Date: January 23, 2004
Byline: Joe Barron
New historical society president stays in touch with Springfield's pastEd Zwicker speaks with easy authority of the ghosts of Springfield past.
Historical re-enactor, author, with his brother, of a pictorial history of Springfield, and the newly elected president of the township historical society, Zwicker has a strong awareness of the history of his surroundings.
At 42, he lives in the North Hills home in which he grew up, and during an interview there Jan. 13, he recalled casually that back in the dark ages, before the post-War housing boom, the dining room where he was sitting was once a part of the Meehan flower nursery.
"Drive in the township today and all you see is what's right in front of you," he said. "You don't understand everything that happened previous to today, that make the town what it is today."
If he could, Zwicker would make his living bringing that history to light. As it is, he works days at the Cigna Corp. in Philadelphia and devotes his free time, including vacations, to research, rummaging through archives and cruising the Internet.
He and his brother Charles co-wrote "Springfield Township, Montgomery County," a pictorial history in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. They also perform together in costume about four times a year, portraying prominent and not-so-prominent characters from the township's past. Zwicker's own roles have included George Emlen, builder of the house in Oreland where George Washington once slept; a White City-era bartender at the Wheel Pump Inn; and Edward Stotesbury, the multimillionaire who built a palace in Wyndmoor for his wife, Eva.
Whitemarsh Hall, as Stotesbury christened his 147-room mansion, and its 300-acre grounds are the subject of the second book the Zwicker brothers are writing for Arcadia.
Zwicker said he believes the new book will have a wider appeal than the one on Springfield, because Stotesbury was a nationally known figure with mansions in Maine and Florida, and Whitemarsh Hall was such a lavish display of wealth.
"You didn't have much middle class back then," Zwicker said. "You had rich and you had poor."
Stotesbury built Whitemarsh Hall between 1916 and 1921, and in its heyday before the Depression, he employed more than 100 servants and groundskeepers and spent $1 million a year to keep it running.
The mansion was torn down in 1980 to make room for Wyndmoor's Stotesbury Townhouses. The entrance pillars left standing at Willow Grove Avenue and Douglas Road are all that remain.
"It was one of the last great estates in America," Zwicker said.
The authors pledged to donate the profits from their Stotesbury history to the Springfield Township Historical Society, just as they did with the money from their first book, and when work on the manuscript ends in July, Zwicker will be free to donate more of his time to the society as well.
He succeeded the venerable John Roberts as president late last year with several short- and long-term goals in mind.
Within six months, Zwicker wants to find a new home for the historical society's archives, which are now housed at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.
The ideal location would be open and accessible to the public, in his view, and it would have at least four rooms, where the photographs and documents could be stored neatly on shelves.
In his dreams, Zwicker sees an annex to the Springfield Public Library or even a corner of a restored Black Horse Inn.
"We're desperate for space," he said.
This year, if all goes according to plan, the township will acquire the deed to the Black Horse, along with the legal obligation to restore it, and the board of commissioners might consider passage of a historic preservation ordinance.
The historical society is prepared to help with those two tasks in any way possible, Zwicker said.
Looking further into the future, Zwicker hopes to make the society a more visible presence in the community.
Too often, he said, the public becomes aware of the society only during controversies, such as the struggle over the Black Horse, and as a result, it tends to regard the society as obstructionist.
To polish its image, Zwicker wants to publicize the society's many other activities, such as the lectures, the preservation of documents and artifacts, and the bus trips to historic destinations.
"We've been invisible for the past 20 years," he said.