Cynwyd train station to reopen as sustainability-themed cafe

Sadie Francis will open her Cynwyd Station Cafe and Tea Room on Sunday. The train station has been revitalized in a cooperative effort of SEPTA, Lower Merion, and a historical society after years of neglect.
Sadie Francis will open her Cynwyd Station Cafe and Tea Room on Sunday. The train station has been revitalized in a cooperative effort of SEPTA, Lower Merion, and a historical society after years of neglect. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 16, 2014

In its 124-year history, the Cynwyd train station has been a post office, a hub for coal transport, and a home where a postmistress raised six children.

But, decrepit and empty for more than 20 years, it became an abandoned victim of SEPTA's budget woes.

Then, in 2007, the collaboration of a nonprofit, local government, and a transportation authority began to turn a crumbling target of vandalism into something more.

That seven-year project will culminate Sunday with the opening of the Cynwyd Station Cafe and Tea Room, an old-fashioned and newfangled incarnation of the Victorian-era building.

The establishment will offer fountain sodas, egg creams, and, of course, tea. But also on its shelves will be sustainability-themed merchandise that reflects the expertise of its proprietor, Sadie Francis, an LEED-accredited green building specialist.

"It's a reinvention, but gives due respect to what the building was used for," said Francis, 32. "We want to be a community gathering spot, to get people out of their cars, talking to each other, and starting to care about green space."

The new building also houses a waiting room, restroom, and upstairs apartment that will be occupied by a part-time caretaker.

The opening caps a joint effort by the Lower Merion Historical Society, Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County and SEPTA to reclaim a deteriorating station that when built in 1890, became the center of the community that sprang up around it.

In recent years, it has become the starting point of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, a two-mile path to the Manayunk Bridge.

The project began when Lower Merion Township approached the historical society about renovating the station in much the same way the nonprofit had reinvented its own headquarters at the Lower Merion Academy, a former Quaker school.

The society launched a capital campaign that raised $242,000 from the county, $242,000 from the township, and $190,000 from the historical society, which also contributed $45,000 in materials. SEPTA's workforce installed platforms and a new sewage system.

Jeffrey Knueppel, SEPTA's deputy general manager, called the project a great effort for a building that soon might have been the subject of a "tough decision" because of its deteriorating condition.

Knueppel declined to say what that decision could have been, but added that with SEPTA's 150 stations and financial woes, which include a $5 billion backlog of capital projects, "it was getting to the point that we had to figure out what to do with" the building.

As part of the plan, SEPTA agreed to lease the property to the township, which in turn leased it to the historical society, which is leasing the retail space to Francis, whose father, Gerald, is president of the historical society.

When no other tenants could be found, Sadie Francis, who had been living in Washington and working as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy, submitted a 19-page business plan. Both it and her lease were approved by the historical society and the township.

Gerald Francis did not participate in any meeting, vote or committee considering his daughter's business plan or lease, said Ken Brier, historical society vice president.

Francis emptied her 401(k), took out loans, and raised more than $5,000 for a sustainable storm water management system.

"I was always interested in the environment, but in high school it wasn't hip yet," said Francis.

She envisions a place for farmer's markets, outdoor movies, crafts fairs, environmental awareness seminars, and picnics at the adjacent Cynwyd Park.

"It was the heart of the community," Francis said of the station's history. "I just couldn't let it become another frozen yogurt place."


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