Requiem for the Pond HouseBy Doug HumesThe Pond House is no more. If you have driven on the stretch of Rt. 252 between Cedar Grove and Media Line roads, the Pond House was the old farmhouse and barn that you would pass looking east, overlooking a pond on the Delaware County Community College campus. It was there along that road for over 200 years. And now it’s gone. Some of us feel that the community is less for that loss.
The house had been a member of the community since sometime between 1775 and 1814. It was likely built by Dr. Jonathan Morris as a tenant house for his larger farm. Was he anyone special? He was a local boy made good. Born in Marple in 1729, he studied medicine in Philadelphia, then came back to the area to serve the communities of Marple and Newtown prior to the American Revolution.
He married a local girl, Mary West, the daughter of the innkeeper of the Square Tavern. Her baby brother, Benjamin, was likely at the wedding. Benjamin would go on to be court painter to King George III, co-found the Royal Academy of the Arts in London, and paint huge historical pieces such as Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, that are treasured in art galleries around the world.
He is considered the father of American painting. How could Benjamin West, son of a simple country innkeeper, afford to travel to Europe and learn his craft? Through the generosity of wealthy benefactors like his brother-in-law, Dr. Jonathan Morris, of Marple Township. They kept in touch throughout their lives.
When war threatened in 1774, "A very respectable number of the inhabitants of the County of Chester convened at the Court-house in the Borough of Chester," at which the following persons were named as a committee to act for the county to that end, viz.: "Anthony Wayne … Dr. Jonathan Morris …" among others. Dr. Morris was an early patriot, along with another local boy, who would become known as General Mad Anthony Wayne.
When the British invaded the region in the Fall of 1777, Dr. Morris and his wife were living in Marple with seven children. The doctor was 48 at the time, not a young man. But he responded to the call: he and at least two sons joined the Chester County Militia and were with General Washington and the army for the largest land battle of the American Revolution at Brandywine.
Some sources say his son William, age 14, was killed at that battle, and son Jonathan was wounded. Dr. Morris cared for the many wounded after that battle. And perhaps brought his young son's body home to Marple for a proper funeral and burial.
After the war, he resumed his practice of medicine in Marple. In 1785, he served in the Pennsylvania legislature, with his comrade in arms, Anthony Wayne. In 1790, his son David married Mary "Polly" Fulton. Polly’s brother Robert was an interesting character. As a boy, it is said he was curious about the world – he took an interest in gunsmithing, built rockets, and experimented with mercury. By age 17, he decided to become an artist.
There were no places to learn that craft in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, and so he left to study under the American master living in London, Benjamin West. He lived with West in London for several years, they became good friends, but Fulton’s mechanical interests trumped his artistic ones, and he went on to have a remarkable career as an inventor. We remember Robert Fulton, for his invention of the first steamship in America, a device that revolutionized the world.
In 1799, at age 70, Dr. Morris was listed as one of two doctors serving Marple. Genealogy records suggest that he continued to serve as a doctor in the community up until his death in 1812.
So, aside from that, was there anything historic about the Pond House and barn? Apparently not enough for the owner, Delaware County Community College, to keep the roof in repair, maintain the buildings, and find a use or a tenant that would continue to take care of them as had the previous owners for the last 200 years. Far easier to just tear them down. So they sought a demolition permit.
But the Pond House was also named as an historic resource protected by Maple Township’s historic preservation ordinance. It could not be torn down if the township chose to save it. So was that not sufficient protection?
The Marple Historical Commission lobbied for the buildings to be saved. Yes, the college had let them fall into disrepair, but these buildings were stone buildings that had survived for 200 years. They could be rehabilitated and a use could no doubt be found for them. The Marple Township commissioners could have taken that recommendation, and denied a demolition permit. But they didn’t. Not even close. By a unanimous vote, the Marple commissioners voted to permit the demolition of the house and barn.
And now they are gone. And the possible plans for what remains? Showing that life imitates art, they are going to pave over it, and turn it into a parking lot. Joni Mitchell once sang, "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot."
These old buildings were not quite paradise. Dr. Morris didn’t live there, as far as we know, but in a grander house that still exists in Marple. We know of no momentous events that occurred there. Did wedding guests such as Robert Fulton stay there in 1790? We don’t know. All we know is that for over two hundred years, the house and barn were maintained and cared for by generations of families in this community. And then they were not. And now they are gone.
Marple at least has a preservation ordinance, even if they don’t have the political fortitude to use it. Newtown Township does not have any similar ordinance. There are neighboring communities that have taken aggressive action to protect their historic resources by adopting a preservation ordinance that would give the community a say in whether our historic homes, churches, inns and barns should be demolished. Newtown is not one of them. They "tabled" the idea in December of 2003.
We have a wealth of historic sites in the community, and they add to the character of the landscape and the fabric of the community. Like the Pond House, they each have a wealth of local history hidden in their old walls, if anyone cares to look for it. But the bulldozers have been winning the battles of late.
Look at the empty lots where the Videon buildings once stood. The Alice Grim farmhouse – an empty lot. John DuPont’s house, a replica of Montpelier, OK'd for demolition. The old Biddle house, fenced off along Rt. 252, approved for demolition and awaiting the wrecking ball. The old houses along Rt. 252 and West Chester Pike – gone. We are poised for the next wave of building, and they are clearing the decks.
We will get a melange of new buildings and styles, one right after another one, and our community will take on the look of other portions of West Chester Pike, Lancaster Pike, and Baltimore Pike – where you cannot tell where one strip center ends and the next one begins. And in that inexorable march to suburban mediocrity, no one is looking in the rear view mirror to see what we’ve left behind. And that is a shame.