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Black Horse Inn

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 10, 2003
Byline: Jeff Gammage

A bygone inn

Take a good look at it, alone and ignored, snug against the eastern curb of Bethlehem Pike in tiny Flourtown.

It's old. Older than America itself. And finally beginning to show its age.

Black Horse Inn
Photography by Akira Suwa
Its porch roof is bent, a chimney missing, its stucco crumbling in spots. Windows are broken or boarded, and dirt and auto exhaust have turned its white exterior a dingy gray. The trunk of a fallen tree has been left to rot in the parking lot.

For 259 years, the Black Horse Inn has stood its place, a permanence in a world of change. The original dirt path of the pike has become a four-lane highway. Cars have replaced stagecoaches. Neighboring inns have disappeared, while the pike itself has evolved from a modest collection of shops to a bustling commercial district, the business hub of Springfield Township.

Today, the Black Horse Inn stands between an MAB Paints store and a Wawa food market.

But not for much longer.

An Allentown-based developer is planning to pick up the inn and move it, back off the pike's doorstep and into a grassy area at the rear of the plot. In its place will rise a new business complex housing a state liquor-distribution center and a CVS Pharmacy.

Of course, the township already has a CVS. It has a State Store, too. But the pike-front property is prime retail space. And the only real alternative for the old inn, humbled by years of vacancy, neglect, and renewal proposals that never came to pass, is demolition.

Not that that means everyone is happy with the plan.

"If you start moving it, you're likely to break it," says John Roberts, president of the Springfield Historical Society, which wants the inn renovated where it stands. "It could become an important building in the township."

Roberts and other preservationists say that even if the inn survived the move, the change in locale would ruin its historic significance. Taking old structures off their original sites erases their context and sense of place, diminishing their authenticity. Particular buildings are built in particular places for particular reasons. And in the 1700s, taverns were built close to the road for a single particular reason - access, for horse and carriage, for cargo, for men with a thirst.

Also troubling, preservationists say, is that the agreement between the developer and the local government forbids any future buyer from turning the three-story inn into a moneymaking business. Who would be willing to spend a small fortune on restoration, they ask, with no hope of recouping the investment?

The uncertainty surrounding the inn has riled citizens, more than 4,000 of whom signed petitions to save the Black Horse. In retrospect, they might as well have saved the ink.

Because the story of the inn's departure is not a tale of men in black hats and white hats, or a clash between evil and good. It's the same story that has hammered historic buildings from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. It's the story of how modern economics can control the fate of elderly structures, how good intentions can be undercut by circumstance and even noble causes come to naught.

The Black Horse Inn's most ardent supporters don't claim that George Washington slept there. Or even that he stopped for a beer.

But, they say, he definitely marched past. They can tell you the month and the hour: A cool autumn night in October 1777, as he led his troops to attack the British defenses in Germantown, a battle that ended, by the way, in an American defeat.

At the time Washington tromped past, the Black Horse was already 33 years old.

It was built in 1744, one of at least eight inns that rose on that particular stretch of pike between 1735 and 1811. It became a popular drinking spot for farmers and lime-burners, the workmen who cooked shells and limestone into fertilizer and plaster compound.

"Moderate drinking was not frowned upon," Rudolph Walther wrote in Happenings in Ye Olde Philadelphia, 1680-1900. "Men in all walks of life indulged to some extent, and the saloon was looked upon as a kind of unofficial club, where kindred spirits were wont to meet and pass an hour or two in genial fellowship."

The Black Horse saw its share of that genial, fermented fellowship. It was the first stop on the Philadelphia-to-Bethlehem stagecoach line, and by 1820 nine coach firms were using the route. Flourtown itself was becoming an important business stop, a way station for farmers bringing grain to mills on the Wissahickon Creek.

By the early 1900s, trolleys were rumbling outside the inn's front door. After the last whooshed by in 1926, the pike became the province of the automobile.

Through the Second World War and the decades that followed, the inn operated as an amiable neighborhood taproom and restaurant. It was never the chic, must-see place to be. It was a reliable local eatery, with tin ceilings and colonial charm, a good place to get a sandwich and a draft.

Over the years it has been used for all kinds of activities - horse trading, voting, even meetings of local government. At one time, cows grazed out back. The inn has long carried a reputation for being haunted. People say that they've heard mysterious footsteps on the stairs and that voices drift from the barroom when no one is there.

Now, empty for more than a decade, the inn houses only its ghosts.

Hallelujah! The Black Horse Inn is saved!

That's what people thought in 1990, when a prominent Chestnut Hill restaurateur stepped forward. The Inquirer headline proclaimed, "Black Horse Inn in Springfield getting a savior."

For more than a century, it hadn't needed one. Since 1880, the Black Horse had been the property of a single family, the McClosky clan, who passed the inn down through generations. By the 1980s, the last of the line consisted of two brothers and a sister, all childless.

The surviving sibling, Robert McClosky, operated the tavern into the late 1980s. People worried that once he was gone - he died in 1992 - the inn would give way to offices or a convenience store.

Instead, Paul Roller, the owner of three nearby restaurants - Roller's, Noodles, and the Flying Fish - announced plans for a $1 million renovation that would equip the inn with a new kitchen, a banquet room, and a take-out market.

"Everyone here is rather delighted," gushed Robert James, president of the Friends of Flourtown civic group. "We thought the wrecking ball would get it."

But Roller's financing was slow to gather. And then the economy faltered. Time passed. Before long, nobody was talking about the inn being reborn as a fashionable restaurant.

Next came a proposal to turn it into a health club. Nothing happened. Then there was talk of making it into a bank. That went nowhere. Eventually, even far-fetched proposals stopped being proposed.

In 1997, the McClosky estate sold the inn to developer Mark Mendelson for $900,000, property records show. Four years later, Mendelson, who runs Hampton Real Estate Group of Allentown, approached the township with a plan to demolish the inn.

Today, only four of the eight original inns on this stretch of the pike are still standing.

Two are restaurants, Halligan's Pub, a 1765 landmark that was once the Central Hotel, and the Sorella Rose, located in what was the Springfield Hotel, built in 1811. The Wheel Pump Inn, the oldest, is now Ruth's Lamps and Shades. To the delight of preservationists, the lamp-and-furniture store chose to maintain the building's historic countenance.

"The nostalgia and the beauty of it works well for what we're trying to sell," owner Jerry Willis says. "There was a lot of work involved, but a lot of love, too."

The land that became Springfield Township was William Penn's gift to his first wife, Gulielma Maria Springett Penn. Today, the township is a bedroom community of 19,500, covering six square miles on the northwest border of Philadelphia. Bethlehem Pike has grown crowded, lined with an Acme, a Sunoco station, pizza parlors, a couple of real estate sales offices, and, of course, a Starbucks. Its inns help make it different.

"Without those historic structures, we might as well be another strip mall," says Scott Kreilick, chairman of the historical society's historic-resources committee.

That's why people balked at tearing down the Black Horse. A three-week drive gathered 3,600 signatures in 2001, and hundreds more people have signed an online petition since then. The opposition caught the attention of the township commissioners. They wanted to save the inn, too. And they knew the owner could knock it down whenever he chose.

Township planning officials denied the developer's request for zoning changes to build the business complex. He filed a lawsuit. The Board of Commissioners struck a deal: It would allow certain variances so the business complex could be built. In return, the developer would move the inn to the rear of the property, at his expense. The township would then assume ownership.

"The commissioners interpreted 'saving the inn' as moving it," Kreilick says. "To us that's the last option, not the first option."

Robert McGrory, the commissioners' president, says the township basically had two choices. The inn could move. Or it could disappear in a cloud of dust. "There are people who, for whatever reason, are not willing to accept half a loaf," he says.

It wasn't an easy decision, or an easy negotiation, says Commissioner Timothy Lawn, who tended bar at the Black Horse as a law-school student in the 1980s. "I know some people in the historical society aren't happy with that compromise," he says. "It was going to be a pile of bricks if we didn't do that."

It's unlikely the inn will be resold, both men say. More likely, it will be used by the township in some fashion.

In January, the historical society mounted a last-ditch letter-writing campaign aimed at CVS. The society asked the corporate executives to consider a different site for their drugstore and to help renovate the inn. What good would it do CVS, they asked, to have a run-down, boarded-up building behind its shiny new store?

The historical society wrote to all of CVS's 17 officers and directors. It sent a packet of information about the inn and a letter imploring CVS to "be a good neighbor" and find "a win-win solution to what has been a long, drawn-out process."

The society got exactly one response, from one board member: an acknowledgment that he had received their letter.

Bigger buildings have survived bigger moves.

Once-grand theaters have been hauled away in Minneapolis and Detroit. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has been inched back from the surf in North Carolina. Three years ago, the 280-year-old King of Prussia Inn was moved for an expansion of Route 202.

But nothing is certain.

Two years ago in Savannah, Ga., a Civil War-era gas plant collapsed as it was being readied for a move. Rescue technicians had to amputate the arm of a construction worker.

A structural assessment conducted last year for the Hampton Real Estate Group deemed the relocation of the Black Horse "very feasible." The timetable for the move is uncertain, and efforts to contact developer Mendelson were unsuccessful.

"The building was built 259 years ago, and it was built to last," says Kreilick, an architectural conservator by profession. "Can it survive a move? I'd rather not find out."