Kevin Riordan: Can-do spirit needed to save historic site

Cleaning up the banks of Laurel Lake in Laurel Springs Borough are (from left) Carolyn Redstreake, Ellen Kuehner, and Elizabeth Kuehner Smith. Forty cubic yards of debris were picked up Saturday at the Camden County site.
Cleaning up the banks of Laurel Lake in Laurel Springs Borough are (from left) Carolyn Redstreake, Ellen Kuehner, and Elizabeth Kuehner Smith. Forty cubic yards of debris were picked up Saturday at the Camden County site. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 10, 2013

Let's hear it for the volunteers who collected enough branches, brush, and trash from Laurel Lake's waters and shoreline Saturday to fill two Dumpsters.

"I'm ecstatic," says Laurel Springs Councilman Jim Redstreake, who organized the cleanup. "We hauled away 40 cubic yards of stuff."

By any measure, the efforts of nearly 50 firefighters, public works crews, and residents from Laurel Springs, Stratford, and Lindenwold were a success.

But the future of a lovely stretch of land on the Laurel Springs side of the lake remains murky.

The 3 wooded acres on a bluff overlooking the water are divided by Glen Avenue and owned by the descendants of the late entrepreneur Herman Kuehner, of Camden.

Kuehner, a distributor of the vitreous china used to make toilets, built a mini-resort on Laurel Lake shortly after World War I.

The landscape that is now part of the Borough of Laurel Springs had been well-known in the region since the late 1800s, when Walt Whitman enjoyed mud-bathing and skinny-dipping a quarter-mile upstream from the Kuehner property. Trains brought wealthy Philadelphians and Camden residents to Laurel Springs to "take the waters."

The Kuehner summer house and cabins are long gone, as is the English formal garden, the ornamental fish pond, and a fabled footbridge made of vines, two of Kuehner's granddaughters say. Elizabeth Kuehner Smith of Florida and Ellen Kuehner Chester County are eager to sell to a buyer who will preserve the site.

Except for Crystal Springs, the spot made famous by Whitman (it is now a borough park), "this is the last piece of wild ground on this whole entire lake," Smith says. "It should remain as open space."

The sisters say they can't afford to simply donate the land. But they are willing to set up an endowment to help pay for upkeep if it is purchased and preserved.

This is a great idea. But as Borough Councilman Gene Letts told me at the event Saturday, "I wish it were that easy."

Here's the problem: While many people agree about the site's aesthetic value - it's an 'I can't believe I'm in Jersey' sort of place - neither Laurel Springs Borough nor Camden County wants to buy it.

The South Jersey Land and Water Trust (also a cleanup participant) and other environmental organizations don't want it, either.

"I grew up on Glen Avenue. . . . I know the property very well," says Redstreake. "It's beautiful, and I would love nothing more than to see it as open space. But my concerns are liability, and the cost of maintenance."

Jack Sworaski, who heads the county's open-space preservation program, notes that the Kuehner property "is very small and doesn't connect" to other parkland, or to the county's slowly expanding network of greenways.

"We haven't been in negotiations," Sworaski says. "There's no number to negotiate over."

The sisters cite a $600,000 estimate of the land's value they obtained from a real estate professional in 2009.

"But that's not an appraisal," says Sworaski, adding that the county wants to focus on preserving large parcels and "strategic acquisitions," such as the 155-acre Woodcrest Country Club.

It seems to me there ought to be a way to save this unique piece of South Jersey history, too.

Perhaps what's needed is more of the cooperative, can-do spirit I witnessed firsthand at Saturday's cleanup. The sort of spirit embodied by generations of the Kuehner family.

Smith is still lobbying the borough - she attended Monday's Council meeting - as well as networking with other nonprofits.

"We don't have the resources to say we'd never sell it [for development]," she says. "But we haven't yet exhausted all of our avenues."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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