by Barbara Sherf
The Black Horse Inn has been a presence on Bethlehem Pike for more than 250 years. For the past eight years, the Friends of Historic Bethlehem Pike, in cooperation with Springfield Township’s Black Horse Inn Advisory Committee, have worked on restoring the exterior and some of the interior common areas.
From the outside, the inn looks inviting; with newly plastered and painted walls, new shutters, a new sign and red, white and blue bunting drawing attention to the stately structure.
A recent tour of the interior with longtime Flourtown Realtor Dan Helwig showed what could be done with continued fundraising, like the Sept. 30 “Fall Feast and Auction” at the Flourtown Country Club.
The inn will be open to event guests prior to the fundraiser, so participants can view the newly restored bar, lobby and office space occupied by the Springfield Township Historical Society (STHS).
“I think the Commissioners, the volunteers, and the historical society need to be commended for taking this project to this point,” said Rob Ryan of the Friends. We really need the community to rally around this final phase.”
STHS president Ed Zwicker noted that the public is invited to visit the display of artifacts and do research on local history any Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until noon.
“Even if someone just wanted to come in and see the progress, we would welcome them,” Zwicker said. “However we would hope they would stick around to see the wonderful display of artifacts we have on hand.”
Helwig said showing potential tenants the STHS space has helped in terms of giving them a vision of what the second and third floors could eventually look like.
“When you see what has been done, you can see the possibility of the remaining use of the space, but the difficulty is convincing a tenant to put the money in up front and to go through the process of receiving the necessary approvals,” Helwig said.
The process would involve getting zoning approval if the use did not fall within current zoning, which is basically low impact office space.
“But she wanted to have it up and running in September, and it was clear that she wouldn’t get the proper zoning approvals in that time frame as the use falls outside what is allowed for the structure,” he noted.
According to Helwig, potential tenants would receive credit toward their rent for the money they invested in restoration efforts.
“They could get a small business loan at a very low interest rate, but the issue of the time it would take to get all of the zoning approvals if the use fell outside of the current zoning would remain,” Helwig said.
“The upper rooms would be ideal for a conference room and lawyers’ offices, but as you can see, there is a bit of work to be done,” he noted, showing where work had been done to shore up the building structurally.
“These beams are solid, but aesthetically you would have to have a vision to take this on,” he added.
According to information supplied by STHS, Bethlehem Pike, in its heyday, was lined by eight inns, with the Black Horse Inn serving as a last stop on the way to Philadelphia and one of the first stops for horses and their owners on the way out of the city.
The Black Horse Inn continued operating into the 20th century, providing food and a bed to farmers, lime carriers and a stable for horses. The inn’s popular tavern became the local watering hole for a variety of people who traveled up and down the pike.
As its clientele grew, the inn became a major center of the township’s civic and political life. According to information provided by the STHS, the inn was selected as Springfield Township’s polling place and became a preferred meeting place for civic organizations and community meetings. In 1901, the Board of Commissioners selected the inn as its meeting place.
The inn’s “period of significance,” as defined by the National Register nomination, ended in 1926. Prohibition, which began in 1919, ended tavern operations for some time. With the emergence of the automobile, trolley service declined and eventually ended in 1926. The inn continued to be used into the 1980s thanks to the efforts of three generations of the McCloskey family, which owned the property for more than 100 years.
As efforts were underway in 2000 to develop the parcel for a drugstore and state store, and with the threat of demolition of the inn, Springfield Township acquired the property in 2005 from the private developer. The developer then built the state store and Walgreen’s behind the inn, leaving the historic structure to remain in a prominent spot on Bethlehem Pike, and fundraising began in earnest.
The Next Steps
According to information supplied by Springfield Township Manager Don Berger, the next and final phase is expected to cost $1,129,997, which would cover renovations, campaign expenses and a pocket park.
According to Berger, a feasibility study conducted by Edward F. Swenson & Associates and presented to the township proposed a series of steps to align the inn’s renovations with community interests and deliver a project that is most likely to attract maximum community support. Among the recommendations:
1. Leasing as much of the inn as possible to nonprofits in order to create a hub of activities that support the Erdenheim/Flourtown communities.
“We need to use some creative problem solving to insure the inn’s rental income will make the property self-sustaining, while also insuring that rents are affordable to non-profits,” Berger said. The annual rental for the STHS is 50 percent of the net proceeds from annual fundraising activities.
2. Improved messaging for the inn project. The Swenson study found that people were not well informed about plans for the inn’s renovation or the significant parallel efforts to upgrade the pike. It was suggested that enlisting professionals who would provide pro bono expertise to the project would not only enhance the inn’s visibility significantly, but would also ensure broader community support.
3. Enhance parking to encourage greater use of the inn. Currently there are six parking spaces assigned to the inn. Too little parking is considered a deterrent to marketing the property. Creative use of parking could include use of existing parking adjacent to the other buildings on the site. It was suggested that a transportation engineering firm or real estate developer offer in-kind services to study and discuss options with the inn’s adjacent neighbors.
In its latest fundraising efforts, the Friends group did attempt to raise $500,000 to match a state grant, but were not able to raise more than $28,000 from STHS, the Friends, and individuals.
“As you know, it’s been a difficult economy and people are tightening their belts in so many areas,” Ryan said. “But we see this as a community asset and a local treasure that has been saved. We are hoping the community can help with this final phase of the project.”
To date, more than 500 families in Springfield Township and surrounding areas have made donations or pledged $120,000 to the inn.
Tickets for the Sept. 30 Fall Feast and Auction are $75 a person and include a tour of the inn prior to the dinner and silent auction at the Flourtown Country Club.
For more information about the fundraiser, go to http://www.ushistory.org/blackhorse/auction2011.htm.
Checks should be made payable to the STHS and sent to 1432 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, PA 19031-2004.