Saving Oakwell: Lower Merion’s environmental treasure

Lower Merion students in support of saving Oakwell – courtesy of Preserve Oakwell

If you spend any time driving on County Line Road in Villanova, you have likely driven by Oakwell, “sister to Stoneleigh,” a Natural Lands Trust site. Oakwell, owned by Dr. John Bennett for 25 years, was recently acquired by the Lower Merion School District via the threat of eminent domain. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bennett personally a few weeks ago when I saw the “ESTATE SALE – OPEN” sign on Oakwell’s fence and drove in. The home was open and Dr. Bennett was there, meeting with a scattering of people to peruse whatever was left following an auction of his home’s contents. The Oakwell mansion, built in 1919, is currently protected under Lower Merion’s Historic Preservation Ordinance of 2000.

Upon entering the home, I was first struck by the tile floors. They were made by the historic Moravian Pottery and Tileworks (also referred to as Mercer Tileworks), and while Oakwell has much to offer in natural beauty, the tiles alone are a treasure. The intricacy of the woodworking along the grand staircases and lining the walls was a wonderful sight. What was left of the art on the walls reflected the worldly life of an established traveler. Dr. Bennett is a historian, though he admits coming to it recently. 

“In school, I only learned about American history,” Dr. Bennett said. “Now I am fascinated by world history.” 

While the mansion itself is protected, the Lower Merion School District has plans to convert the grounds and other structures of his former estate into auxiliary playing fields. 

Traveling the world, Dr. Bennett is a collector, though he has recently sold most of his collections. Primarily he collected items from China including art and jade. Of his travels in China, he said, while shaking his head, “I remember when the skies were blue. Now it’s smog.” This general mood seemed to fit how he was feeling. 

While the mansion itself is protected, the Lower Merion School District has plans to convert the grounds and other structures of his former estate into auxiliary playing fields. 

“There are three heritage trees on the property,” Dr. Bennett said. 

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, heritage trees are those that “are important because of their great size, notable longevity, unusual form, location at the extreme of their natural growing range, or association with history.” 

“I had to, wanted to, work around these trees when I built my pool house, and had to have plans approved that showed I would not harm these trees,” Dr. Bennet said. “Now the school district wants to cut them down.” 

He wanted people to know about the grounds, partly why he opened his doors nearly every day in April and May, welcoming people to view the beautiful 13+ acre property. 

As stated on Preserve Oakwell’s Website, and reiterated during my visit with Dr. Bennett, the cost in tax dollars to develop the fields would be “upwards of 10 million dollars” on top of the 13 million dollar cost of the tract. In addition, the fields do not connect to the new middle school and would still require busing and additional taxpayer costs. Dr. Bennett stressed that the number of middle school students who would actually use the fields does not justify the steep cost to taxpayers. But the cost is more than just tax dollars. 

Of additional concern is the effect on the surrounding community. Having attended St. Joseph’s University and living in the area for a long time, Dr. Bennett cares deeply about the local environment. The trees and grounds at Oakwell support a cleaner watershed, as well as a thriving population of local wildlife including foxes, rabbits, insects, birds, coyotes, brown bats, frogs, and snakes, each of which contributes to the local ecosystem in a valuable way. Notable, irreplaceable old-growth trees include maple, hornbeam, redbud, cedar, hickory, dogwood, magnolia, spruce, cherry, and, of course, the mighty oaks. 

“You just can’t replace these old-growth trees.”

Dr. John bennett

“You just can’t replace these old-growth trees,” Bennett said regarding the school district’s plan to plant some new trees on the property following the planned demolition of the grounds. Dr. Bennett said that he is not opposed to the school district finding other uses for the property, including “STEM education, arts, horticulture, literature, and other activities that are not competitive.” 

Sadly, Dr. Bennett has moved out and the property has been taken over by the school district. It is now surrounded by a chain link fence and signs to “KEEP OUT.” 

“Of course I’m worried about looters and vandals,” Dr. Bennett said. “Do you think the school district is going to have surveillance of the property while it sits empty?” 

If you, too, feel moved to speak up about preserving Oakwell for the community to enjoy, and to protect the historic and natural resources it contains, consider attending the facilities meeting on June 15 at 8:30 a.m. and the school board meeting on June 20 at 8 p.m., both at the Administration Building, 301 E Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore.