ghosts of houses abandoned on swedesford

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This is the irony of Chester County today: these were marvelous little houses that faculty and staff of Church Farms School lived in once upon a time.

Then came developers and now they rot. Day by day, month by moth, year by year. No one does anything except sometimes mow the grass.  These houses just sit there and fall apart.

But they were tough, well made houses in their day so I am guessing they haven’t rotted fast enough?

But with all the butt ugly development, these houses would have been welcomed once upon a time by families looking to live in Chester County. But oh no, along came the developers.

And they rot. And no municipality seems to care.  Someday they will be an office park or a townhouse development.

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benjamin jacobs house in exton gets new lease on life



I have said (and written previously) that ever 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 put a photo I took 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, the Benjamin Jacobs House .

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.

So today I got a new Twitter follower request and much to my delight it is the new owner of the Benjamin Jacobs house!  And the house is being restored!!!

The owner, Sarah Toms,  is chronicling the restoration in a blog. Personally, old house nut that I am, I am very excited about this!  This is, after all something amazing in today’s age: someone actually wants to restore a truly amazing house like this! I can’t wait to read along with everyone else as the work progresses!

Here is her inaugural post:

Benjamin Jacobs House: Why Exton?

I’ve lived in Pennsylvania’s Chester and Montgomery counties since the mid 1990’s, and to be honest, the Exton area never spoke to me. For one, there’s no quaint town center like so many boroughs in this area to draw you in and make you want to explore the shops and neighborhoods. The busy routes 100 and 30, which transect Exton, are uninspired corridors of stop and go traffic lined with same-same chain stores and restaurants. It really could be Anywhere, USA. So when my husband Ben and I started looking for a home close to a train station and near our children’s charter school, we reluctantly decided to take a second look at this area.

The Benjamin Jacobs House was the first home for sale that we looked at online and based on the pictures and description, it seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. Large enough for our big family and situated in a peaceful park setting, Ben and I were excited to see it in person. We also liked that this home has a really interesting past that is connected to the founding of our country (Benjamin Jacobs’ father, John Jacobs, was Speaker of the House when the Constitution was signed, and Benjamin not only helped to fund the Revolutionary War but was also a signer of Continental Currency – stay tuned for more history!).

Our first viewing was in March, 2014 and I have to say my first impression as I pulled in and parked in the home’s parking lot (yes, it has a 15 car parking lot) was Addams Family, here I come! Half of the front porch had fallen down and was lying next to the house, all the exterior paint was flaking off, and there are no shrubs or gardens, so the huge white structure felt stark and at odds with its setting. The house sits a little way back from Ship Road, but given the unwritten rule that everyone must exceed the speed limit by at least 20 mph, I didn’t feel too keen about living on this busy road. When I looked to Ben to gauge his first impressions, I was amazed to see my beloved beaming from ear to ear. My English husband had finally found his country estate, and where I saw years of renovations ahead of us, he saw vast potential in this dilapidated gem. Our realtor Terry, who with his wife Lois, has helped us to sell and buy previous homes, let out a chuckle – he seemed to already know that this place would be right up the alley of his quirky clients.

church farms school latest to deal with touchy-feely adults

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Sign me disgusted on this one. The news has broken with yet another teacher/guidance counselor/coach/school employee having inappropriate relationships with students. What is wrong with people? And what is wrong with the education system and both public and private schools that they can’t screen out potential problems?

The news broke last night about Sarah O’Neill of Coatesville, previously employed by the august Church Farms School right on Route 30 in Exton. This elite boys boarding school says on their website “inspiring boys, fulfilling dreams”. Somehow a touchy feely past female employee charged with having a full blown affair with an underage male student is not exactly what they had in mind, don’t you think?

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I do not get what motivates these purported “adults” basically every single time one of these stories hits the media. This story, like the others, totally grosses me out and skeeves me. A couple of years ago my alma mater Shipley went through this. Within the past few years there was also that incident at Bayard Rustin high school in West Chester with the swim coach.

Of course the Shipley story/issue/perversion made the news again last summer when authorities discovered that the guy who was the former coach had been living with the student he was never supposed to have contact with again. Mind you when I read that article I wondered what the hell was wrong with the girl’s parents in addition to this creepy guy?

And then there was the Valley Forge Military Academy and College guidance counselor who also got caught in a “compromising position” around 2012. The list seems somewhat endless over the past few years and I don’t get it. With all the background checks that are supposed to be done for people who want to be in the education field and so on I don’t understand how these people fall through the cracks? These things just happen magically? Or have they been happening all along and it’s just because the world we live in that the issues are finally coming to light?

I guess I just don’t get people that are entrusted with the lives and minds of our children doing these things. I don’t understand the motivation. I am sure there is a litany of excuses but surely these adults know the difference between right and wrong? How do they betray the trust of the students and the parents?

So this developing case shows again why people should support non-profits dedicated to fighting sexual abuse and exploitation of children. One is local to Chester County. It’s a wonderful organization called Justice4PAkids. You can click on hyperlink to view their website and find them on Facebook.

Anyway, here’s the early media coverage on this so made for a ridiculous Lifetime TV movie linked below.

Add Sarah O’Neill 35 of Coatesville to the touchy-feely wall of shame in Pennsylvania.

NBC10 Philadelphia : Chester County Teacher Accused of Having Sex, Relationship With Student

A Chester County teacher is accused of having sex with one of her students during a relationship that lasted nearly a year.

“The thought that I could love so deeply and so wrongly pervaded before you and I even officially began,” Sarah O’Neill allegedly wrote the teen. “It was quite a long winter break before my lips even attempted yours and I wondered if you were as affected as I.”

O’Neill, 35, of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was a teacher at Church Farm School, an all-boys private school in Exton, Pennsylvania. The teen, who is now 17, told police he began a relationship with O’Neill in January, 2014, when he was 16 and she was his teacher. The two expressed their love for one another and began a relationship that lasted 10 months, according to investigators.

Daily Local : Church Farm School teacher arrested for alleged sexual relationship with student

…..Sarah O’Neill, of Coatesville, was arrested on four counts of corruption of minors on Tuesday for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old student. Police said the relationship began in January 2014 and lasted for about 10 months.

Police said O’Neill was charged for four separate incidents that allegedly occurred in her car and at area hotels

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. 

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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®
Follow us: @REALTORdotcom on Twitter | Realtor.com on Facebook

 

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

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