The Hovenden House at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Butler Pike is part of Plymouth Meeting’s historic village. (Photo: Wikicommons)

by George McNeely

Just as the struggle to abolish slavery took centuries, the struggles over the proposed unsympathetic development around Abolition Hall may last as long. Herein is the latest in the saga to preserve that remarkable survival of the Underground Railroad.

Readers may remember that the New Jersey-based developers, K. Hovnanian Homes, is proposing to build 67 townhouses on the eight acres that remain of the Corson farm in Plymouth Meeting. That land is adjacent to Abolition Hall and several other historic structures that hosted decades of heroic Quaker resistance to slavery.

That important remnant also sits at the core of one of Pennsylvania’s earliest historic districts: Plymouth Meeting. Like Job, that historic village is struggling against the many plagues of the modern world, including several major highways, massive shopping malls, office and apartment complexes, and now this development.

The next time you are stuck in traffic around the intersection of Germantown and Butler pikes, park your car and take a few minutes to explore centuries of American history.

The earliest European settlers in the area were Quakers who arrived from England in 1686. By 1708 they were prosperous enough to build their handsome early-Georgian meetinghouse on the opposite side of Germantown Pike.

The local economy was driven by agriculture and limestone, and the village grew in the 18th century, mostly clustered along Germantown Pike. Many houses were connected behind to active farms and thus accompanied by barns and other structures. If you hunt around, some of those buildings happily survive today, peeping out from under later modifications.

The members of the extended Corson clan were longtime and active residents of the village, including the nearby Corson lime quarries. By the 19th century, their farm extended to more than 100 acres behind their various buildings on the pike, including Hovenden House (finished 1795), the General Store (1826), the barn (circa 1795), and the building that is now known as Abolition Hall.

The Corsons were Quakers and ardent abolitionists. While condemnation of slavery was broadly supported in the north in the 19th century, few were willing to take the risks necessary to resist. But several generations of the extended Corson family became “conductors” along the “northern route” of the Underground Railroad, which skirted Philadelphia to the west through Montgomery County. The Corson’s farm became an important stop on the way north to the various Quaker safe houses in Bucks County and then on to New York State and Canada.

On top of the many existing state and federal laws that protected slave owners, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was particularly galling, imposing new punishments and permitting slave hunters to pursue their prey into northern states. The resulting tensions became particularly heated locally with a well-publicized 1855 trial in Philadelphia resulting from the escape of Jane Johnson, an enslaved lady who was aided by the Corsons.

Quaker meeting houses had long hosted abolitionist speakers, but fears of reprisals caused the Plymouth Meeting to stop such talks in 1856. In reaction, George Corson expanded his stable with a second-floor meeting room that could hold over 150 people. That hall hosted such illustrious speakers as Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and William Lloyd Garrison in the decade leading up to the Civil War.

K. Hovnanian’s plans for the Abolition Hall site. The upper-left corner shows “proposed lot 1,” which contains the historic buildings of the Abolition Hall site along Butler Pike.

That complex of buildings and its connected farmland remain in the Corson family today, with an interesting history beyond the scope of this article. But now the ensemble is threatened – and with it the integrity of the broader surviving Plymouth Meeting village historic district. Its fate is now in the hands of our political system.

To be fair, the proposed development does not propose the demolition of any of the Corson buildings, but it encroaches uncomfortably close, eliminates the remaining rural context, and thus risks further jeopardizing both those buildings and the larger historic district.

Readers may remember that, despite objections, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for the proposed plan for the townhouse development in late 2018.

Since then, the Township’s engineers have reviewed the plans and submitted their report on July 31. It lists 106 issues. Some are minor corrections or technical points, but others are more significant. Hovnanian’s staff is apparently working on those right now and another Board of Supervisors vote should happen before Nov. 30.

Curiously, the dog days of summer have produced a number of interesting related developments.

First, the Township’s Shade Tree Commission has surveyed the eight-acre property to review the number of trees proposed for removal. Despite the Township’s maximum of 50%, the developers have proposed to take down 332 of the 444 trees on the site. The commission voted against the proposed plan on Sept. 4.

Second, the Corson’s fields and woods contain several sections of wetland and seven sink holes. Given the extended closing of adjacent Butler Pike due to other sink holes, such holes must be taken seriously. Depending upon specifics, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may need to get involved and parts of the site that are now slated for houses may not be buildable.

Third, questions have been raised about the close relationship between Sean Kilkenny, the Whitemarsh Township Solicitor, and the developer. Kilkenny is advising the Board of Supervisors as they deliberate upon the developer’s plans. His position is appointed annually by that same Board.

At the same time, Kilkenny is also the Sheriff of Montgomery County, which is an elected position and can thus accept campaign contributions. The Hovnanians are represented locally by the Doylestown law firm Eastburn & Gray, which has made contributions to PACs that have supported Kilkenny’s sheriff campaign.

Should the residents of Whitemarsh Township be concerned about Kilkenny’s independent judgment in this instance?

An independent group of concerned neighbors, Friends of Abolition Hall, filed a complaint against the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors, questioning a number of issues related to their approval of the developer’s plans. That case is now scheduled to be heard by the Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 20 in Norristown.

As this situation continues to unfold, it would be a good time to explore the village of Plymouth Meeting and walk back to see Abolition Hall. It currently stands surrounded by the surviving fields and woods of the Corson’s farm, one of the few remaining buffer zones around that village. And remember another time when local people stood up for what was right in the face of huge risks.

...