cautious optimism? or fear of the future?

Jacobs houseEver since I came to Chester County I have loved this house alone in its own meadow and field on Ship Road in Exton. So I decided to put a photo I took recently up on the Chester County Ramblings Facebook page and a friend of mine told me it was a house on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the Benjamin Jacobs House .

I had noticed it has had a realtor sign outside and I thought was being listed by those folks formerly known as Prudential and now Berkshire Hathaway (their new signs are supposed to stand out as per their ads but I find the color scheme makes them not particularly remarkable).

The area in which the house sits is one that contains a lot of land being cherry picked for development (has been that way for decades at this point) …or if you go down Swedesford there I think it is you see a row of cute little houses abandoned by time and man and getting more vine-covered by the year.  I believe this parcel is listed by some commercial firm  and well people have to make a living and feed their family, but still, I somewhat disappointed to find familiar names on commercial real estate  signs for parcels of land that will kill more open space in Chester County, but that is the reaction I tend to have when I see beautiful land being opened up for development like this. Every time I go by this stretch of houses as a passenger in a car I don’t have a camera with me.

Seriously? Go check out this PECO link to available land in Chester County. It is a sobering list of available land parcels and isn’t all of Chester County out there for sale. (Again see PECO Land Database Chester County )

Anyway, the Benjamin Jacobs House has been part of the Church Farms School land parcels.  It was even mentioned in the Downingtown Area Historical Society Newsletter of April 3, 2014 . That house and the family from which it gets its name are steeped in Chester County history.

The Benjamin Jacobs House was built around 1790.  Here is the description off of Zillow which feeds I am sure from listings like the one on Realtor.com :

house1The Benjamin Jacobs House circa 1790 posted on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architectural details. Surrounded by Chester County Park grounds the 2.6 acre setting is truly beautiful with 100+ year old trees and views of the Great Valley. This wonderful estate offers many potential uses as permitted by the zoning code including; Guesthouse, Inn, Cultural Studio, Eating/Drinking house2Establishment, Professional Office and many more. Though in need of renovation the solid stonestructure presents; a dramatic front to back foyer, two large formal rooms with marble fireplaces, a house3step down family room with an angular bay seating area, spacious kitchen, study and a main level laundry room. The upper floors include 2 bedrooms with fireplaces plus 3-5 additional bedrooms and 2 baths. Other important features include covered porches, arched windows, two staircases, deep window sills, house4hardwood flooring, period trim and many historic details throughout. Come see this awesome piece of history and appreciate all of its potential. Call today for your personal appointment

Read more on REALTOR.com: 375 N Ship Rd, Exton, PA 19341 – Home For Sale and Real Estate Listing – realtor.com® 
Follow us: @REALTORdotcom on Twitter | Realtor.com on Facebook

 

 

It is all those “wonderful” zoning possibilities that makes me worry.  Just because something is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Circa 1984 see Benjamin Jacobs House West Whiteland ) , it doesn’t make it bulletproof.  Take for example another listing close by belonging to same realty office I think.

613 E Swedesford Road Exton, PA 19341 (Once known as the Fox Chase Inn and put on the National Register of Historic Places also in 1984.) The photo I will use of the front is a Wikipedia Commons File.  I have one of it somewhere in photos I took but can’t lay my hands on it right now. 

800px-Fox_Chase_Inn_Chesco_PA

This house is not faring as well as the Benjamin Jacobs House. As are evidenced in the interior photos this realtor has on this listing (and here is the description):

 

613 1Fox Chase Inn, listed on the National Historic Register, Circa 1765, the first true licensed Tavern in West Whiteland Township. This wonderful piece of history offers many possible uses including; Cultural studio, Guesthouse, Inn, Eating/Drinking establishment, Professional business offices, Home office and many other permissible opportunities. The sale includes a historic circa 1823 stone barn 74′ x 44′ plus a large 72′ x33′ addition. Offering 2500+ sf. the Inn includes; a welcoming front porch, a historic full wall cooking fireplace, deep stone window sills as 613 3well as period trim and details. Ready for renovation this prime 2.6 acre location offers high exposure on Swedesford Road that is surrounded by acres of dedicated park grounds and open space. This property is being sold As is Please do not walk the site without an appointment

Read more on REALTOR.com: 613 E Swedesford Rd, Exton, PA 19341 – Home For Sale and Real Estate Listing – realtor.com®
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The problems with these listings is my preservationists heart is reading a sub-text.  Maybe the sub-text isn’t there but what I feel is that people wouldn’t blink if these buildings weren’t there, or if their interiors were to become truly modern commercial without the proper nods to restoration and preservation of the periods in which they were constructed.

Now the Benjamin Jacobs House was a bit of a regional media sensation circa 1988 to 1990.  This was when Willard Rouse was battling to develop adjacent land.  The articles are from the Philadelphia Inquirer which at that time had a fabulous Chester County Bureau.  Of course, that no longer exists today in the eviscerated version of a once great paper and it is out loss because there is so much not being told out here in Chester County because no newspaper has enough staff.

Here are excerpts:

(Article #1 Inquirer March 1988 )

Rouse To Restore A Farmhouse Near Church Farm School

 

Over 195 years, the Benjamin Jacobs House on Ship Road has been home to a judge, to farm families and to boarding students from the Church Farm School, which used the house as a dormitory.

The house would take on still another identity under plans by Rouse & Associates, which has proposed restoring the structure for use as project headquarters during the development of 1,325 acres adjacent to the Church Farm School….The first inhabitant of the house, built in 1793, was Benjamin Jacobs, a surveyor and lawyer who was an associate judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Chester County in the latter part of the 18th century.

(Article # 2 Inquirer March 1990 )

Wanting To Be On History’s Side Plans Are To Restore Several Historic Buildings And Incorporate Them Into The Churchill Project.

Posted: May 10, 1990

In 1715, there were 17 households in West Whiteland Township.

By 1730, the population had mushroomed to 130 – still less than 10 people a square mile.

Most lived on farms, spread around the countryside, with no real population center.

Among them was the Jacobs clan, a Quaker family that settled in the Perkiomen area and later bought several tracts of land that eventually became the core of the Church Farm School.

Today, the homes of John Jacobs and his sons Benjamin and John, and those of their early neighbors, are among the historic structures at 12 principal sites slated to become part of the controversial Churchill development, planned by the nationally known firm of Rouse & Associates for 1,500 acres of historic Chester County countryside.

Just how the sites will be used is not yet known. Rouse officials have said there will be “adaptative reuse” of the old properties. Their architectural consultants said the properties should be preserved along with a surrounding ”area of significance.”

But residents, fearing that increased traffic and new construction connected with the development will encroach on those properties, are taking a stand against Rouse’s plan – from a historical perspective….Sylvia Baker, chairwoman of the East Whiteland Historical Society, is expected to make a statement at tonight’s hearing in East Whiteland – the first public hearing to be held by the township supervisors on the proposed Churchill development…..In East Whiteland Township, Rouse has proposed changing 261 of the 315 acres of the Church Farm School tract located there by developing 62 acres for single-family homes, 40 acres for multifamily housing, 135 acres for light- industrial or warehouse use and 24 acres for commercial use…..”Our position is that we feel the zoning change as requested should be denied because we find no benefit at all to the historic resources if the zoning is changed,” said Diane Snyder, who heads the West Whiteland Historical Commission. “The potential for a negative impact is very, very large. We don’t see our properties gaining anything at all.”

 

 

I seem to remember from somewhere that this was a development battle that got really, really ugly. I think simple economics of the times also played a big role. But this battle for land out here was big enough that it was mentioned in obituaries too. Even Mr. Rouse’s.

I was much younger when this battle was playing out in Chester County.  So I do not really know the outcome of the land battle and who in the end now owns the Benjamin Jacobs House.  What I do know in spite of what this battle did dividing people and communities, is that you would be better off with someone like Willard Rouse in your community versus a lot of other developers who are still gobbling up chunks and chunks of Chester County with zero attempts at historic preservation.  Today it is your basic rape and pillage of beautiful land.

So when I am told a really fascinating old house is “under contract” I hope for the best.  After all both the Benjamin Jacobs House and the Fox Chase Inn play a vital part in local history.

Here’s hoping they stand a better chance than Loch Aerie and Linden Hall which are both sitting like ghosts of their former selves on Route 30 in Frazer.  At least Loch Aerie has a caretaker living there, Linden Hall is just rotting and although I can’t say for sure, from the photos I have taken it sure looks like the building envelope has been pierced by vines and such. And then there is the Ebenezer AME Church on Bacton Hill Road.

A lot of people don’t realize that Exton didn’t used to be one big development like the King of Prussia area. And I hope by pointing out gems like the Benjamin Jacobs House and the Fox Chase Inn, people wake up to that again.

I find a common recurring theme in my own writing: the preservation of Chester County before it’s too late. Pick a municipality, all seem to have something going on.  I am not trying to deliberately pick on certain municipalities, but some of them talk about historic preservation and land preservation  and that is it.  I also hope that by writing about these preservation issues it will spur those who can afford to be really generous to become champions of the land once again.

I know that people everywhere are worried about large land parcels in Chester County, and the more rural they go, the less is known about what will happen. I had one person say to me recently about land I guess towards the northwest quadrant of the county where they said the land was the “perfect storm” for a developer: open farmland and glorious woods and no wetlands to speak of.

Can we save every old house and every old farm? I wish, but the realist in me says no. It is just so darn concerning that a county known for agriculture and beauty just seems to be growing piles of Lego-like structures wrapped in Tyvec without a thought as to our future.

The moral of this long-winded fable is simple: wherever you are in the county, please support land and historic preservation efforts.  They are so crucial.

Thanks for stopping by

Jacobs house 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “cautious optimism? or fear of the future?

  1. As one who fought long and hard against Churchill, Mr. Rouse’s development, i can assure you he would not have preserved those structures. He tore down East Whiteland ones without permits after letting salvage contracts on at least one of them. His smaller development companies purchased 12-14 properties in East Whiteland straddling Swedesford and Conestoga roads to allow for road widening after Churchill went in–but it was rejected and then those houses were sold off. It was a long and sometimes ugly battle that residents fought, researching environmental, traffic studies etc. For example the traffic study “lost” thousands of cars per day in order to stay above “D” ratings of intersections. Ancient history perhaps as Rouse has passed on and so have so many who put their community first. Do hope these houses get purchased and restored…

    • August 3, 2014. The BenjaminJacobs House was recently purchased by a charming family who are in the process of lovingly restoring the beautiful home! I will not give out names, they are friends & I am positive this house will be loved for many years to come! Great ending to such a wonderful historic property.

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