Open Space Strategies

OPEN SPACE STRATEGIES

One primary recommendation of the Comprehensive Plan is to provide pedestrian access from central parts of the township to the Schuylkill River and beyond by creating a link, or “Emerald Necklace” of open space properties and trails.  Two township parks, Rolling Hill and Mill Creek Valley, are critical components of this proposed link.  Both of these parks are watered by the Mill Creek, a tributary to the Schuylkill River.  The banks of the creek are laced with historic buildings and archaeological sites that are central to the township’s settlement and development.  A linked trail system through these parks would provide pedestrians with on-site opportunities to learn about the area’s history.  A “heritage trail” might also attract the attention of supporters who can aid in the preservation of the Mill Creek Valley’s historic resources.

Barker Mill:

1400 Mill Creek Road, Gladwyne

Architect: Not Identified

Built: 1814; reconstructed 1886 and 1895; expanded during the 1920s

During the past decade, the WatchList has featured the Barker Mill multiple times.  The mill’s significance to Lower Merion, which is reflected in its multiple uses, its longevity, and its contribution to the township’s early prosperity, warrants this action.  For much of the nineteenth century, the mill served as a gun manufactory.  For a time, it even supplied rifles to the Union Army.  In 1886, the mill was fully rebuilt and converted to a carpet yarn factory.  After the mid-twentieth century, when the mill stopped functioning as a manufactory, a series of tenants operated out of the property.  The mill is currently zoned for residential use.

The Barker Mill, which is privately owned, has not been occupied since 2003.  During its vacancy, its condition has rapidly deteriorated.  The mill’s designation as a “Class I” property on Lower Merion’s Historic Resources Inventory creates substantial obstacles for its demolition, but has done little to avert its descent into a ruin.  If inertia prevails, the building will either collapse from neglect or face condemnation as a public safety hazard.

The Barker Mill is a property that can both derive benefit from and enrich its bucolic setting.  The mill, which is adjacent to the 103-acre Rolling Hill Park (a property the Comprehensive Plan has identified as a “pearl” in its Emerald Necklace of open spaces), is well known among hikers, runners, dog walkers, and nature enthusiasts.  The mill’s future, however, depends on its potential to support a profitable use.  Over the years, several developers have submitted plans for the residential development of the mill site.  None of these plans have been realized.  The building presents multiple challenges that encumber its development, including a site that is constrained by steep slopes on one side and the Mill Creek on the other.  In addition, the property does not have a sewer system connection.  Costs associated with addressing the latter, in particular, have dampened developers’ interest in the site.  To respond to these issues, the owner of the mill might consider conducting a market analysis and feasibility study of the site.  These types of professional inquires could help answer pressing questions about the property, including, most importantly, whether there are economically feasible options for its sensitive rehabilitation and reuse.

Mill Creek tenement house ruins:

Rolling Hill Park, Gladwyne

Architect: Not Identified

Built: mid-1800s

Rolling Hill Park contains the ruins of three tenement buildings that date to the mid-nineteenth century.  The tenements, which are located within the Mill Creek National Register Historic District, once housed dozens of workers from nearby factories, including the extant Barker Mill.  The stucco-covered stone buildings, which neighbored a dozen or more similar structures, are now the only surviving evidence of worker housing along the creek.  The tenement house grouping, which is located within proximity to public walking paths, is a significant township asset and should be identified as a heritage destination along a linked trail system.  As a component of the Comprehensive Plan’s Emerald Necklace, such a destination has the potential to attract attention that could aid in its preservation.

In 2016, the Lower Merion Conservancy placed the tenement houses on the WatchList.  The houses’ severe deterioration, which threatened the complete collapse of their walls, warranted this listing.  During the months following their designation on the list, the Conservancy engaged the services of a nationally-recognized preservation engineer to assess the condition of the ruins and to provide a scope of work for their stabilization.  The scope yielded invaluable information about the ruins’ history and construction, and prioritized interventions for their preservation.  The Conservancy hopes to use the scope to interest local and regional organizations in discussions about funding the preservation of the tenements.

In the interim, the Conservancy is grateful to the township Parks and Recreation Department for removing vines and trees from the ruins and installing an attractive split rail fence around two of the tenement house sites.  These measures have slowed the deterioration of the structures and have enhanced their visibility to trail walkers.  Until a plan for the ruins’ permanent stabilization is realized, the Conservancy encourages the township to continue a schedule of maintenance that clears destructive vegetation from the structures.