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Black Horse Inn

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 21, 2003
Byline: Bonnie L. Cook

Plan to move 18th-century inn divides opinions on its best fate

Hoofbeats sounded 226 years ago, as Gen. George Washington led his troops past the Black Horse Inn to menace the British at Germantown.

Stagecoaches rattled past the Springfield Township, Montgomery County, tavern in the 1800s. The swish of cars followed in 1926. Through much of this time, voices and glasses were raised in the hotel's barroom.

Fresh voices were raised Tuesday night when 60 people turned out at a planning commission meeting to hear a new developer's proposal. The plan calls for moving the inn directly across the street from its site at 1432 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, and putting a Walgreens pharmacy and upscale liquor store in its place.

The voices — those of the inn's neighbors, members of the township's historical society, and civic leaders who are designing a new corridor along Bethlehem Pike — did not speak as one.

Some were adamant: The inn should stay put or it would lose its historical authenticity. Others didn't mind the inn's being moved but feared overdevelopment of the site and the expected crush of traffic the new buildings would cause at the intersection of Bysher Avenue and Bethlehem Pike.

Still others said they liked the plan because it improved on one by a previous developer that would have moved the inn to the back of the property or razed it.

"I strongly suggest we keep the Black Horse right where it is," said the strongest of the voices, that of Doug Heller, a Flourtown resident. "Some think it's beating a dead horse, but I think it's beating a live horse, and I think it still has some kick in it."

The inn, built of stucco and wood in 1744, was a popular drinking hole for farmers in colonial days. It was the first stop on the Philadelphia-to-Bethlehem stagecoach line in the early 1800s.

The inn's fate has been in limbo for years. In the early 1990s, the township tried to buy the property from the McClosky family, but the offer was turned down. The inn was last operated as a tavern in the late 1980s.

The property was sold to the Allentown-based Mendelson Children's Family Trust for $900,000 in 1997. Since then, Mendelson and the township have sparred over what will go on the site. Two years ago, Mendelson applied to the township to build a CVS pharmacy and a large liquor store. Under the initial plan, the inn was to be razed. (The building is not protected because the township does not have a historical preservation ordinance.)

The township denied zoning variances needed to make that plan a reality. Mendelson fired back with a lawsuit. The two parties entered into a stipulation saying that the business complex could be built as long as the developer paid $200,000 to move the inn to the back of the site. Ownership of the inn would be deeded to the township for noncommercial use.

No one really liked that solution except Mendelson, neighbors and township officials have said.

So when Moreland Developers, a development and management firm based in Bryn Mawr, gave notice to township officials early this month that it had signed a letter of intent to buy the property from Mendelson and develop it on Walgreens' behalf, the public took notice.

Joshua S. Petersohn, a partner in Moreland, told the crowd Tuesday that his plan called for an 11,116-square-foot liquor store with 5,000 feet of office space above, and a separate 14,250-square-foot Walgreens pharmacy with a Colonial, brick facade.

The company also would pay $325,000 to move the inn across the street to the 100-acre campus of the Carson Valley School, where it would face the pike and undergo restoration by an as-yet-unknown group.

"We think it's a better plan," he said.

There was a catch: The stipulation between the township and any developer that succeeded Mendelson would transfer with the land, and would not change, even if the parties to the agreement changed, said Christen Pionzio, the attorney for Moreland.

This, she said, meant that if the Moreland developers' plan was not accepted by the township, the Mendelson plan would be reactivated.

Kathleen Lunn, who is running for commissioner on a ticket of long-term planning for the Bethlehem Pike corridor, said Friday she doubted Pionzio's interpretation regarding the stipulation.

"I don't think it's legal," said Null, who also is a member of the Flourtown Erdenheim Enhancement Association, a group that is developing a "vision plan" for the pike. She asked Moreland to be open to input from the association before the developers act.

"Why rush? We don't want to be cut off at the knees like that," she said.

In 2001, the township's historical society collected 3,500 signatures pressing for the preservation of the inn. The petitions were displayed in a binder at Tuesday's meeting, but the society gave a mixed message.

Cynthia Hamilton, a member of the society's board of directors, said moving the inn would spoil its authenticity. But if it has to be moved, she said, the building should be listed in the National Registry of Historic Places so the structure could qualify for future preservation grants.

Christine Smith, a society member, said the group "welcomed a second chance to work with the new developers." She said the society would convene a meeting this week and announce its position on the Moreland plan.

Asked whether he was surprised by the outpouring of voices, Petersohn said: "This is a very respectable community. I wouldn't expect anything less."