14 Repurposed Historical Buildings on the Main Line

Old schools, empty houses, crumbling mills, defunct auto dealerships—all could have been demolished and replaced by something new. Thank goodness they weren’t.



Repurposing is the process of turning an object made for one purpose into something that can be used for another. Creative souls have transformed old doors into coffee tables, beer bottles into drinking glasses, and deer antlers into chandeliers. In all cases, the process is more art than manufacturing, and it yields a more interesting result. Here, the focus is on buildings. 

 

Cedar Grove School
Built in 1877

The Cedar Grove School replaced an earlier wooden structure that housed the first public school in Marple Township. The wooden school had burned, so the board aimed for permanence, commissioning a stone structure on the two-acre site facing Cedar Grove Road. A Presbyterian church used the building on Sundays. 

The school became a home in the early 20th century. According to owner Jim Elliott, that transformation mostly involved dividing the interior. The bedrooms, bathroom, living room and kitchen now share the former classroom space. The front door disappeared to accommodate a fireplace in the living room. The structure retains its original windows, some of which have bubbles in the glass. “It’s not a large, large home,” says Elliott, who’s lived there 30 years, raising two children with his wife, Kathy. “But it’s unique and has a touch of the old, so we like it.” 

He’d like to find the old school bell, though.

The Culbertson House as it looks today//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.

Culbertson House
Built in 1750

This stone house on West Chester Pike—now used as the offices of Broomall lawyer Dan DeLiberty—was built by Quaker farmer Jonathan Maris, who was born in 1702 in nearby Springfield. Maris was the grandson of an early settler and a brother-in-law of famed colonial botanist John Bartram. 

Local historians estimate that the house was built around the time of Maris’ wedding to his second wife, Ann Waln. His marriage to first wife Jane Lownes in 1726 had a bit of an embarrassing start when local Quakers expelled him for drunkenness and violating matrimonial procedures.
He later apologized and was reinstated. 

The home was later owned by the Fawkes and Culbertson families. Today, instead of discussions about farming or Quakerism, the conversation is mostly about money. DeLiberty is a bankruptcy lawyer, helping clients start over from financial reverses. Starting over is something Maris understood.

From left: Cynwyd Station then, Cynwyd Station now.

Cynwyd Station
Built in 1890

Cynwyd Station was built with real estate speculation in mind. The adjacent train line—which originally ran from Philadelphia to Wilkes-Barre—was constructed in the 1880s by the Pennsylvania Railroad to carry coal in competition with the Reading line. The Cynwyd stop and others came a bit later, when local landowners, who realized the line had made their properties more accessible to city dwellers, decided to cash in. Among those landowners was Pennsy CEO George B. Roberts, who might be said to have had a conflict of interest in all this.

Train ridership declined in the 20th century. By the time SEPTA inherited the vacant property in 1983, it had become an eyesore. By 2008, it was near collapse. Rather than lose the property, Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township and the Lower Merion Historical Society partnered to each raise about a third of the $800,000 needed to restore the structure. These days, the 635-square-foot main floor is occupied by the Cynwyd Station Cafe, which serves the community and, in particular, users of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

From Left: Dante Orphanage before renovations, Dante Orphanage now.

Dante Orphanage 
Built in 1920

The rambling stone structure that now houses Concord Township offices started life as the Dante Orphanage, a home for Italian children who lost their parents during World War I. It was a project of the Sons of Italy, a fraternal organization for Italian immigrants. Behind the scenes, the Sons were a leading advocate for fascism in America and, in the 1930s, served as Benito Mussolini’s representative to the Italian-American community. 

Dante Orphanage was run by the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of nuns, and it got mixed reviews. One alum recalled “abuse and harsh treatment,” while another dubbed the resident Roman Catholic priest “a saint.” 

The facility closed in 1968. It was subsequently used as a school and as a church, then abandoned. The 26-acre site was acquired by the township in 2005. As part of its conversion to township offices, Linn Architects of Media designed a meeting room and an elevator addition that provided accessibility to all three floors. Care was taken to preserve the Italian styling.

From Left: A 19th-century view of the General Wayne Inn, General Wayne Inn now.  

General Wayne Inn
Built in 1704 

The General Wayne Inn has had many lives. It was a drovers tavern, so called for those who drove animals by foot from the country down Montgomery Avenue to market in Philadelphia. Then known as William Penn Inn, it later wore such names as Wayside Inn, Tunis Ordinary and Streepers Tavern. It allegedly acquired the Wayne moniker about 1794, when “Mad Anthony” threw a three-day bash there to celebrate his victory over Ohio Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Everybody stayed at the General Wayne: George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin (often when he was postmaster and the inn was a post office). Edgar Allan Poe wrote part of his Raven while staying there. And Hessian troops briefly occupied the place during the Revolution, thus giving rise to centuries of ghost stories about appearances by long-dead soldiers wearing Hessian green. 

In the 20th century, the General Wayne operated as a more or less regular restaurant until the 1990s, when the co-owner was murdered by his business partner. Ghost stories were fun, but murder was a bit too real. Subsequent efforts to open a restaurant there all failed. 

Finally, in 2003, the inn was purchased by Chabad of the Main Line, an Orthodox Jewish organization. After a $1.5 million renovation, the General Wayne Inn is a synagogue and community center. The bar was removed, and the large colonial fireplace was converted into an ark to store the Torah scrolls. 

Howell-Powell House then.

Howell-Powell House
Built in 1731 

Funeral home is a perfect use for a nice, old mansion on a corner that’s grown so busy that only the dead can sleep. And so it is at Sproul and Lawrence roads, where the Howell-Powell House has been a funeral home for 60 years. 

Joseph and Mary (Howell) Powell built the original stone farmhouse on the east side. The property later passed to Joshua Lawrence (Lawrence Road, Lawrence Park Shopping Center, etc.), who built the western half in 1802.

Many other owners followed, some leaving after sheriff’s sales and at least one after losing the property through gambling. In 1955, funeral director Donald Gibson bought and remodeled the place. Frank Videon took over in 1982.

 

The Manayunk Bridge under construction in 1917

Manayunk Bridge
Built in 1918 

The vast, concrete Manayunk bridge across the Schuylkill River was built in 1918 by the Pennsylvania Railroad to replace a rickety 1883 wrought-iron structure that reportedly gave commuter passengers a bit of angina. But despite some spalling in the 1990s (since fixed), it is nothing if not solid. 

Its original purpose, however, was destroyed by Americans’ car cult, the proof of which is plainly on the Schuylkill Expressway underneath. In 1986, the bridge was abandoned. 

In the new century, some bright minds looked at all that concrete and saw a perfect link between affluent Lower Merion and the bars, restaurants and nightlife of Manayunk. Adding the structure to the region’s 300-mile network of trails took $5.7 million and a staggeringly long list of government agencies and foundations. But the ribbon was cut in October, and Lower Merion’s Cynwyd Heritage Trail was connected with the Schuylkill River Trail. 

The bridge is already recognized as a local amenity by business leaders like developer O’Neill Properties. On the west bank, O’Neill is building a $130 million apartment complex that will include its own private hiking-biking trail with links to Manayunk and beyond.

From left: General Store then (photo courtesy of the Marple Township Historical Society), General Store now.

General Store
Built in 1840 

There is a sort of symmetry between the original and current uses of these two 1840 structures at Sproul and Springfield roads in Springfield. The first owner, Ebenezer R. Curtis, lived in the house on the left and ran a general store in the building on the right. The next owner, Harry Brumley, continued that arrangement until 1904, when the post office moved to Broomall. 

Many other uses followed: a furniture store, an antique store, a title-search company. Most recently, Valpak—a direct-mail advertiser—has restored their ties to commerce and the U.S. mail. 

From left: An undated postcard image of the National Guard Armory (photo from the Keith Lockhart collection); the National Guard Armory now.

Media National Guard Armory
Built in 1908 

The former Media National Guard armory was built to look formidable. Architect William Lightfoot Price designed it that way for Company H of the 6th Infantry, Pennsylvania National Guard. Heavily buttressed stone walls, towers, and broken battlements give the impression of a place where you don’t want to go. The company went from there to chase Pancho Villa in 1917 and to fight in both world wars. 

When the National Guard moved out in the 1990s, the structure became formidable in a less productive way. Media officials quickly realized that a big, empty building could only slow down the borough’s resurgence. It took several years, but the borough eventually bought the structure and acquired $1.3 million for improvements. 

The former armory is on the National Register of Historic Places, so all design work had to adhere to Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission standards. Linn Architects’ new entrance matched the original architecture.

Borough officials wanted a retail tenant, so councilwoman Gail Whitaker suggested Trader Joe’s after visiting a store in California. It opened in 2004 and, formidable or not, the place is a madhouse on Saturday mornings.

Lunch is served at the former Media Post Office

Media Post Office
Built in 1918 

Once upon a time, the corner of State and Jackson streets in Media was where the stagecoach from Philadelphia arrived with the mail. So when it came time to build a post office, the intersection seemed the logical place. The design is traditional, but nothing special as post offices go. Washington, D.C., had strict guidelines that determined what could be built in a town this size. 

By the early 1960s, the post office had moved to a modern brick bunker on Baltimore Pike, and the old one became borough hall until 1986. 

Today, it’s Spasso Italian Grill—and the stamped-out architecture of a century ago makes even a plate of simple linguini seem classy.

From Left: Roder’s Newsstand, circa 1910 (photo from the Keith Lockhart collection), Roder's now.

Roder’s
Circa 1910 

A generation that mostly doesn’t read newspapers may find it hard to understand how a newsstand could be such a landmark. But this little structure on a traffic island in the center of Chester—which was opened by George Jenkins—was a place where everyone stopped. It was where you picked up a morning paper to read on the train and an evening paper to read when you came home. You could even buy a cigar to smoke while you read—and you could smoke it on the train. 

The second owner, George Roder, who took over in 1906, sold a 5-cent stogie called the Penn Club that was made just for him. Roder stayed until 1938. He was followed by Morris Sapovitz, Herman Smith and Bobby Burman. Then, things changed. There were fires. 

Today’s structure, which houses a seasonal water-ice business, doesn’t much resemble the newsstand of Roder’s day. But a close look reveals the same cast-iron columns.

The Grist Mill

The Grist Mill of Nathaniel Ring
Built in the 1760s 

The limestone structure that housed Chadds Ford Township offices started life as the grist mill of Nathaniel Ring. It was later inherited by his son, Benjamin. The Rings lived across Baltimore Pike in the house now known as Washington’s Headquarters. 

Other millers followed, but none were as historically memorable as one short-term tenant. Beginning in 1898 and for five years thereafter, famed Wilmington illustrator Howard Pyle found the defunct mill an ideal place for the summer art classes he offered free to his best students. N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish got started there. 

The structure later became a residence, but was abandoned after it was gutted by fire in the 1950s. The township acquired the hollowed shell in 1976, and did nothing with it until the early 2000s, when John Milner Architects turned it into municipal offices. The mill became a meeting room, and several offices are decorated with examples of the work of Pyle and his students.

From Left: The Warner Theater in 1930, the year it opened (photo courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society); the Warner Theater now.

Warner Theater
Built in 1930 

The Daily Local News called the Warner Theater the “showplace of Chester County” when it opened in 1930. The Depression was a year old, so being treated to something as luxurious as a modern theater that cost $700,000 to build meant plenty. The lot at High and Chestnut streets had previously been the site of a stable. 

Opening night featured the movie The Life of the Party, starring child actor Davey Lee, who also made a personal appearance. That the film was a talkie also made a big impression on an audience still used to silent movies. 

The Warner—named, incidentally, for its parent company, Warner Bros.—lasted for 50 years, then closed in the early 1980s, after many failed attempts to save it. Wreckers spared the Art Deco lobby on High Street, which now serves the Warner Hotel, built on the site of the theater.

From Left: E.B. Maguire Ford, now Anthropologie, Anthropologie now.

E.B. Maguire Ford
Built in 1931 

The terra-cotta Art Deco building that houses Wayne’s Anthropologie started as a place to buy a car. It was built as E.B. Maguire Ford—and, given the era, all the Fords were probably black. The showroom was behind those big windows facing Lancaster Avenue. The low shed stretching along Bellevue Avenue in the back was where the greasy work happened. 

Jackson Chevrolet and a Lincoln dealership later used the building, but by the 1980s, the site had become too small to compete with dealerships that had acres of parking and dozens of cars on display. Then, in 1992, Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters came along, looking for a place to experiment with a new concept aimed at homeowning suburbanites who’d outgrown the company’s existing stores. The new store featured housewares, gourmet food, imported furniture and clothing. It was dubbed Anthropologie, and there are now about 180 of them. 

But Wayne’s was the first.

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