lean-tos were replaced by stone dwellings, some of which remain today. Lower Merion’s Penn Cottage and Merion Friends as well as Easttown’s Travelgyn and a few other structures illustrate that era just before the turn of the 18th century. There are other original sites that have ended up part of later construction.

In addition to exposure to the elements being fatal, the structures were of no value to second- and third-generation colonists, except perhaps as a barn or outbuilding. These people weren’t interested in preserving them; they were still interested in preserving themselves.

But by the third generation, the pioneer families had become the social leaders of the area. They were also reasonably affluent, so there was some interest in keeping their heritage alive. Quakers were by definition conservative people, and their farms demonstrated that they believed strongly in the idea of “waste not, want not.” This was also the time of the first manufacturing mills along the creeks, and these too made use of existing facilities, building on and around them.

In the Gilded Age of the late 19th century came the railroad barons, who were lavish in parading their wealth. The invading rich industrialists saw the stalwarts of the Welsh Barony as living a peaceful country life: interesting, even sought after, but still seen as almost an anachronism.

Much of what had been Colonial farms and rolling countryside was replaced with houses emulating the stylish mansions of New York, Newport, Boston and even Europe. While those estates and mansions are looked at now with nostalgia, they were thought of by the oldtimers as tasteless and nouveau.

By the middle of the 20th century even their occupants weren’t all that happy with them. They were expensive and required numerous staff to function. Many were torn down and replaced with more modern and practical houses.

Then there’s the final reason why buildings and areas disappear. Some call it indifference. Some call it progress. The result is that many shops, stores, factories, houses, restaurants and civic structures are being removed and replaced without a thought.

They are too new to be of concern. They aren’t old enough to really be interesting to historians. They may be, perhaps, in another 50 years. How will they get old enough to be protected?

There are some who are already concerned with tomorrow’s history. Lower Merion’s Historical Architectural Review Board has spent nearly two decades helping the Main Line maintain its heritage.

People don’t often consider that the buildings they tear down are of more interest and more a part of the community’s heritage than what’s replacing them. The problem is that in America one’s rights, particularly property rights, are very strong.

So what’s the answer? Some would hope for regulatory requirements to keep our heritage intact. “I’ve been watching the houses of the ’50s along the bottom of Monk Road in Gladwyne and hoping that they’d be saved,” said Chris Jones, the longest-serving member of the Lower Merion Historical Architectural Review Board. “We have numerous nice houses from that era. They are valuable historically and are worthy of preservation.”

A lot of local governments haven’t come to grips with that yet.

“The township has protections for houses which are older, but for houses that are this young there really isn’t any regulation,” she said. “I think the township needs to do this because there are houses and buildings worth protecting.”

In built-out communities along the Main Line, the trend is to tear down houses and replace them with new houses. Jones thinks they often don’t even know what history they are destroying.

“The owner of the property tore down the house architect Walter Durham lived in on Rose Glen Road,” said Jerry Francis, who in addition to being involved in the Lower Merion Historical Society is also campaigning to save neighborhood living through the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd. “Durham remodeled it to fit his style of architecture and had taken artifacts from other area buildings and used them in the remodel of his house. It was his personal taste, and they were all things that he wanted to preserve.”

But that didn’t save it. “A private couple said they were going to live in it, and then they tore it down,” Jones said.

There are many examples of Durham houses throughout the Main Line. “They are in the Colonial Revival style and reflected the traditional Welsh stone house,” Jones said. “They were very popular after the era of the mansions when houses got smaller.”

The other big impact on the Main Line’s heritage is the death of the neighborhoods. For example, take the movies. With easy and cheap travel, people go to the modern mega-theaters instead of their local neighborhood locations.

“Almost all the theaters have gone because they became obsolete,” said Francis. “There used to be three theaters in Ardmore alone.”

One still exists, but is no longer a theater. “Ardmore Theater (now Philadelphia Sports Club) looks the same from the outside, but the inside has been completely gutted,” he said. “Each little town along the Main Line used to have its own theater, and now they’re (almost) all gone.”

And it’s not just the entertainment sites. “All the mom-and-pop stores are going. Diners, corner grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, they are all being replaced with modern stores,” Jones said.

“It used to be about the neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods are disappearing,” said Francis.

Many of these commercial buildings were designed and built in the ’50s, when the American economy was turning the country into the world’s more powerful nation. They no longer fit with the economic style of the present.

Neither does an inn or tavern from the 18th century, but that’s a no-brainer. Who will make the decision to preserve an early McDonald’s? Chances are most have already gone. Would they have been the diners of tomorrow? Would people have tracked them down and produced coffee table books about them?

Who knows? But one thing is certain: If those who are making these decisions don’t consider their impact on the future, then the heritage of the Main Line may come to a screeching halt with those things we think are historic today.

The next generation that wishes to discover its heritage will have to do it through images instead of reality.