Neighborhood Shares Its Glory Days A New Display Offers A Glimpse Of The Grandeur Of Two Old Abington Neighborhoods.

Posted: September 25, 1992

The roads today wind round the hills, down the valleys and through the trees.

The hedges are plush, the plantings varied, and lost in the landscape are beautiful homes.

In Rydal and Meadowbrook, roads seem to turn back on themselves, and the places turn back in time.

But years and foliage have screened their grand stone homes, hiding Abington Township's elegant history.

Now, a chance bequest and a school's ambition are laying the area's origins bare again.

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Revelation comes in eight ledgers of photographs, maps, blueprints and development plans acquired this year by Pennsylvania State University's Ogontz campus.

Bound in leather and linen, the ledgers chronicle the dealings and developments of Wayne and Malcolm Herkness, who - more than any other people - charted the area's course between World Wars I and II.

Builders, developers and real estate magnates, the Herknesses acquired and divided the sprawling old estates of the area and set the character of the community for generations to come.

"The Herknesses broke up the large estates into large pieces of ground so that they had the ambiance and gentility of what you see in Rydal and Meadowbrook today," said Leon Clemmer, an architect and president of the Old York Road Historical Society. "They set the tone. That was the great thing about them."

"And they did this all before we had strict zoning," added George R. ''Hank" Haines, who was an Abington Township commissioner for 17 years during the '60s and '70s. Wayne Herkness "had his own voluntary zoning system. . . . He just tried to keep the neighborhood as natural as possible."

The more than 200 photographs in the collection will be displayed at a brunch reception Sunday at the Huntingdon Valley Country Club. Together, they chronicle the houses bought and sold - and sometimes built - by the Herknesses.

"Between the plans and the photographs, this is the history of the whole Huntingdon Valley," said David Milby, associate professor of integrative art at Ogontz and co-coordinator of plans to restore the ledgers.

The collection was donated last spring by a longtime associate of the Herkness family who asked to remain anonymous.

The school is seeking to raise $25,000 to restore, catalogue and store the collection in its new archives. It is also offering reproductions of plans and photos to residents tracing origins of their homes (suggested contribution: $300).

Some of the pictured buildings no longer exist, such as the rambling Crosswicks mansion on Meeting House Road, with its white-pillared portico and sprawling brick wings, or Lorraine, a Washington Lane home notable for turrets and towers and thick, thick ivy.

Some photographs show the community under construction: One series traces homes on Frog Hollow Road rising in immaculate stonework behind spiky scaffolding, roofing beams joined like grillwork against the sky.

But many of the best photographs show elegant houses bare of later landscaping, their history and architecture unadorned.

Like the Tudor W.E. Hering mansion at Woodland and Huntingdon Roads across

from the Ogontz campus, a rhythmic sprawl of a place with repetitive gables and columned arbor to the rear (and a current price tag, according to Sotheby's, of $2.4 million).

And the E.E. Marshall home on Marshall Lane, fronted by four Ionic columns atop a rise, before the homes' wings were added.

"The neat thing about these pictures is that they were taken when the houses were new and there was no landscaping," said Milby. "The difficulty for us is that because of that, we can't find many of them."

Once word of the ledgers spread, however, interest swelled among homeowners old and new.

Wayne Herkness knew what he liked, and he liked quality.

He and brother Malcolm were partners, but Wayne was the visionary who drove their firm.

Their family was from Philadelphia - their father ran a horse bazaar, or auction house - but they had a farm on Vinegar Hill in Rydal.

"In those days, they lived at 16th and Wallace Streets," said Joseph Herkness, a nephew of the developers. "The farm was the summer place."

Before World War I, Wayne Herkness worked for Baldwin Locomotive. After the war, he saw the future in suburban land.

"He started developing the farm, and that's how he started in the real estate business," his nephew said. "He studied a great deal from books about things from England, and he developed his houses after that."

By the 1920s, the big estates were breaking up. Wayne Herkness saw a market for houses for the next generation and for professionals migrating out the Reading Railroad north of the city.

"Wayne was a real mover in the community," said Haines, whose father was a contemporary of the developer. "For a while, he sort of dominated the real estate here."

His favorite styles were English Tudor and stone colonial, with large lots and grand center halls - space for comfort without and within.

He was ahead of his time, placing homes in ways to ensure green space.

"He believed you should build a nice house on a nice piece of ground," said Haines. "Wayne was not trying to put in a lot of houses. He was very selective."

Attentive, too, "driving around the neighborhood on weekends to see the people he sold the houses to," said his nephew, Joseph. "He took a great deal of interest in the neighborhood."

The result was architecture that expressed the dreams and means of a refined, monied class.

"These were the Racket Club, Union League-type people, not razzmatazz-type people," said Clemmer of the historical society. "These guys didn't build for show. They just wanted big, nice houses."

IF YOU GO

* The brunch reception showcasing the ledgers and photographs of Wayne and Malcolm Herkness will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Huntingdon Valley Country Club. Reservations are required. Admission is $10. Information and reservations: 215-881-7368.

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