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Chester County Press

Supervisors ponder historic home’s future

02/21/2023 02:24PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw               The Kennett Township Board of Supervisors recently discussed possible options for the historic and Fussell House on Baltimore Pike, which has sat vacant since it received significant renovations that were completed in 2019.

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

In 2019, after Kennett Township guided it through a two-year, $750,000 renovation process that brought it back from the brink of demolition, the historic, 200-year-old Fussell House in Kennett Square took place as the township’s newest, best and brightest project.

The exterior renovation of the home removed and repaired stucco walls; added a new slate roof; installed new windows, an ADA-compliant front porch; repaired the home’s foundation; added parking spots; and cleared away troublesome brush that once obscured the visibility of the home along Baltimore Pike.

The home’s interior, damaged by termite infestation, was remediated, and mold was removed throughout the three-floor house, including the basement.

At groundbreakings and at township meetings, the word went forth that the historic structure – which once served as the home of stationmaster Dr. Bartholomew Fussell, a Quaker physician -- would become a proud piece in the continuing labyrinth of initiatives that would celebrate Kennett Square’s place in the Underground Railroad movement.

Since then, however, it has stood on Baltimore Pike, stalwart and repaired and virtually empty and devoid of occupants, purpose and mission. At the township’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Feb. 15, the board dedicated their entire closing comment section to deciding the future of a renovated heirloom of local history that has become, in essence, a white elephant.

In his opening his comments, board Chairman Geoffrey Gamble said that he recently toured the home with the members of the Public Works Department and concluded that there are two floors in the building that could be used by the township as early as 2024.

“The Fussell House has an up-to-date electrical service, heating system and air conditioning system, a brand new roof and new windows, three bathrooms and one full kitchen,” Gamble said. “It strikes me that it could be rented as office space or used by township staff. It strikes me that to maintain [the building] and pay for the heating and air conditioning for no one makes no sense.

“We should upgrade it so that it could be used by us. We are wasting a valuable asset that is now mothballed and needs to be brought back into consideration.”

Supervisor Scudder Stevens agreed with Gamble and suggested that in light of the tight quarters of the Township Building – one that houses the township’s administration and its police department – that the Fussell House could be considered as a satellite office for a township department.

“I have been a great believer in the Fussell House’s value to the township and the broader community, and that was the reason why I was so aggressive in trying to save it in the first place,” Stevens said. “I’ve been discouraged that we haven’t found a meaningful use for it, which could include a non-profit or historic group. It is a perfect place to have an Underground Railroad museum. We just haven’t found the organization that wants to put its roots down at that location.”

‘Hotbed of abolitionism’

When talks to renovate the Fussell House began several years ago, the township had great intentions – and historical reasons -- for choosing to purchase the home in January of 2016 for $200,000.

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. As one of the area’s leading abolitionists, Fussell and his wife, Lydia, used his home as a refuge for runaway slaves to find safety, shelter, food and clothing along their journey north to freedom.

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 Underground Railroad sites in the United States.

Over the past few years, there was conversation between stakeholders that suggested that the Fussell House could become the home of the Kennett Township Police Department. Police Chief Matthew Gordon said at the meeting that the location would not be sufficient for departmental use.

“We couldn’t put in sally ports, we couldn’t alter the building because of its historic significance, and obviously parking was another issue,” he said. “With all of those considerations, we determined the building was non-usable.”

Supervisor Richard Leff echoed his colleagues on the board, calling for the township to explore ways of broadening the home as a potential site for outside agencies, while at the same time continuing to make it compliant for occupancy, which at this stage would be mostly cosmetic upgrades.

“Our intent was that we would save it, stabilize it, and find some use for it, or an outside group would find use for it, and then we would [continue renovations],” Leff said. “Having not really made progress there, I think it’s a good thought to make it a usable space, and either we will come or someone else will come.”

Township Planning Commission member Pat Muller said the home should serve to “tell the story” of Dr. Fussell’s work that ultimately helped lead over 2,000 people to freedom.

“He is a part of the legacy of a lot of extraordinary people who were on the forefront of their day,” she said.

In other township business

Public Works Director Ted Otteni provided an update to the repairs being done to the Township Building – specifically, its meeting room -- which has been closed since last August due to severe mold.

He said that much of the rehabilitation work is complete, and includes drywall, painting, new flooring and installation of molding and trim, and work to repair the AV system recently began. The meeting room is scheduled to re-open and be fully functional in time for the March 1 Board of Supervisors meeting.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].