ON THE WEST SIDE
THE UNIVERSITY CITY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
MIKE HARDY, EDITOR
As by now you know, The Woodlands Cemetery Company informed the University City Historical Society that our lease for The Woodlands would not be renewed, that we must remove our collections as soon as possible and may no longer use The Woodlands as our mailing address. In the same communiqué, the Spruce Hill Garden Club was ordered to remove equipment, stored on the grounds and in the carriage house/stable, used to make improvements to the grounds and in the club's greening efforts of Baltimore Avenue in Bloom.
As UCHS and SHGC comply and UCHS prepares to move its collections from its home of twenty years, it seems appropriate to leave a brief historical record of how our relationship with The Woodlands began, how it flourished and how it came to the present tragic conclusion.
In the Beginning
In 1978, UCHS was in need of a storage facility for the large collection of architectural artifacts, decorative bits and pieces of mainly 19th century buildings demolished in the 1960's and 1970's as part of "urban renewal" in West Philadelphia, then stored in various members' basements, attics and closets. A lease with the cemetery company provided for storage and exhibit space in the mansion's basement. The rest of this National Historic Landmark was being used as the company's superintendent's residence and closed to the public, except for the unrestored central river "ballroom" through which a visitor passed on the way to the cemetery office.
In the lease, UCHS also, at no cost to the cemetery company, committed itself to "seek funding for the complete restoration of the ballroom." Based on a UCHS-funded report by preservation architect John Dickey, in 1982 it proposed to do just that as part of a long-range plan proposed to the president of the cemetery company. This plan was to restore the entire first floor as a revenue-producing conference and reception center and provide alternative living quarters for the superintendent, freeing the first floor for public use. A few years passed before the cemetery company responded and in 1987, with funding generated by UCHS, the ballroom, now the Price Saloon, was restored and reopened to public uses, with moneys generated through its use, revenues from the society's annual house tours and other grants going to further restoration efforts. A set of restored American classical revival furniture, presented by Constance Jones of Rosemont, was installed in the space, joined, in 1988, by another collection of classical revival furniture, paintings and decorative vases presented by Mr. and Mrs. George Lavino. In 1989, UCHS established the membership category, Contributing Friends of The Woodlands with an annual dues payment of $25 (later $40) with one-half going directly to the restoration of the mansion. These contributors have averaged between 150 to 200 households every year from that date.
In the following years, UCHS, through broad-based individual, foundation and corporate support, provided for restoration and painting of the mansion's badly deteriorated exterior woodwork and temporary stabilization of the north portico. In 1991, using revenues from the use of the saloon and additional contributions, including a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, it contracted with John Milner Associates for a study and report on what would be required to restore the exterior and entire first floor to open these spaces to the general public. That study and its recommendations were delivered in 1992 and became the basis for major construction and archeological grant applications to the recently announced Historic House Museum Challenge Grant Program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation. Backed by pledges of both cash and professional services from UCHS members, which met and exceeded the "match" required by the challenge grant, UCHS was one of some thirty house museums in the Delaware Valley to be honored by grants. In our case, the grants provided for archaeological investigations; correcting the structural deficiencies identified by Keast and Hood, the structural engineers of the Milner study; installing new electrical, fire alarm, security and exterior lighting systems for the mansion and providing for self-contained alternative living quarters for the cemetery superintendent in unused second floor bedroom spaces.
During all this period, The Woodlands became the focus of new public attention through receptions, dinners, dances, tours, lectures, awards presentations, preservation workshops, board retreats, nursing assemblies and the annual UCHS "Adopt-a-Grave Picnic and Walkabout" originated in 1983. The mansion and grounds, designated, in 1989, as The Woodlands Heritage National Recreation Trail, were given new attention through botanical surveys, joint programs and annual bus tours with Bartram's Garden, membership in the Pew-funded Gardens Collaborative, and planting initiatives by the Spruce Hill Garden Club and other planting groups. The Woodlands also became a component part of the state-funded Schuylkill River Heritage Corridor program and worked with local agencies and sites toward the realization of the West Bank and Schuylkill River Botanical Trails to link Bartram's Gardens and other sites on the Lower Schuylkill to center city and the proposed Schuylkill River Park being created on the east bank.
The Promise of the Future
In October, 1994, work on the mansion funded by the "Pew Grant" made possible the first reopening to the public since the 1840's of the entirety of the renowned first-floor circuit of non-rectangular rooms of William Hamilton's architectural masterpiece of the late 1780's. For the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, the general public experienced the spectacular effect of the domed entry rotunda, linked to two oval public rooms, two squared "picture galleries," the magnificent restored saloon and the intriguing prospects of interior secret servants' passages, basement kitchens and second story bed chambers. Contributions of both labor and materials were given by area professionals who prepared these newly opened spaces for public use and a series of weddings, balls, tours, historic preservation studies, luncheons, lectures, dinners, receptions, dance performances, musicales and fund-raisers were begun. The most spectacular of these was a re-creation, by food historian William Woys Weaver and Shackamaxon Catering, one of the most active and generous of the Woodlands-approved caterers, of the 1825 Philadelphia meal served to the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, enjoyed by over 140 diners to widespread public attention as part of the city-wide Book and the Cook programs of 1996.
Then, in a closed meeting on Friday, September 13, 1996, with the only representative of UCHS on site barred from attending, the Woodlands Cemetery Board met and unilaterally voted to close the mansion to the public, citing structural defects which they found so serious as to preclude, not only public assemblies, but even private tours. Paradoxically, this suggestion of imminent collapse was coupled with moving the sales office of the cemetery company's business operations into the building, where the superintendent and his wife continue to reside. The company then rejected all UCHS offers to prepare the way for an expeditious return of the Keast and Hood engineer who had been working for the society to provide a report and recommendations for repair of the newly discovered damage found as a result of work in conjunction with the Pew grant building campaign.
The cemetery board also resisted all offers of professional assistance, labor or fund-raising efforts by the historical society on the building's behalf, insisting that the cemetery board alone would take full responsibility for the building. That same message was sent to hundreds of Friends of The Woodlands and others who wrote long, thoughtful and heartfelt letters to the president of the board urging cooperation with UCHS. The board also resisted all efforts, both formal and informal, to establish meaningful dialogue between the two organizations or to discuss the renewal of the second ten year lease with UCHS, an agreement which the cemetery company allowed to expire in February, 1997. Without a lease agreement, UCHS was required to return to Preservation Pennsylvania, a Pew-funded state preservation organization, 2/3 of $10,000 allocated to repair the deteriorating exterior columns of the river portico.
Basic to an understanding of these events is not the imminent collapse of the mansion but the deteriorating condition of the cemetery company, which, by its own assessment, is itself facing "collapse within a few years" unless it generates major new revenues to offset the continuing drain on its endowment. The company is severing all relationships with the surrounding community, explaining that they could be encumbrances on its ability to move with total flexibility as it considers future options. Whatever the wisdom or necessity of such a strategy, the results for the mansion could be devastating.
A few months ago the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story about the sad condition of Rockford, an 1810 classical villa which sits in Fairmount Park, unused and deteriorating. In the article, Dr. Roger Moss, director of The Athenaeum and a Woodlands cemetery board member, remarked that this was the predictable fate of an historic house without a public constituency. Alas, in the case of The Woodlands, the public constituency developed over twenty years has just been shown the door. And, not unlike Rockford, its immediate future is also that of a crumbling National Historic Landmark, albeit in the middle of a financially imperiled cemetery, rather than a financially pressed public park.
Some Final Thoughts
As we prepare to leave The Woodlands and the over $300,000 in funds and professional services invested by UCHS in its preservation and restoration, how should we regard our efforts there and what options do we as a society have with respect to this landmark?
First and foremost, we can be proud that our twenty year effort was able to begin to reveal to the public the existence and importance of the building and its site, which before our arrival was hidden from sight. Without UCHS initiatives, the cemetery, the mansion, and their ever-growing histories would have been known only by the recollections of a fortunate few, fading photographs in specialized architectural histories and passing references in academic dissertations. Our efforts have always been to open The Woodlands to the broadest possible community and for a time, we were able to do so. Our legacy is thus a vision of what could be, even if that vision will have to be one for possible new generations of future stewards to realize. Until then, if that day ever comes, we will have to find other means of bringing the stories of The Woodlands and its legacies to the general public.
HELP US MOVE ON
While special arrangements are being made to disperse the antique furnishings given to UCHS at The Woodlands, we are asking everyone to give us a hand, or two, on Sunday, June 22 when we will be transporting our collection of architectural artifacts from The Woodlands to their new home, the second and third floors of The Firehouse Farmers' Market at 50th and Baltimore Avenue.
The Firehouse board, Cedar Park Neighbors and UCHS have agreed to the terms of a new lease to allow the artifacts to be stored and eventually formally displayed in this new public space. We will keep you posted on plans for the collection, but on Sunday, June 22 we need volunteers to assist in the day-long removal of the collection from The Woodlands and passing it up the steps to the second floor of the market. We would welcome any vehicle you have to join the caravan as we disinter our possessions and reinstall them in a new, and more appreciative home.
Vice President Tim Wood is coordinating the move and recommends that you can expect to get dirty, so wear old clothes and bring work gloves. If you can help, please call (215) 387-3019 and leave your name and phone number in case there are last minute changes. Otherwise, we will be starting at 9 a.m. sharp at The Woodlands. Come help us save a little of our history.
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