Lost: Prized 18th-Century House

On May 20, a historic house in Warrington Township, Pa., was torn down with only six weeks' notice.

The Penrose House, which sat on 67 acres of land, was one of the oldest in the township and was held by one family from 1727 until 2009, when it was sold to developer Michael Grasso. "We weren't very worried about the house when it was [first] sold," says Ken Samen, vice president of the nonprofit Warrington Historical Society and former vice chair of the Warrington Township Historic Commission. "It was written into the sales agreement that the house would be used as part of the development plan, meaning the house would be saved."

But in mid-March 2010, Grasso introduced a new plan that did not include the house, claiming that the building was deteriorating and not worth saving. "After that, everything was fast-tracked for demolition," Samen says. Though the Township has an ordinance authorizing officials to hold demolition permits for one month so that preservationists can document historic structures, "they held the Penrose House [permit] for 15 days at most," Samen says, "and we weren't allowed on the property."

Parts of the Federal Greek Revival house dated to 1749 and were rebuilt a century later. "It was a great example of 18th-century architecture … from the outside," says Jeff Marshall, chief preservation officer at Heritage Conservancy.

Warrington Township's Historic Commission is comprised of seven members who are appointed by the board of supervisors. On the day of demolition Samen, along with commission chair Mary Roth and two other members, resigned out of frustration. "It's such a shame it all happened," says Roth, who's also the president of the Historical Society. "We just figured it was going to be saved until it was too late to save it. I just heard today that they're putting in more stores, offices, some expensive new townhouses, and a hotel in its space."

Preservation Pennsylvania's Dave Kimmerly, a field representative for the National Trust, was contacted just a few days before the demolition. Despite the loss of the Penrose House, Kimmerly and others are determined to protect the fate of similar sites. To that end, Kimmerly has reached out to the township's manager and supervisors, he says, "to get a historic preservation ordinance that has some teeth."

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