Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Reconstructing the Narrative

Last week I attended a preview of a new exhibit, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality .

Civil War & Reconstruction - The Battle for Freedom and Equality - NCC

Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, said in a statement:

The National Constitution Center is thrilled to open the first permanent gallery in America that will tell the story of how the freedom and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence was thwarted in the original Constitution, resurrected by Lincoln at Gettysburg, and, after the bloodiest war in American history, finally enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Harvard University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research Henry Louis Gates Jr. said it is the “most amazing” Reconstruction exhibit he has ever seen. Gates hosted the PBS documentary, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War. In conversation with Rosen, Gates observed:

Reconstruction produced a violent, racist backlash. We are still trying to come to terms with the ending of slavery and derailing of Reconstruction.

The exhibit includes certified copies of the three Reconstruction Amendments. I was filled with amazement as I viewed the resolution to amend the Constitution that Secretary of State William H. Seward submitted to the states on February 1, 1865. The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

William Seward - 13th Amendment - Feb. 1, 1865 - FMA

The wall of abolitionists ignited my imagination of what it might have looked like when they gathered at Abolition Hall, an anti-slavery meeting place. The Underground Railroad site played host to Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Wall of Abolitionists2

John Brown never visited Abolition Hall but his spirit looms large. After the Civil War, the purpose-built structure was converted into an artist’s studio where Thomas Hovenden painted The Last Moments of John Brown. The iconic painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1897.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden - Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But it is at risk of degradation by K. Hovnanian’s cookie-cutter development, the Villages at Whitemarsh. A ruling on the appeal of the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors’ zoning decision is still pending. For information on how you can help protect this historic landmark, please visit Friends of Abolition Hall.

Friends of Abolition Hall Appeals Approval of Townhouses Stone’s Throw From Historic Landmark

In October, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors approved K. Hovnanian Homes’ application to build 67 townhouses on the historic Corson Homestead. The cookie-cutter development would be a stone’s throw from Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields.

Abolition Hall - 11.25.18

Friends of Abolition Hall and two nearby property owners have filed an appeal of the Supervisors’ decision. The Friends group released the following statement:

Through an appeal filed on November 21, 2018 with the Montgomery County, PA, Court of Common Pleas, the Friends of Abolition Hall is pursuing its objections to the K. Hovnanian plan to subdivide the historic Corson Homestead at the heart of the Plymouth Meeting National Historic Register District. The Friends assert that in judging the plan’s compliance with local Codes and Ordinances, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors abused its discretion and committed errors of law.

“The historic values of our Plymouth Meeting area are being infringed upon. We should remember the events that took place here, and the courage of the people whose lives touched this hallowed land. We should be honoring this homestead,” said Appellant Mary Celine Childs, who has lived nearby for 42 years and is a past-president of the Whitemarsh Lions Club. Ms. Childs and another nearby neighbor, Anita Thallmayer, have joined with the Friends of Abolition Hall in filing this appeal.

The Corson Homestead, consisting of 10.45 acres, was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad, the pathway to freedom for fugitives fleeing the abomination of slavery. With the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, both fugitives and those who gave them shelter were at great risk—of arrest, fines, and in the case of the men, women and children who sought freedom, capture and painful repercussions. After the Civil War, artist Thomas Hovenden, who married into the Corson family, made the farm his home, and converted Abolition Hall to his studio. It was here that he painted The Last Moments of John Brown, Breaking Home Ties, and many portraits that depict the residents, laborers, and artisans of the villages of Plymouth Meeting and Cold Point. Hovenden’s work is featured prominently in major collections throughout the United States and abroad. The homestead is individually listed on the National Register, and is likely eligible for National Historic Landmark status.

Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, said:

We have asked the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to overturn this bad decision or require that Whitemarsh reopen the hearing. The latter would allow us to offer testimony that was previously blocked. That testimony would have further demonstrated the developer’s failure to comply with key elements of the Zoning Code. Code compliance is a requirement for conditional use approval.

Zove added:

We are not opposed to the development of the historic Corson Homestead, nor are we attempting to block or interfere with the sale of the land from the heirs to this developer or any other buyer. We do believe the property deserves a better plan, one that properly acknowledges and respects the unique legacy of this homestead – its role as a busy stop on the Underground Railroad, as a meeting place for abolitionists, and as the home and studio of artist Thomas Hovenden. Furthermore, we are deeply concerned about the integrity of a documented wetland, and about the fate of the three historic structures – Hovenden House, Stone Barn and Abolition Hall.

Hovnanian is one of the largest developers in the country with a stable of lawyers on speed dial. With this appeal, Friends of Abolition Hall will continue to incur legal fees. They need your support. You can make a secure, tax-deductible contribution here.