Remembering John Brown

December 2 marks 159 years since freedom fighter John Brown’s last moments on Earth.

William H. Johnson - John Brown Legend

The fiery abolitionist is near and dear to my heart. Many years ago I visited John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

John Brown's Fort

I’ve lost count of the number of times I touched base with my hero at the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown - National Portrait Gallery

I also regularly visit John Brown at the Metropolitan Museum and share with him what’s going on.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned a development project, the Villages at Whitemarsh, would encroach on the studio where Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown.”

Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields, was converted into a studio after the Civil War. The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, wants to build 67 generic townhouses a stone’s throw from the historic landmark.

Hovnanian won the first round but the fight is far from over. Friends of Abolition Hall appealed the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors’ approval of the developer’s conditional use application.

John Brown’s “body lies a-mouldering in the grave. But his soul goes marching on.” Indeed, I believe to my soul that Abolition Hall deserves better.

To add your voice to those who oppose the desecration of this historic landmark and hallowed ground, please contact us.

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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.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better

Few places matter more to me than Underground Railroad sites. Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania is one such site.

cropped-abolitionhalldeservesbetter.jpg

The historic landmark is under threat by a proposal to build 67 townhouses on the George Corson homestead.

Abolition Hall - Google Earth - Villages at Whitemarsh

Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection at Temple University, is the author of several books on the Underground Railroad. Blockson wrote:

Abolition Hall was an important terminal on the Freedom Network known as the Underground Railroad, not only has local significance but also national significance. As chairperson of the National Park Service Advisory Committee, I referenced this site to highlight the importance of the Underground Railroad. … The site played a significant role in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Study, adopted by Congress to designate the Network to Freedom as a national historic treasure. Abolition Hall is a national, historical site that should be preserved.

After months of testimony and public comments, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 0 to approve K. Hovnanian Homes’ Villages at Whitemarsh proposal.

Say Their Names - Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors

Philadelphia Inquirer Architecture Critic Inga Saffron blasted the proposal:

The latest proposal would dump 67 townhouses right into the heart of the village and dramatically disrupt the historic ensemble. K. Hovnanian Homes wants to cram the townhouses behind the main house on the 10-acre Corson property. Although the house and Abolition Hall would remain standing, the new buildings would come virtually to their back doors. Hovnanian would leave the two historic buildings with 1.4 acres between them. It’s hard to imagine how they could thrive on such tiny plots.

The 22 conditions the Board of Supervisors attached to the draft resolution are mere fig leaves. According to Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, roughly half of the conditions simply note that the project must comply with specific Code provisions. Zove said:

Clearly, the outcome of these seven months of hearings is disappointing. The public is vehemently against this project – for a variety of reasons. For some it is the increase in traffic congestion. For others it is the loss of open space. Of course, most people are deeply appalled by the planned degradation of a nationally significant homestead. Then there’s the issue of the wetlands, the exacerbation of sinkholes (there are three large ones nearby and several on the property), and the concern about the fate of the historic structures. Take your pick – it ain’t pretty no matter how you slice or dice it.

A number of local and state agencies must sign off on the butt-ugly plan, including the Whitemarsh Planning Commission and the Historical Architectural Review Board. So it ain’t over.

2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to colonial America. The milestone will be commemorated across the country. The African American story cannot be told without Abolition Hall. For the next 400 days, I will curate news and information about the proposal because Abolition Hall – and the ancestors – deserve better.