Historic Farmstead Faces Uncertain Future

5/12/2012 10:00 AM
By Margaret Gates Regional Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — Like a once-youthful beauty now showing her age, the Mayer-Hess Farmstead stands at the gateway to Lancaster City — a reminder of a simpler, more agrarian time, before a bypass, shopping center and other development began chipping away at the rural landscape.

The grand, but crumbling, white Italianate-style home on Fruitville Pike in Manheim Township, Lancaster County, Pa., along with its surrounding barn and buildings, welcomed three owners and a variety of tenants over the course of nearly a century and a half.

But it has not aged gracefully, and whether it will survive any longer remains to be seen.

Already marked by the ravages of time and what preservationists refer to as “demolition through neglect” — peeling paint, broken shutters, plastic-covered windows — the deteriorating structures are now marked by a developer’s plans, which include a shopping center and a mix of upscale single-family homes, townhomes and apartments.

“The developer is planning to preserve the farmhouse, but basically scrape away the other remaining remnants,” said John D. Hershey, a board member of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, one of a number of entities fighting to preserve the entire farmstead.

The property, also known as Belmont Farm, is divided into three tracts — a 5.82-acre parcel on the west side of the road on which the house and outbuildings stand; a 71.47-acre parcel on the east side earmarked for the shopping center and homes; and a 15.5-acre tract north of Route 30 designed for open space, according to a proposal by the developer, R.J. Waters and Associates of Kennett Square, Pa.

Matthew J. Creme Jr., an attorney for the developer, said the cost and logistics of preserving the barn and smaller structures at their current location present too many obstacles.

Preservationists contend that without the barn and ancillary structures, the sense of a farmstead is lost — and so is a piece of the county’s agricultural history.

“This wasn’t just a rich guy’s house along the Fruitville Pike,” Hershey said.

And for Hershey, it’s not just another important piece of county history; it’s an important piece of his own family history, as well. His grandparents, Clarence and Ethel Zeager, were tenants in the home when it was still a working farm in the 1940s and ’50s. His mother was born there in 1944.

But the story of the Mayer-Hess Farmstead begins decades earlier with David Mayer, a farmer and businessman who likely would have understood the draw of business development that surrounds his property today.

Mayer grew up in Manheim Township and purchased the property around 1870 from his father, a prominent local Mennonite leader. He set to work immediately on the impressive mansion and, around the same time, established a lime kiln and quarry across the road.

“It’s kind of unique,” Hershey said of the Italianate mansion.

Local architect David High said the house is significant because of its size and level of ornamentation. According to the Pennsylvania Historic Resource Survey Form, it is probably the largest surviving symmetrical Italianate house in the county, High said.

In a position paper written for Design-Lancaster, a forum of professionals advocating for quality design in physical planning for the county, High and fellow architect Eugene Aleci noted, “This farmstead complex, even in its current deteriorating condition, remains an outstanding assemblage of surviving American agricultural architecture.”

“David and Katherine Mayer obviously wanted to show off their financial success,” Hershey said.

The Mayers had two daughters, one of whom died of tuberculosis and is said to have spent hours gazing at the surrounding countryside from the home’s now-weathered cupola.

Upon David Mayer’s death, the home transferred to the Keller family, who lived but a few miles away on North Duke Street in Lancaster City and used their new property as a weekend getaway, Hershey said.

For a time in the late 19th century, the farmstead went out of agriculture when the Kellers allowed the Yeates Institute, a school for boys, to use the property. When the school moved to a new location, the property returned to farming, with prominent Lancaster County farmer Jacob Leed keeping a large herd of dairy cattle on the land.

The Kellers eventually sold the farmstead to the Hess family, who has now owned it for three generations.

Hershey’s grandparents were tenants under the middle generation of Hesses.

“Grandpa set up the barn to house 40,000 chickens, which in the 1940s was one of the larger poultry farms,” Hershey said.

Then came suburban development and plans for a Route 30 bypass. The Zeagers decided they wanted someplace more rural and moved in 1955. The property has been out of farming since.

Hershey said he is not opposed to the development of the property; in fact, he supports it.

“The county has to continue to grow and it makes greater sense in my mind to save farmland in other parts of the county where farming is more economically viable ... and where you can preserve the adjoining farms, rather than just an isolated farm which, honestly, doesn’t have a lot of tillable acreage available,” he said.

It makes more sense, he said, to have development occur at a location such as the Mayer-Hess property, which is already surrounded by other development.

“At the same time, you have the agricultural heritage piece, which can’t be lost,” Hershey said. “When you strip away the barn, that’s gone forever.”

Hershey and others involved in preservation efforts believe there is potential to both develop the property and preserve the farmstead complex including the barn, an opinion the developer does not share.

The developer’s plans show reuse only of the farmhouse, which would be suitable for offices, a cafe, apartments or similar uses as permitted under the township’s zoning ordinance, Creme said.

“The exterior appearance would be pretty much what you see, restored to good repair, irrespective of what would go inside,” he said.

One issue for preservationists is the potential adaptive reuse of the barn, which in the proposed plans is marked for removal to make way for an access drive and drive-thru bank.

“I would love to see anything go in there,” Hershey said. “Can I say with all certainty that barn is conducive to housing a microbrewery or some other purpose? I honestly don’t know.”

The developer would contend that it is not, at least not in its current location. According to Creme, the main problem with the barn is that it would block a necessary access road and it is too close to the Fruitville Pike right of way.

“The current plan is to have it (the barn) moved and reconstructed at another site, which we think is a reasonable compromise under the circumstances,” Creme said.

Like Hershey, High believes the importance of the property goes beyond the grand house.

“I think it is important to look at the structures as a group, as together they tell the story of the site’s history,” High said in an email, noting the significance of the nearby quarry as well.

“This site tells the story of both the county’s agricultural and industrial power, which we pride ourselves on today.”

High and Aleci wrote that restoring the entire complex could serve the dual purpose of not only preserving the county’s heritage, but also creating a “distinctive address for new occupants.”

To that end, Livable Communities Inc., the National Preservation Trust and the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County have contributed a total of $20,000 to hold a public design charrette or forum to come up with a solution to please both sides.

The forum would bring together township officials, structural engineers, land planners, architects, design professionals, developers and others to come up with an economically viable alternative to demolition. So far, all have agreed to come to the table, Hershey said, with the exception of the developer.

“The implication is that we have not already considered economically viable ways to preserve the farmstead, and that would not be true,” Creme said. “We’ve done that, we’ve been through that process, and unfortunately it is what it is. We’ve not had a good reason to redo what we’ve already done.”

In the absence of the charrette, the next step in the property’s future comes May 16, when the developer appears before the township planning commission to present a limited part of its overall plan. That presentation, Creme said, will concentrate on the larger tract and likely will not even touch on the proposal for the farmstead complex.

The Manheim Township Board of Commissioners has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for July 23, according to zoning officer Lisa Douglas.

The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County can be reached at 717-291-5861 or online at <\n>www.hptrust.org.

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