A Revitalized Cynwyd Station Celebrates Its One-Year Anniversary
A community bands together to save the 125-year-old structure.
This is more than a story about a train station. It’s also a story about a park and a trail, plus a café, a tearoom and more—“a compound,” according to café proprietor Sadie Francis.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the surprising revitalization of Cynwyd Station, a real-life “I think I can” project. The longtime SEPTA stop and onetime eyesore is now a vibrant gathering place at the corner of Bala Avenue and Conshohocken State Road. Just like the old days.
The Cynwyd Line first arrived in the 1890s, and a community was built on the surrounding farmland. Until 1929, the station was a depot for commuters and freight (mostly coal transported from Shamokin to Philadelphia). It was also a post office—and the lumberyards were there, too. Commerce thrived.
For some 20 years, the station house had been derelict, sitting adjacent to a sorry excuse for a park. In the early 1980s, it was leased to Bala Real Estate Group, which abandoned it in the late ’80s after a fire.
The park is now the nexus of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, which is slated to expand in three directions. Currently under construction, the Manayunk Bridge leg will connect Lower Merion to the Schuylkill River Trail, which runs from Valley Forge to Center City. Once complete, bikers will be able to pedal from Cynwyd Station to the Philadelphia Museum of Art without crossing a single street.
The second phase is the Cynwyd Spur, essentially a path to the river on the outskirts of West Laurel Hill Cemetery that ends at the Pencoyd Bridge, which leads to Manayunk’s Main Street.
The third expansion would extend the trail past Cynwyd Station, along the abandoned rail line, to City Avenue, eventually connecting Lower Merion to Memorial Hall and West Fairmount Park.
Right now, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail stretches just a mile to basically nowhere. That will change within the year, with the opening of the Manayunk Bridge, the only bike-and-pedestrian path that crosses the Schuylkill Expressway and the river. Philadelphia and Lower Merion have negotiated a shared-maintenance agreement for the $4.2 million project, which will revive the mile-long, circa-1917 structure.
“We’ll be in the middle of it all,” says Francis, who owns and operates the Cynwyd Station Cafe and Tea Room, a combination Victorian ice cream parlor, curiosity shop and green community center (among other things) that occupies the station’s ground floor.
The place has become a hub, and the community is buying into it. Recently, two families began talking in the café, soon realizing that they’d been neighbors for eight years without knowing it. “That’s why I was so excited about this—because of the connectivity,” Francis says.
Many well-known entities were involved with the $800,000 Cynwyd Station project—PennDOT, SEPTA and PECO among them. For a while, however, it wasn’t at the top of anyone’s agenda. The lone exception was Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society. “People thought they could ignore it,” says Joanne Murray, a LMHS board member for the past eight years. “It could’ve died at any moment, but Jerry refused to let it fall.”
SEPTA leased the station building to Lower Merion with the knowledge that the township would then sublease it to the historical society. Trail improvements came later, with a $1.3 million grant from Montgomery County. A volunteer effort came by way of the Friends of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, and the township was designated a Preserve America Community.
“The whole project is a testament to Jerry’s perseverance,” says Murray.
Sadie Francis waited five months to see if anyone would bid on Cynwyd Station’s first floor. Only one other person did, proposing office space. A caretaker occupies the second level.
“I had to step aside,” says Jerry Francis.
Sadie, 33, is the youngest of his three daughters. “She bid on it,” he says. “Now, I’m just a proud dad.”
Sadie subsequently became a national quarterfinalist in the Independent We Stand Indie Awards, which celebrate small businesses that give back to their communities. Sadie was the only one in the state to make it that far. “I’m accomplishing more here than I was working in energy policy in Washington, D.C.,” she says.
Sadie left a career in renewable energy with the Department of Energy. She moved back home with her parents, tapped her 401(k) and managed a few privately sourced loans, including one that attracted 200 online donors at $5 a pop.
Her former government job dovetailed with the station’s green initiatives. In the end, 35 percent of the wood from the previous station was reused, and some window sashes were rebuilt with material from the old ones. The original double door to the platform was salvaged, and some of the red brick closest to the stone foundation was repurposed.
When the Lower Merion Historical Society secured occupancy in 2007, the abandoned shell had been a drug den and a flophouse for the homeless. SEPTA deemed it termite-ridden and beyond repair. The township’s independent study concluded the same, adding that it was unlikely to survive a few more bad winters.
LMHS board member Joanne Murray first toured the building with Jerry and the original contractor, Jim Easter. “I was taken aback,” she recalls. “All I could see were holes, places where there’d been fires, places where there was no floor. To me, it looked tragic.”
After Easter died of a heart attack on the job in December 2008, Ned Stumpo took over. The contractor grew up in Belmont Hills, and he knows the station well. “You don’t see a lot of historical buildings being restored. Most just want to knock them down,” he says.
A unique partnership with a water-resources class at Villanova University helped solve the hydrology issues at the site. Students discovered that excess rainwater was rushing down from the roof. French drains were installed, and downspouts divert runoff into rain-harvesting benches. Water from the tanks is used for plantings.
Jerry always saw the potential in the station, park and trail—things that were once liabilities, his daughter says. “We’ve taken them back and turned them into assets,” Sadie says. “Among the houses up for sale around here, the leading question is now, ‘How close are you to the trail?’”
“It used to be, ‘How close are you to a Starbucks?’” adds Jerry.