Institutional properties are central to the township’s character. These properties, which primarily accommodate educational, religious, social, and cultural organizations, are often enhanced with historic buildings, landscapes, and expanses of open space. Many institutional properties in the township, however, face an uncertain future. As they lose their relevance or use, they become vulnerable to changes that can diminish or destroy their character. The Comprehensive Plan recommends strategies for discouraging this outcome. These strategies include the implementation of institutional land development policies that preserve open space; discourage the subdivision of large properties; require the preservation of repurposed historic buildings; and contain future density to existing buildings. The 2017 WatchList includes three vulnerable institutional properties in Lower Merion that can benefit from these strategies.
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary:
100 Wynnewood Road, Wynnewood
Architects: Samuel Sloan and Addison Hutton; Paul Monoghan
Built: 1866; 1928
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, which the Conservancy placed on its 2016 WatchList, is unquestionably one the township’s most significant properties. The value of St. Charles is measured by its weighty history, its extraordinary architecture, and its magnificent landscape. The seminary includes two distinct areas of importance: the Upper Campus and the Lower Campus. Together, these campuses, which contain multiple historic buildings, open space, ornamental enclosures, and pleasing viewsheds, form a 72-acre parcel that serves as the visual gateway into Lower Merion from Philadelphia.
One year ago, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to vacate and sell the entire seminary. The sale of the property, which cannot advance until a dispute between competing stakeholders is resolved, should not be allowed to spoil the splendor of this 150-year-old parcel. Any insensitive disturbance of the site will change its character as well as that of the surrounding residential neighborhood. Whether St. Charles is developed for institutional, residential, or continuing-care use, any future plan for the seminary must respect the property’s original design and permanently preserve its landscape, its open space, and its historic buildings. These objectives are consistent with Comprehensive Plan recommendations for institutional properties. To ensure opportunities for such a plan, the Lower Merion Conservancy urges the Board of Commissioners to immediately list St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on the Township’s Historic Resources Inventory as a Class I property. This designation will afford the seminary buildings a high level of demolition protection. It will also provide incentives for their rehabilitation and reuse.
300 North Latches Lane, Merion
Architect: Paul Philippe Cret
The Barnes Foundation property comprises multiple assets that exemplify the traditional character of Lower Merion, including an impressive Neo-Classical limestone building designed by the distinguished architect, Paul Philippe Cret, and a 12-acre arboretum. The majesty of the property, which is matched only by its viewshed from Latches Lane, complements the residential neighborhood in which it is located.
Since 2012, when the Barnes Foundation moved its art collection to Philadelphia, the future of the Cret building and the associated property has been uncertain. Regardless of whether the property is maintained as an institution or adapted for residential use, its treatment should be guided by Comprehensive Plan strategies that will encourage the preservation of its historic building, its open spaces, and its viewshed.
Clairemont Farm/Morris Clothier Estate (The Foundation for Islamic Education):
1860 West Montgomery Avenue, Villanova
Architect: Horace Trumbauer
Clairemont, an immense Beaux Arts mansion that occupies the summit of a hill in the western part of the township, was built by Morris Clothier (1868-1947), chairman of Strawbridge and Clothier, on a 160-acre gentleman’s farm. Its architect was Horace Trumbauer, the internationally-famous designer whose commissions include the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Free Library of Philadelphia. During the 1950s, the estate was subdivided and developed and the property was rezoned for institutional use. The white stucco house now sits on a 22-acre parcel owned by the non-profit Foundation for Islamic Education.
This past spring, the Foundation began to quietly market the sale of the property. Under new ownership, Clairemont can continue to accommodate an institutional use. However, since its underlying zoning is residential, the property can also be developed with housing units. Either scenario presents opportunities to preserve Clairemont’s historic mansion and its open space, and to limit future density on the property.