This is not a dig at Shipley. It’s a simple desire for part of the history to be told more honestly than it is being told.
There were loads of media articles back then about this topic, and they ALL told this story: the school under the direction of former headmaster wanted to tear down Beechwood. Alumni and neighbors (who were also alumni and parents of alumni and students) wanted to save Beechwood. All of these people (myself included) were made to feel like PARIAHS as a result for a good part of this and weren’t made to feel too terribly comfortable AFTER like me who had a reunion not too long after completion.
It was very hard to take a stand back then over this. So hard. But this was the pivotal event that made me personally realize standing up in your community and for community and for things like historic preservation are important.
Acceptance is important as well. This was not a pretty time, but the events happened, and they mattered. And in the end it was positive. So truly positive.
The Shipley I have seen under the current headmaster is honestly magical. It is so good it even brought me back to campus. I believe in and support my alma mater.
I wrote this post to correct the record. After all, history is important. This is not burning down the proverbial house.
Now for the post:
In 2020, I wrote a post about Beechwood House in Bryn Mawr, PA. It is a completely restored adaptive reuse. This architectural gem is located on Shipley’s lower school campus. And I was a member of the group led by Heather Hillman which saved it. You see, the former headmaster literally wanted to pave paradise and put up a parking lot…a pool…etc.
Our teachers at Shipley taught us not all of our history is convenient, that it’s the reality of what happened. They were also the ones that helped me write better and frame my arguments. My journalist mentors alway have said to write what I know. And I do know this I was there. It was a slog of a battle to save a beautiful home fallen on less than glorious times which had been designed by Addison Hutton. Yes, the same architect who designed Loch Aerie. But Beechwood was my first Addison Hutton love.
In between 10th and 11th grade I had a summer job on the Lower School campus of Shipley. I worked for the day camp there. When the little monsters, err darlings, were having naps I would explore non-renovated Beechwood which was part of the space used. It was fascinating to me back then because it had been almost crudely adapted to classroom space but you could see the bones of the original house when you did things like peeked in closets and behind shelves. It was the ultimate if these walls could talk.
We all have that one building or place that makes us look at the world differently. That one inspiration that makes us realize we can’t just sit idly by as our history disappears building by building, acre by acre.
For me, it was Beechwood House in Bryn Mawr. This was my first foray into community activism when I heard in the late 1990s that Shipley wanted to tear her down. It was because of this house that I spoke in front of people at a township meeting for the very first time all those years ago. Seriously, I had never even been to a meeting at my township building or spoken in front of everyone in a crowded room. But this place mattered to me and I joined Friends to Save Beechwood in their early days.
They wanted to tear Beechwood House down. It spread like wildfire back then. It was instantly polarizing in the community at large. Alumni of Shipley were in an uproar as well. This required professional mediation. Eventually Shipley said they would keep Beechwood if money was raised to save it by a certain deadline in 2001. To this day, I still think the school thought it would never happen. But it did.
Heather Hillman was the main driving force along with Jean Wolf (Wolf Historic Preservation) a preservationist who has done amazing things. (The saving of Beechwood was kind of a big to do at the time. There were many articles about it in multiple publications.)
As mentioned, I had never gone to a township meeting or spoken out in public. It got easier with time, but at first I was terrified. And in awe of these fierce women who did literally so much with a smile on their face and I don’t recall them raising their voices. I raised my voice, I was somewhat appalled by my alma mater when this started, and even when it was over – kind of like when they basked in the glory of the end result which was a successful restoration and adaptive reuse of a building we had to fight them to save because they didn’t think it was worth saving. (You can also read about Beechwood here.)
In 2006 when we had our 25th class reunion, we were able to get Beechwood House for our reunion. A lot of my classmates had contributed to the fundraising and along with me were listed up on the brass plaque inside the building. The headmaster at the time was making the reunion party rounds and was talking about the restoration of Beechwood with my class. He got heckled by one of my classmates because he didn’t mention me but mentioned almost everyone else on the Friends to Save Beechwood committee. But it was sadly a penultimate example of we might not as well have been there.
But we were, and saving that structure still brings me joy every time we go by. Shipley has the glory of a beautiful and useful structure. And loving Beechwood introduced me to Addison Hutton. But while Shipley does have the glory of the structure being saved and we raised all the money for it at the time, they need to be accurate in the retelling of the story. Not revisionist history. How we got there is important. So Shipley’s historians need a wee bit of grace here I think.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, we are taught by our teachers that not all history is convenient, and history can be uncomfortable. If you went to Shipley or live around it, the school thing with Beechwood is a little uncomfortable for some people. But sadly that is exactly why it should be discussed more honestly. Talking about it helps and it’s the right thing to do.
In 2021 when my class had their 40th reunion it was life in COVID. So our reunion was canceled. We had an online zoom reunion which was actually pretty fun and there were also online events offered for alumni who were interested. One was a history of Shipley. The lecture was given by the alumnus who re-wrote the history of Shipley, originally written by another alumnus and teacher of ours. I actually have both books.
Anyway, when the part of the school’s history reached the saving of Beechwood House, there was some coloring outside of the lines. At that time I politely asked for the historical record to be corrected to reflect what actually happened. Well when I attended some of the Shipley reunion activities last weekend I attended an in person lecture of the history of Shipley given by this same alumnus who was also I think having her 50th reunion. Once again, she colored outside the lines with the lecture. This time she actually credited the former headmaster who wanted to tear down Beechwood with saving her. Sorry it was a bridge too far for me, so here I am again. He did a lot of positive things for the school, but saving Beechwood wasn’t one of them. We saved it for him, for Shipley, and for Shipley’s history…and that’s an important distinction.
Yeah, ok, maybe I shouldn’t have, but when she asked if there were questions or comments at the end I raised my hand and politely reminded her that in 2021 I had asked her to amend the historical record as she recounts it on Beechwood House. She really didn’t like that and she said it was correct in the book. Well actually I beg to differ it is not completely correct in her book. It’s kind of fluffed over in my humble opinion. Technically, she included most facts, but she kind of glossed over the issue. I don’t think it should be glossed over, it should be discussed honestly. Don’t be a revisionist history practitioner.
In addition, to say that the lower campus project was “complicated“ by neighbors’ opposition is a little snotty to those neighbors, some of whom were either alumni or parents of alumni and students. You can’t blame neighbors for not wanting institutional, commercial, or residential infill development to drown their neighborhood and dwarf it out of human scale. And I have to be honest, since I still lived on the Main Line at this time, and not too far from Shipley, I can tell you the expansion conversations were always contentious. A lot of the meetings were ugly. And not just concerning Beechwood. At times, I barely recognized my alma mater during those years. It was hard, and if you were an alumnus it left you torn. It left me torn.
Beechwood House taught me about getting involved in your community. It reminded me of what some Shipley teachers had taught me long before about the importance of fighting for what you believe in and taking a stand.
Not every academic institution has 100% bright moments, and as much as I love Shipley, I have not always liked Shipley. And when they wanted to tear down Beechwood I definitely didn’t like Shipley very much. But part of our education there was teaching us right from wrong, and what is right is to set the record straight here and be honest. It does not hurt the school to admit that originally they were not correct and this was a place worth saving. But they also have to admit they didn’t actually do the saving, a small group of determined alumni and neighbors with a fearless leader did.
When I have tried to explain this before, even people at Shipley haven’t really understood. Some because they weren’t here then, and others because it makes them uncomfortable. Like the author of the updated Shipley history, for example. I know part of it is that she doesn’t care for me as a person and I’m fine with that, but I think the other part of it is she’s not comfortable with the whole truth of what happened. And while I get that, it’s not the worst thing in the world and it doesn’t tarnish the reputation of the school, it is merely one story of the thousands of stories dating back to 1894. It’s all part of the motto we learn as soon as we enter the school: Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing. (Fortiter in Re; Leniter in Modo)
Beechwood House also shows you what is possible with historic preservation. It’s a shame but if there hadn’t been such a swirl of BS around Oakwell in Villanova, maybe Oakwell and her property could have become a preserved gem. But sadly we’re talking about Lower Merion School District, and they will never have an iota of what makes Shipley so special. Oakwell will not have the preservation happy ending because not only doesn’t Lower Merion School District NOT give a damn about preservation, but people interested in preserving Oakwell couldn’t ever really become a cohesive unit of a unified vision. And well the guy who set Oakwell all into motion originally ? Well never mind about him.
Learn from the Beechwood Houses and the Oakwells of this area.
Thanks for stopping by.