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Narberth Stories

Narberth’s 3 Worst Development Proposals Ever

Let's count ourselves lucky that these truly destructive re-development proposals never came to pass!

“They're ruining Narberth!” Every new building proposal that comes along triggers the lament on social media. Here are three that might actually have done that, three eye-wateringly short-sighted, destructve plans that, had they been carried out, would have changed Narberth for the worse for a long, long time. To qualify, a proposal had to be worse than charmless, worse than out of character, much, much worse than ugly.

1885: Rename Elm Station “Belfield”

The Times of Philadelphia, under the heading "In Suburban Counties", ran the following item on September 20, 1885:

Newspaper logo: The Times There is talk of changing the name of Elm station, on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to Belfield. A petition is in circulation asking for the removal of the station to a point 300 yards east of the present site.
oval photo of a middle-aged man with a large white mustache
Thomas Broom Belfield, in Moses King, Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians (New York, 1902)

In 1885, outside the humble farmhouses in Libertyville, there were maybe 6 or 7 houses within the bounds of modern Narberth. The biggest, by far, belonged to one Thomas Broom Belfield, Philadelphia industrialist, who used it as a summer retreat. It was where the Montgomery Court Apartments now stand. And Belfield owned the second biggest house, too, "Barrie House", still standing today at 206 Price Ave.

Belfield was swimming against the tide. Naming a hamlet after its principal family was a practice on the way out locally: Humphreysville became Bryn Mawr in 1869, "Louella" Wayne in 1880.

And moving the station 300 yards east? That would have placed it down a 30-foot embankment at the bottom of the ravine known as "Sullivan's Cut" behind the backyards of 309–311 Woodside Ave. The inaccessible location seems better for a murder than a station. In fact, just 9 years earlier, it was near here that the victim of the infamous "Elm Station Murder" was uncovered.

Good location for a train station? The petition's proposed site, looking from a back yard on Woodside Ave. towards Avon Rd.

It certainly looks like Gilded Age self-indulgence at its most excessive, renaming the neighborhood for yourself, and stifling future development to keep it exclusive by making its main point of entry less accessible, creating in effect a Grand Duchy of Belfield.

Checking subsequent issues of The Record has so far failed to reveal further developments on this plan.

T. Broom Belfield and his Narberth houses

The Elm Station Murder in the Main Line Chronicle's 75th Anniversary of Narberth Commemorative, 1970 (PDF, page 36)

If hubris motivated that effort, seventy years later it was greed.

1957: A 10-Story High Rise Overlooking Narbrook

Narberth's most picturesque property was a "magnificent" 1889 mansion built for a Pennsylvania meat-packing magnate, repurposed as luxury apartments with a charming pond where locals sledded and skated. But by the late 1950s, "The Lakeview" had fallen into neglect and disrepair. Its owner refused to fix the extensive damage after Hurricane Hazel blew two huge trees onto it in 1954, and moved to Cheltenham, leaving behind an abandoned and increasingly dangerous eyesore.

children skating on pond with house up hill in backgroundLarge mansion surrounded by broken trees. One large tree leans against the house
Skating on the pond, 1940s; Hurricane Hazel damage, 1954

His plans became clear in 1956 when he unleashed the lawyer from hell. Using misdirection, exaggeration, insults and threats, they brazenly attempted to cram on 5 acres as many cheap units as they could.

In meetings overflowing with irate neighbors, Narberth Borough Council twice rebuffed a "down-zoning" to permit, first, forty twins and singles, then 90 apartment units. So they returned to the table proposing a six- to ten-story tall "$1,000,000 apartment dwelling". In an open letter the Main Line Times characterized as a "threat", the lawyer blustered "Thanks to the lord, we have a free country… Once we apply for the high rise, we shall go to Court for approval. We feel we shall secure same."

dilapidated grand mansion, stream shovel at left
The end of the Lakeview

Borough Council stood firm: Denied. Then they declared the property a public nuisance. Then its separate large garage apartment burned to the ground in a spectacular fire. The fight raged for years, but in the end (1960–61) the owner had to comply with the zoning; the mansion was razed and replaced by the 16 houses on Narwyn Lane.

The Last Days of the Lakeview

As bad as these were, they weren't the worst. The #1 worst proposal ever?

1917: A Freight Yard in Narberth Park

Narberth was booming, with a constant demand for civic improvements. Indeed the town had been incorporated because Pennsylvania townships in 1895 were not yet empowered to mandate the improvements that boroughs could.

In 1917, the train station was "out-of-date and unattractive", nearly 50 years old, and on the wrong side of the tracks; the attached post office was shabby and overcrowded. The Pennsylvania Railroad seemed to ride to the rescue with a proposal that promised it all: a new station across the tracks, a new post office, even a car underpass connecting North and South Essex Avenues! "Does it look good to you?" gushed the Narberth Civic Association, "Whoop 'er up for the new station improvements!"

 Our Town August 30, 1917

But the plan came with a 10-track freight yard and depot that would cover the blocks where today we enjoy Narberth Park, the ball fields, the playground, the gazebo and the Library. Today, we recognize that it would have created a brownfield of coal, metal and petroleum waste seeping into the Indian Creek flood plain. But then, it wasn't even discussed. The land was "an old-fashioned, ugly, sordid dump", like Narbrook Park had been two years earlier. And there was yet plenty of undeveloped open space nearby.

So seduced were Borough Council and Burgess George Henry, the mastermind behind Narbrook Park, that they rushed to authorize vacating three existing or planned blocks. The pressing question was "How soon can it start?"

No time soon; the country was in the middle of World War I. Afterwards, the "civic improvement that it is generally conceded is due to our Borough", centering on the station, post office and Essex tunnel, continued to be pushed. The freight yard is rarely mentioned.

Some improvements were carried out piecemeal: the post office moved across the street in 1918, a new concrete sidewalk was laid from Essex and Elmwood to the inbound platform in 1919. But it took another fifty years before the station was replaced; the Essex Ave. tunnel never materialized. References to the grand plan dwindled. By 1922, planning was underway to acquire the depot land for the playground and park; the threat had passed.

Follow station improvement developments in Our Town:

Consider the consequences, from our early 21st-century vantage point, had these truly bad developments been executed. In different ways, "ruined" is not too strong a word for their effects on Narberth. In 1885 expansion of a new railroad suburb would have been crippled; "Narberth", at least the name, might never have existed. In 1917 the main greenspace we have today and the environment downstream would have been compromised for decades. The 1957 plans would have imposed an out-of-scale, over-developed neighborhood, likewise right on top of the creek.

Happy Narberth, none came to pass. Lessons? Twice it seems we were just lucky. But remember 1957 for neighbors and local government standing together to stop not one, but three of the most ruinous re-development proposals ever.