40 years of beauty for historic Joseph Ambler Inn

by Len Lear
Posted 5/4/23

Situated in a setting that is worthy of a poem by Wordsworth, the property is a virtual picture postcard.

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40 years of beauty for historic Joseph Ambler Inn


Longtime Chestnut Hill residents will no doubt remember 21 West, located at 21 West Highland Ave., which for much of the 1970s and '80s was easily the most elegant restaurant in Chestnut Hill. We ate there for special occasions like anniversaries, if our budget would allow. 

The owner, the late Mary Fretz, was a gracious, charming host who would come up to each table and chat with guests. During those same years, Mary's husband, Dick, owned and operated the Yorktown Inn in Elkins Park. (Once, when we were having dinner there, a customer started choking on a piece of meat. A server rushed over and gave him the Heimlich maneuver, causing the meat to pop out of the customer's mouth, literally saving his life.)

At the same time their son, Richard Allman, a one-time quarterback for the William Penn Charter football team, owned and operated The Depot, a popular railroad-themed hangout for young adults in the building at 8515 Germantown Ave. where Starbucks is now located. 

In 1983, however, Allman fell in love with — and purchased — a bucolic 12-acre horse farm at 1005 Horsham Rd. in North Wales, a few minutes past the end of the Route 309 Expressway. "At first it was my hope to turn this beautiful estate into a private residence," Allman said. But he changed his mind. Instead, he converted the property into the Joseph Ambler Inn - a hotel, restaurant and event space that this year is  celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Situated in a setting that is worthy of a poem by Wordsworth, the property is a virtual picture postcard. The massive expanse includes an outdoor dining area that can accommodate about 175 guests, a restaurant that seats another 125, a banquet room for up to 200 and a bar for 40 more customers. From many vantage points, guests look out on a 12-acre expanse of extraordinary rustic beauty. Floral displays, verdant gardens, trees and lawns perform their visual alchemy without a bus or SUV in sight.

“The pandemic actually was a godsend for us because we have so much space outdoors,” Allman said last week. “We even added a patio with 70 seats, and we did not lay off anyone. Many new customers discovered us since so many places were closed or only doing takeout. We know many people in our business have had hiring problems, but we have not.” 

Allman's wife, Janet, is the property's quality assurance manager. She oversees rooms, general décor, flowers and the fine tuning of the entire complex, which she admits had started to look a little shabby. She and Richard said they are a “good cop, bad cop” team, but they won't say which is which.

For a historical perspective, a skilled wheelwright named Joseph Ambler built the original fieldstone house on the estate in 1734, property that was originally part of a large expanse owned by William Penn. In the centuries to follow, many other buildings were constructed, including a tenant cottage and stone bank barn. In 1983, Allman purchased the entire complex and opened 15 overnight guest rooms in the farmhouse and cottage.

In 1987, Allman opened the restaurant/bar in the 1820s' stone bank barn with exposed stone walls and random-width hardwood floors, along with 13 more guestrooms. In 1997, 10 more overnight rooms were opened in another building, the Thomas Wilson House, and, in 2003, 15 guest suites and two conference/dining rooms were added in yet another building, the John Roberts House. 

Before being added to the Inn complex, the historic Wilson and Roberts Houses were located nearby and had been scheduled for demolition. Allman saved them, and arranged for the houses to be transported to his property.  It took 16 hours to move the John Roberts House, built in 1794, from its location two miles away. to Allman's property on Nov. 23, 2003. The two houses, now completely restored, are a true testament to local historical preservation.

According to Allman, the John Roberts House (No, it is not named for the current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) weighed 1.3 million pounds. The Thomas Wilson House, built in  the 1850s) weighed 650,000 pounds. All told, there are now 52 guest rooms in five historic buildings. They are the site of about 80 weddings a year and countless birthdays, anniversaries and showers.

According to Allman, many celebrities have stayed in those 52 rooms over the years, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and entertainers Shirley Jones, Art Linkletter, Andrea McArdle, Rita Moreno, Teddy Pendergrass. Ed Rendell, Debbie Reynolds, Jeffrey Tambor and James Taylor.

The facility is planning its 40th Anniversary Celebration on June 19 from 4 to 7 p.m. where guests and the general public are invited to enjoy food, drinks and tours of the historic property.

Throughout the year, the number 40 will resurface in various ways in honor of the anniversary, including in $40 wine, dining and summer staycation specials. 

For more information, call 215-362-7500 or visit josephamblerinn.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com