Kevin Riordan: His new challenge: Saving historical Cherry Hill clubhouse

Kevin Cook of Cherry Hill is lobbying to save the deteriorating clubhouse at Wallworth Park, the work of Charles W. Leavitt, architect of county park system.
Kevin Cook of Cherry Hill is lobbying to save the deteriorating clubhouse at Wallworth Park, the work of Charles W. Leavitt, architect of county park system. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: April 19, 2013

Even as it crumbles, the little cottage on a knoll overlooking Evans Pond manages to charm.

It has so captivated Cherry Hill resident Kevin Cook that he's started a campaign to save the vacant structure, built as the Wallworth Park clubhouse in 1927.

And even as he battles a progressive and incurable neurological disorder that affects his mobility, dexterity, and speech, Cook, 35, has succeeded in persuading Camden County to delay demolition.

He also hopes the county can fix the holes in the roof. And do something about the termites munching away near the foundation. "All I'm asking is for the building to be made secure, so it will still exist" when restoration is feasible, Cook says.

Wearing a jaunty Phillies cap and carrying a cane, he meets me in front of the clubhouse at the end of Borton Mill Road in Cherry Hill.

It's a lovely spot, adjacent to the Croft Farm Arts Center, the Jake's Place playground, and the Challenge Grove park.

"We're not talking tens of millions of dollars" for restoration, says Cook, who earned a degree in environmental design from the University of Colorado.

He's been unable to work since his illness ended his commercial real estate career in 2010.

"I'm more than happy to help raise money, if that's an issue," he says.

Cook's interest was piqued after he visited the park in February and was startled by the condition of a building he recalled riding by on his bike as a child. He began doing research at the Camden County Historical Society.

"This is the only Camden County park building built to the specifications of Charles W. Leavitt," Cook says, referring to the park system's original engineer.

He found newspaper stories suggesting the clubhouse was last used by the public in the late 1970s. A park system publication from 1937 features wonderful period photos as well as enthusiastic descriptions of the building's Colonial-style interior.

Fascinated, Cook also pored over a county application, now expired, for national historic site designation for the entire park system. He discovered that the clubhouse was accurately identified on one page, yet described as a "farmhouse" on another.

"I'm glad Kevin brought this building to our attention," Freeholder Jeff Nash says. "Our capital budget is limited . . . but in the short term, we will make sure it is safe."

Parks director Frank Moran says the clubhouse has been taken off the demolition list. Instead, the county will solicit estimates for roof repairs.

"We will explore partnerships" with history-minded groups or other nonprofits about potential rehabilitation, he adds.

"We boarded up the building to secure it at ground level. There was a fire inside at some point in the past, and there's water in the basement. It's not just a matter of throwing a few shingles on it."

Cook says he always welcomes a challenge. A lifelong surfer, he was athletic and robust until about six years ago, when he began falling off the boards and falling down, period.

His speech took on a staccato rhythm, and he developed neuropathy. The diagnosis was made in 2009: Ataxia, a hereditary disorder Cook says won't kill him, although it may eventually put him in a wheelchair.

"I realized that if I just sat home, I'd go nuts," he says. "I was so used to living my life in fast forward, and now it's a struggle to live it in slow motion.

"I'm a big fan of Wes Anderson," Cook continues, referring to the director of Bottle Rocket (his favorite), Moonrise Kingdom and other quirky films, which often feature improbable dreamers, oddball visionaries, and unlikely quests. "This building," the clubhouse champion says, "is a Wes Anderson movie."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan.

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