Historic House In Park Gets New Lease On Life After Years Of Neglect, Ridgeland Has Been Renovated As A Center For Cancer Patients.

Posted: December 18, 1997

It's a warm yellow now, but until recently historic Ridgeland in West Fairmount Park was just another white elephant.

Long vacant except for a few park offices, not architecturally notable enough to be a museum restoration candidate, Ridgeland - dating in part to 1719 - seemed destined to languish and decay as have many other Fairmount Park homes.

But in a turnaround that park and preservation officials say could be a model for other park houses, Ridgeland found a new purpose and an agency willing to restore it. The park got a functioning landmark instead of an eyesore, and hundreds of people are drawn into West Fairmount who otherwise might never have come.

Other park houses are open as museums, the Belmont Mansion complex includes a catering business, and some are used as office space. But Ridgeland is the most complete adaption of a house for a specific group and purpose, and the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust - which administers the houses - would like to strike other deals.

``It's like hitting the lottery,'' said Amy Freitag, historic-preservation officer for the trust. ``An underutilized park property was rejuvenated and given a new purpose by an organization very sympathetic to its historic character.''

Since earlier this year, Ridgeland's new tenant - with a 35-year lease - is the Wellness Community Inc., a nonprofit support program for cancer patients. The house is designated the Suzanne Morgan Center at Ridgeland, after the family foundation that funded the restoration.

The Wellness Community, whose free programs help area cancer patients and their families develop the positive attitudes needed to fight for their own recovery, had been housed in the basement of a Bala Cynwyd office building.

Its directors wanted a setting as far from hospital-like as it could get, and at first it was tough going, said Lauren Morgan, executive director of the foundation.

Then someone suggested she consider some of Fairmount Park's properties. One or two she saw were clearly unworkable, she said. Then they looked at the rambling and rundown house on Chamounix Drive, near Belmont Plateau.

``We fell in love with Ridgeland. It just encompassed everything we were trying to do as a hospice and a refuge place of calm in the city,'' Morgan said.

Turning a ramshackle but historically certified mansion into a workable refuge for cancer patients wasn't painless, however.

It took months of often intense negotiations with the trust's conservators to turn a house built for an 18th-century farm family into a cancer center on the cusp of the 21st century.

The result was that Ridgeland has been restored with ``sympathy for historical accuracy,'' as Morgan describes it, not to an academic ideal.

The main part of the house, the 2 1/2-story farm dwelling, was begun in 1719 by landowner William Couch. It had a number of owners before being acquired by the city in 1869.

For most of the first half of this century, Ridgeland was the residence of Fairmount Park's executive director. Over the years, the house was expanded and remodeled, with additions in the styles of the times.

The practice of housing the park chief at Ridgeland ended several decades ago, and only a few rooms were used as offices by park staff. Maintenance and upkeep slipped.

By the time Morgan first saw it in 1995, she said, ``it was in unbelievable condition. It was left to die; it was really falling apart.''

Windows were permanently opened or shut. The big back porch was settling into the ground. There was lead-based paint and asbestos, mold and mildew.

The foundation budgeted more than $500,000 to restore and alter the house. Decisions on what to do were made by Lauren Morgan, Constance M. Carino, then executive director of the Wellness Center, and John Carr, conservator for the trust.

``We met every week,'' Morgan said. ``I took the role as the homeowner, John was involved in [deciding] every color, every texture, and Connie took the patients' point of view.''

Carr said his research indicated that the 1920s was the era of Ridgeland's ``most extant form,'' so its exterior would be restored to that appearance. Inside, there was more flexibility, but all alterations needed to be reversible. The sunny back porch, for instance, has been fitted with glass panels but the metal frames are set just inside the original wooden railing.

One other thing. Carr analyzed the many paint layers and determined that in its 1920s heyday, Ridgeland had been lemon-pie yellow instead of the faded off-white of later years.

Morgan, who designs maternity clothes under the name Lauren Sara, at first blanched at the ``bright, bright yellow'' Carr decreed but has come around.

``It's very happy and the patients just love it,'' she said.

Wellness Community executive director Jodi Danois enjoys showing off the house - the exercise space in the basement, in front of the 18th-century cooking hearth, the comfortable, cushioned rattan furniture on the sunporch, the homey meeting rooms.

While she emphasizes the house is a beautiful spot that mostly fits the Wellness Community's goals, she also recognizes that there are some trade-offs. The lack of soundproofing means two events cannot coexist easily in adjacent rooms and the house does not have a truly large meeting space.

Ultimately, the Wellness Community would like to refurbish the nearby barn as a great room.

With the exception of a first-floor parlor, which has Federalist-style furniture and reproductions, none of Ridgeland's rooms is in period.

``We have one room we call the historic room, but we have found that historic furniture is not comfortable for people with cancer in their bones,'' she said.

But the historic room allows the house to be designated part of the Fairmount Park House Tour. That means the park supplies all utilities, worth about $10,000 a year.

Tours are welcome by appointment, Danois said, but with a small staff and a full program of nutrition classes and counseling, drop-ins can't always be accommodated.

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