Preservation of The Pines: Kennett Township brings new life to historic home
By Richard Gaw
A few years ago, a long-haul truck driver from the Midwest pulled into the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott on East Baltimore Pike in Kennett Square, when he noticed a historic home next door.
Curious about the home, he later walked over to the Fussell House – or “The Pines,” as it is also referred to – and stood on the home’s porch, listening for what he felt sounded like history. Wanting to know more about the home’s origins, he contacted Sara Meadows of Kennett Township’s Historical Commission, and spoke to her for nearly 40 minutes.
“I know that something wonderful happened here,” he told Meadows.
Indeed, many wonderful things did happen at the Fussell House, and now, with vision and investment, something additionally wonderful is continuing to happen there. It’s been saved, loved and resurrected by Kennett Township, and given the precious attention that a monument of the community’s history so richly deserves.
Through the work of the township’s Historical Commission, volunteers and contractors, and with the support of the township’s Board of Supervisors, the nearly 200-year-old home’s exterior has been restored and much of its interior repaired, transforming a once neglected piece of the area’s history into a gleaming structure that now serves as one of the gateway landmarks to Kennett Square.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Kennett Square area was known as “the hotbed of abolitionism,” due to the help many local residents gave to fugitive slaves. These Underground Railroad “stationmasters” provided shelter in their homes, called “stations,” and then secretly moved the travelers along to another station, en route north or west, to freedom. One of the most prominent of these stationmasters was Dr. Bartholomew Fussell, a Quaker physician and anti-slavery activist, whose house once served as a refuge for runaway slaves to find safety, shelter, food and clothing along their journey north to freedom.
Fussell occupied the house from 1827 to 1837 and reportedly more than 2,000 runaway slaves were helped on their journey to freedom by Dr. Fussell and his wife, Lydia. The house is now recognized as one of more than three dozen Underground Railroad sites in southern Chester County, and is part of the largest concentration of URR sites in the United States.
Recognizing the home’s vital importance to the history of the Underground Railroad, and realizing that it was located near encroaching commercial development that threatened its future, the township purchased the 190-year-old house in January 2016 for $200,000, through its Capital Fund.
Township Manager Lisa Moore said that discussions that led to the preservation of the Fussell House began eight years ago, and were ignited in part by conversations the township had with members of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center and many others concerned with the fate of the property.
“The supervisors at the time decided that this house was very important for our history and for the entire Underground Railroad, so they felt that it should be purchased and preserved, so that people of future generations would be able to tour it and learn more about what happened there,” Moore said.
“We’re very appreciative that the township is so supportive of the historic aspect of the township, because a lot of townships don’t have a lot of this kind of support,” Meadows said. “Because the house is so visible and is a well-documented stop along the Underground Railroad, it will become a very important way to tell the story. I think that people do care about history, if you can get them to it.”
Begun two years ago and now complete, the exterior renovation of the Fussell House involved the removal and replacement of stucco walls; the addition of a new slate roof; the installation new windows; the development of parking spots; the construction of a new, ADA-compliant front porch; repairs to the home’s foundation and the clearing of troublesome brush that once obscured the visibility of the home along Baltimore Pike.
The home’s interior, damaged by termite infestation, has been remediated, and mold has been removed throughout the three-floor house, including the basement. Moore said that the total cost to fully renovate the home’s interior is estimated at $700,000.
For some time after the township purchased the home, there was consideration given to making the structure the new home of the Kennett Township Police Department. Initial architectural drawings were done, but the estimated $1 million cost was too expensive to pursue the concept further. Moore said that the township is currently having conversations with a local non-profit organization, who is interested in occupying the home as a children’s youth center.
The interior and exterior renovations to the historic house are only a part of the township’s involvement. The Historical Commission and KURC are in the beginning stages of placing a permanent plaque near Baltimore Pike that denotes the Fussell House as a major part of the area’s Underground Railroad movement. Another goal of the renovation will be to have a glass window installed on the home’s rear side that will allow visitors on the Underground Railroad tour to see the actual catacombs and crevices of the home’s basement, where African-American slaves were protected along their journey to freedom.
In addition to preserving the Fussell House, the township is currently working with Chatham Financial to restore the exterior of the Isaac Allen House on McFarlan Road back to its original 1751 appearance.
“I feel that the Fussell House is just one of the pieces that represents our community,” Moore said. “I think it’s not only important for the community but for kids in the future, to learn about the Underground Railroad. It’s extremely important to preserve the historic nature of who we were, because if we lose our history, we lose what our community was about. It’s important for us to honor that.”
To learn more about the Fussell House and the Underground Railroad in Kennett Square, visit the Kennett Underground Railroad Center at www.undergroundrr.kennett.net. To learn more about the Kennett Township Historical Commission, visit the Kennett Township website at www.kennett.pa.us, or call 610-388-1300.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.