Racing to protect historic treasures in the White Clay Creek Preserve07/05/2022 11:18AM ● By Steven Hoffman
The John Evans House is more than 300 years old, making it one of the oldest homes in Chester County. And it is in serious jeopardy.
The John Evans House is situated in the White Clay Creek Preserve, a 1,255-acre state park along the valley of White Clay Creek in London Britain Township. The house was left uninhabited after the last residents moved out due to the failure of the septic system. Then, in September of 2017, a fire ripped through the house and almost destroyed it. The interior was gutted and there was significant damage to the exterior. The fire was allegedly set on purpose, although never proven, which is sad if true. The John Evans House was almost lost that night, and if it had burned down completely, the house’s historical significance would have gone entirely unrecognized. Since then, the structure, a brick-and-mortar shell of its former self, sits forlornly on Sharpless Road along the White Clay Creek Preserve trail route.
A group of people led by the London Britain Township Historical Commission (LBTHC) are taking action to help protect and preserve the John Evans House and the other historic treasures in the White Clay Creek Preserve.
The LBTHC was relaunched after being inactive for many years as part of an effort to preserve the John Evans House. The process to preserve and protect the house has been complex and painfully slow—especially to those who are aware of just how precarious the current state of the historic treasure is. But there are many other restoration imperatives in the White Clay Creek Preserve.
In addition to the John Evans House, there are several other historic structures in the Preserve that are in need. The interior ceiling of the Welsh Baptist Meeting House is currently being replaced, also in need of shutter repairs and window replacements. The Sexton House windows have been replaced, and the chimney and roof are also in need. Obtaining a new roof is taking longer than expected as the estimates came in above the DCNR’s threshold and the repair is going back to involve their engineers. Other future projects will include the Meeting House Cemetery wall and gate repairs, as well as restoration of the grave markers. Overseeing the Lunn’s Tavern restoration is also under way.
The Historical Commission, local stakeholders, and some elected officials are dedicated to the larger effort to ensure that important pieces of local history are maintained for future generations, and that the White Clay Creek Preserve’s resources are, in fact, preserved. But it’s a race against time.
The Evans family builds a house
The John Evans House and its surroundings in the White Clay Creek Preserve are steeped in local history. In 1683, Lenape Chief Kekelappen sold the land the present-day White Clay Creek Preserve is on to William Penn. Historians believe that Chief Kekelappen may have lived in Opasiskunk, a large Native American town situated in the White Clay Creek Preserve.
In the early 1700s, John Evans, a Welsh Baptist, sought a new life in the New World that would soon be called America. Like so many others at the time, Evans wanted to escape religious persecution.
While many people assume that Quakers might have been the first to settle in the area of the White Clay Creek Preserve, it was actually the Welsh Baptists. Evans, with his brother by his side, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and traveled to the Colony of Pennsylvania. He purchased approximately 400 acres of land that was owned by William Penn, who had originally purchased the land from Lenni Lenape Indians in 1683.
The Evans brothers returned to Wales so that they could prepare to bring their families and supplies to America. In 1715, they returned to Pennsylvania and the 400 acres they had purchased along the White Clay Creek. Evans constructed a two-story home in the style of Georgian architecture, and slowly, both his home and the surrounding area grew up around him. A center section dining room and fireplace made of granite fieldstone, three additional bedrooms upstairs, and a story-and-a-half kitchen that had its own fireplace were all added later in the 18th century.
The Evans family’s contributions to the history of the Landenberg area are significant. John Evans was instrumental in the construction of the nearby London Tract Meeting House (c. 1729) and he also owned and operated a mill in the area. Evans' grandson, also named John, served on the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court during the Revolutionary War. When the younger Evans died, he left the property to his brother Evan, who served as a county militia commander during the 1777 Battle of the Brandywine.
The John Evans House survives…and survives again
Over the course of the next two centuries, the Evans House served as the home to a succession of owners, and survived not only harsh winters and hard rains, but also more recent efforts made by the DuPont Company to dam the White Clay and flood the entire valley, including historical structures like the John Evans House, in order to service water from a massive reservoir to a textile plant the chemical giant wanted to build nearby. Opposition to the proposed dam was led by a cavalry of environmentalists and historians, and in 1982, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and his Senate colleague from Delaware, Joe Biden, sponsored legislation that led to the formation of the White Clay Creek Preserve. This legislation protected 1,255 acres in Pennsylvania and another 3,300 acres in Delaware. The Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Maryland, the Big Elk Creek Section (the Strawbridge property) of the White Clay Creek Preserve, and municipal preserves, parks and open spaces together form one of the largest contiguous protected open space land areas in the entire Mid-Atlantic region.
Being located in a State Preserve did not mean that the John Evans House and other historic resources would be guaranteed the protection that they need—and deserve.
The next significant threat to the John Evans House came in 2009, when Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) first announced that it had placed the John Evans House on its demolition list.
Out of concern some of the PA Friends of the White Clay Creek formed a Historical subcommittee in 2019. Several of its members conducted a tour of the house with DCNR representatives, appealing to the DCNR to support the group’s initiative to save it. At the time DCNR was not receptive to the appeals, ostensibly on the basis of other financial priorities of the Commonwealth. Letters received from DCNR stated that there were thousands of buildings across the tens of thousands of acres that they have in parks, and that there were not sufficient resource nor time to maintain them. Signifying a call for action, the subcommittee grew and officially became the London Britain Township Historical Commission in 2020. Ever since then, the LBTHC has been meeting monthly exploring ways to raise awareness and advocate for appropriate restoration of these historic structures in the White Clay Creek Preserve.
Before his retirement from the Pennsylvania State Senate, Andy Dinniman worked to bring together representatives from various conservation groups, including DCNR and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). As a result of one meeting, the groups agreed to work together to stabilize and preserve the structure’s shell as part of the rich history of the White Clay Creek Preserve and the surrounding region.Around that time, Dinniman explained the significance of the John Evans House. “The John Evans House tells the story of our nation – from its founding by colonists to the fight for the freedom and independence in the Revolutionary War to the establishment of the Mason-Dixon Line and the abolitionist movement in the antebellum period,” Dinniman said at the time. “It is vital that this structure be preserved for posterity as a testament to our rich history and that of Chester County’s White Clay Creek Preserve.”
Preserving historic treasures for future generations
While the grassroots efforts to save the John Evans House have primarily been engineered by the LBTHC, they have been joined in support by several environmental and historical agencies, including the PA Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve, New Garden Township Historical Commission, Franklin Township Historical Commission, the White Clay Watershed Association, the White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic River Program, London Britain Township, Chester County Planning Commission, and The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County.
Former Senator Dinniman wrote a letter to The Hon. Cindy Adams Dunn at DCNR, expressing his concern about the agency's demolition plans, and requested a site visit meeting with DCNR officials and members of the LBTHC and elected officials.“Since it has become known that the Department has plans to demolish this structure, a significant number of my constituents have contacted me with strong opposition to the proposed removal of this historic resource,” Dinniman's letter read. “Simply put, many in my district are concerned that the demolition of this historic property will forever remove the potential opportunity for future generations to witness a direct link to our nation's founding.”
In 2018, DCNR reconsidered the demolition of one of the oldest houses in the county. The house is a key structure in the efforts being made to preserve the entire Welsh Baptist Historic District that surrounds the John Evans House, gaining this Historic District eligibility status helped save it from ruin.
Starting in February of 2020, the London Britain Township Historical Commission established a working relationship with DCNR on how to stabilize the structure. This required the Historical Commission to acquire $17,000, which included a $10,000 grant from PA Department of Community and Economic Development. Frens & Frens Restoration Architects, a subsidiary of Patterhn Ives, LLC, were hired to lay out a detailed plan for emergency stabilization of the house. The LBTHC, who has been responsible for the steps in the emergency stabilization process, were anxiously awaiting DCNR sign off approval, which has just recently been granted.
While the Evans House survived the proposed onslaught of a corporate giant, as well as the thwarted attempt for DCNR to approve its destruction, it could not survive the slow decay of neglect, nor the fire in 2017, and now emergency stabilization is required. It is a race against time to save this historic treasure—and others.
This place matters
The most recent efforts to save the John Evans House and other resources in the Preserve are imperative. What has been accomplished is a great example of community collaboration but with too few resources. Although this remains a challenge, the London Britain Township Historical Commission continues to work hard to collaborate with DCNR, and find additional funding sources needed to preserve the Welsh Baptist Historic District.
In 2020, with the help of Karen Marshall, former Chester County Heritage Preservation Coordinator, and Susan Moon, Chair of the London Britain Township Historical Commission, produced the Historic Resource Survey Form (HRSF) and submitted it to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in the first step in the process to secure a spot for the Welsh Baptist Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then, in 2021 the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office issued a Declaration of Eligibility (DOE) for this designation. Once an acceptable National Register nomination form has been submitted, the property will be scheduled for review by the Historic Preservation Board, a committee of professionals and citizens-at-large from across the Commonwealth. The nomination will then be sent to the National Park Service for their consideration for listing on the National Register. Although a lengthy process, the DOE alone has already given this area more historic preservation protection than it had before.
As a result of this DOE, in October of 2021, Preserve Manager Lexi Rose forwarded an email stating that DCNR will not initiate demolition of the John Evans House structure. In addition, after months the facility design and construction, LBTHC received approval from DCNR that they could begin to initiate the process of hiring a contractor to provide estimates for the emergency stabilization and restoration project. Now the Historical Commission must prepare an RFQ for the implementation of the emergency stabilization plan, solicit bids from at least three contractors, raise funds to support this work, select a contractor and engage with DCNR to review the construction plan.
Last year also saw a multi-municipal Vision Partnership Program (VPP) grant application to the Chester County Planning Commission to develop a heritage interpretation connectivity plan. The development of the plan is a partnership between the four participating townships: London Britain, New Garden, Franklin, and Elk. The purposes of the plan include gaining a clear understanding of the story of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Pennsylvania-Delaware Arc, and their importance in local and national history; identifying existing sites that are critical pieces of that story, including heritage interpretative areas and possible lands and resources for preservation; and determining the effective trail links to connect preserves, parks, existing trails, and open spaces with historic transportation corridors, trails, pedestrian areas, trail heads, open space, agricultural lands, interpretive heritage centers, interpretive sites, and other amenities.
This VPP grant funding will be utilized to have the Brandywine Conservancy serve as a planning consultant to author and guide the planning process. The plan will be undertaken through a public process with the Steering Committee guidance and via partnership participation. It will provide an opportunity for municipalities and other stakeholders to work cooperatively to identify key natural, historic, open space, parks, preserve and agricultural resources as well as trails, pedestrian areas, and amenities, and consider how these could be accessed, linked, and interpreted for the public. The plan will include recommendations for up to four Heritage Interpretation Centers. Its formal name is the Mason Dixon Line/Arc Corner Heritage Interpretation and Connectivity Plan. It has taken a great deal of work by local residents and elected officials to reach this point.
Another effort that may help save the historic structures in the Preserve is the National Park Service. The LBTHC has become a stakeholder in a grant-supported effort with the National Park Service to develop a foundation for a Master Plan for the White Clay Creek Preserve. This WCCP Master Plan will include consideration for all of the historic resources in the Preserve. The Commission members will be actively involved in this undertaking in order to make certain that the Historic District stays in the forefront of this developing plan.
A race against time to save the historic treasures
The London Britain Historical Commission and other local stakeholders remain concerned about the magnitude and scope of these needs and feel a strong sense of urgency. It is a race against time to save these historic treasures in the Preserve, and those treasures may reach a point where they can’t be restored.
Some of the people involved in this enormous effort to save the treasures up to this point include Andy Dinnaman, retired State Senator; Carolyn Comitta, current State Senator; Christina Sappy, State Representative; Josh Maxwell, Chester County Commissioner; Aileen Parrish, London Britain Township supervisor; Karen Marshall, retired Chester County Heritage Preservation Coordinator; Scotty Crowder, President of the PA Friends of White Clay Creek; Susan Moon, Chair of the London Britain Historic Commission; Eric Baker, Vice Chair of the London Britain Township Historic Commission; Paul Lagasse, Franklin Township Historical Commission; David Hawk, New Garden Township Historic Commission; Monica Quann, John Starzman, Jaya Gokale, Martin Wells, Bob Clark, and Tom Zawislak, all members of the Historical Commission.
A volunteer service organization, PA Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve sponsors educational programs, organizes clean-ups, coordinates volunteer park maintenance events and seeks funding that help pay for improvements in the Welsh Baptist Historical District. To learn more, visit www.FriendsofPaWCCP.org. In addition, to obtain further information on these preservation efforts, interested persons may visit and join the London Britain Township Historical Commission Facebook Group.