What Does a Sprawling Berwyn Estate, a Hollywood-related Socialite, a Private Girls School and a Planning Commission Have in Common?

March is National Women’s History Month.  There is a story this week in the local news that connects a large sprawling Berwyn estate, a Hollywood related socialite, a private girl’s school and the planning commission of Easttown Township.

Mrs. Alexandra Mellon Grange Hawkins lived on her 106-acre Blackburn Farm in Berwyn until her passing in 2008.  Mrs. Hawkins, graduate of Bryn Mawr College, was the granddaughter of Mr. James Ross Mellon, the second son of Mr. Thomas Mellon (1813-1908) a well respected judge, attorney and entrepreneur, mostly known as the founder of Mellon Bank.  Mrs. Hawkins was also married to Kathryn Hepburn’s cousin and considered to be a bit of a Hollywood insider socialite.

Today, I drove to Sugartown Road to find Blackburn Farm, the home of Alexandra Mellon Grange Hawkins.  For years, Blackburn Farm served as the staging area for Devon Horse Show.  The main house is visible down a long winding driveway and seemed very quiet and lonely against the bleak landscape. I am sure that this wonderful historic property was beautiful and grand but today it just looked silent and empty.  There are stories surrounding Mrs. Hawkins, who died in her 90’s, that her home was discreetly but elegantly furnished and decorated with good but not splashy artworks, and was protected by an elaborate security system. 

Once a year, Mrs. Hawkins celebrated her birthday wearing elaborate ballroom gowns and choosing from a collection of fine platinum, gold, emerald and diamond jewelry.  According to one source, Mrs. Hawkins actually used a Cartier 14K gold check book holder!  She invited friends and representatives from the many charities she supported to celebrate her birthday with a private dinner-dance held under tents on the grounds in the summertime.  A very private person, the house was generally off limits, and few people were ever invited inside.  At her yearly birthday party, Mrs. Hawkins displayed some of her eccentricities including the addition of Hollywood sparkles to her hair that would be custom-matched to her fingernail polish.  A personal requirement, Mrs. Hawkins would not permit  male guests to leave her birthday party until they each shared a dance her . . . very interesting.  (I know Mrs. Hawkins was married twice, but I found no references to either of her husbands or of any children.)

Blackburn Farm was very important to Alexandra Hawkins and she had taken special measures to protect the property.  In fact, sections of the property were protected by both the Brandywine Conservancy and the Open Space Conservancy. Many of Mrs. Hawkins Berwyn neighbors knew of the trust-protected property, so it came as a bit of a surprise when they learned that the Agnes Irwin School had signed an agreement of sale for Blackburn Farm on January 27.  

The private girls’ school in Rosemont has two fields on its campus and needed additional athletic space. This week representatives from Irwins took their case to the Easttown Township Planning Commission.  As it was explained to the standing-room crowd, the agreement is to simply use the land for athletic fields with no intention to move the school or any of its buildings to Berwyn.  There would be two turf fields and two grass fields, as well as a track and two softball fields.  The project will cost millions of dollars and along with the playing field will including a 100-space parking lot, a new 5,000 sq ft. facility to house bathrooms, storage space a snack bar.  Mrs. Hawkins home, barn and garage will remain intact, with no stated usage.

Although the Irwin representative explained that the project will meet all necessary storm water issues and preserve the natural environment of the property, the audience members were not convinced.  Citing traffic, safety, environment issues as well as privacy issues to nearby neighbors, almost all audience members who spoke were opposed to the plan.  The project is in its very early planning stages and the school wants to do everything in its power to make sure that all resident concerns are heard and considered, and that everyone is happy

There were several people in the audience who had known Mrs. Hawkins and suggested that this would not have been what she would have wanted for Blackburn Farm.  Mrs. Hawkins spent much of her later years involved in her charity works and it is thought that she would want the property preserved and not developed.

Because there is easement protection on the property; if the project is to move forward there will need to be a change to the existing ordinance.  The ordinance would need to be amended to allow sports fields to be placed on 50 acres or more in both of the neighboring districts.  The school believes an amendment is required because athletic fields are not currently allowed in these districts and they are asking that part to be changed.

Although anxious to move ahead with the plan, for now Agnes Irwin will have to wait.  The Planning Commission in Easttown is an advisory committee and makes recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.  Because this type of development is not currently permitted it is doubtful that it can be passed, that is until there is a change to the zoning ordinance.  The Planning Commissioners will probably need to take more time to review the plans before making a decision.

With the discussion on the last post about the various houses that have been purchased by the school district, I did start thinking. . . wonder why the school district never considered Alexandra Hawkins estate as a purchase?  I’m guessing that the final sale of the property is based on approval to change the ordinance; otherwise there would be not reason for Irwins to own the property.  Easttown Township has a Historic Commission, I wonder if they have weighed in on the project? Wonder how the same scenerio would play out in Tredyffrin Township?  Wonder what our Planning Commissioners would recommend? 

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12 Responses

  1. Thanks for this information Pattye. Did anyone attend the Easttown meeting that can comment? I understand the purchase price was more than $6M …that’s an awful lot for playing fields that are that far from their campus…how long before they put their preschool in the Hawkins house?
    I know that TESD has watched that property over the years (it adjoins the school district property) but it was never “for sale” that I know of — and the conservancies on the property are pretty tight.
    Does anyone know anything more about the terms of the sale and whether it is “final” or subject to Irwins ability to get the variances / zoning changes?

  2. I can’t speak to the Planning Commission or zoning ordinance questions you raise, but I can offer a minor correction to the – separate – conservation easement situation. Actually, it is Open Land Conservancy of Chester County (OLC) that holds the easement on the portion not conserved by Brandywine Conservancy. Interesting that OLC should come up twice in as many days on Community Matters! Our easement covers a heavily wooded 25 acres, more or less, and that parcel is not being considered for the playing fields. The specific language of the easement document that Mrs Hawkins entered into with Brandywine will govern what Agnes Irwin can do, with or without zoning ordinance changes. In general, land trusts have a strong obligation to the original donor and to authorities such as the IRS to ensure that agreement terms are upheld.

  3. Ray
    Thanks for this information. You said “our” when you refer to the OLC, so I’m guessing you are associated with that? If you are, perhaps you can tell us how/whether eminent domain would affect the property if either the school district or Easttown were to purchase the property to develop it for parks/schools/community assets (pool? Tennis courts?) Thanks.

  4. Thanks Pattye. So Ray — now that we know for sure, then you are THE person to explain how the conservancy would be affected if a municipality or school district acquired it. I’m guessing a private entity like Agnes Irwin has a big mountain to climb to get the changes that would allow them to develop the property? Is the house under the conservancy? The fact that they would not plan to tear it down certainly makes me think that they would move some kind of program into it — like their preschool program? aka Episcopal before they moved everything out here.

    • Sorry, TR, but OLC’s lawyers would not be thrilled were I to speculate on hypothetical matters! Especially on such a controversial topic as eminent domain, where even the Supreme Court has created more heat than light.

      The size of Agnes Irwin’s mountain will depend on the terms of the conservation easement between the Brandywine Conservancy and Mrs Hawkins. I’m not privy to any of those details – such as what development is permissible, whether the scope includes the house, and so on. As I mentioned above, land trusts have a very serious obligation to enforce the terms of their easements as written.

  5. This is a great post – thanks. But now I wonder if the old ESC building in Berwyn might be a protected building and whether the School Board has considered this. If it is not – maybe it should be before the go forward with bulldozer.

  6. I agree that the ESC building would seem worth saving. The District could lease it until a future time when the land will be needed for expansion purposes. I’m guesing this option was discussed and rejected for some reason. Perhaps the need to remove asbestos was part of it.

    Does anyone know why the District decided to tear down this venerable building – given the cost of doing so and the potential value of repurposing it?

    • Kate
      At the time I was transitioning off the board, we had several cost studies of renovating the building. The Administration wanted to stay put — the ESC is so well located to the High School and other central office functions. However, the building really is more expensive to rehab than to leave. The building is not air conditioned — the windows were upgraded to deal with some of the energy loss, but the boiler in the building was an annual major capital concern. The tiles throughout are asbestos (or at least were when I last reviewed the documents). Asbestos is not dangerous until you start to renovate — and that is when it exposes people to it.
      The District did choose to renovate TEMS rather than build a new middle school (the Radnor quagmire was because they couldn’t agree on whether to renovate or build new). In my late days on the board, I had posed the option of looking for an empty office building (so many were without tenants — especially on Route 30) and compare the costs of leasing for 10 years to renovating the ESC. I believed ultimately the administration would go into TEMS when a new school would ultimately be built (the program may or may not outgrow the acreage)
      The strategies are ever changing — as are the costs. Reminder that when Woodlynde and Paoli were sold, they were sold for $500,000 apiece. Like the decision to expand Conestoga, we cannot forecast what a school building will need to look like in 20 years — it may all be online? It may be small group rooms? Certainly the technology of education (computer rooms in the 90s have even been replaced at the elementary level in favor of wireless laptops on carts — and those rooms repurposed for ESL and other small group learning experiences.) So the options are abundant — the answers not clear — but the notion of preserving the building is simply not something a school district is in the business of doing. And given the paucity of land in Easttown (and the opportunity for continued housing growth if more farms are subdivided), the ESC property is a MUST Keep. If we were to need a school site, it would be undersized, but it would be ours. And a school building in 2015 would not look anything like the ESC.
      It makes all of us sad to think of demolishing such a “venerable” building — but take a look at the old school building on Route 30 next to Berwyn Nails….not a big demand for its use either. Fact is — old hosues are torn down and new ones built — because taking on an old house requires a special interest that this economy may not allow.

  7. Comment from:
    m.stu, on March 17, 2010 at 10:25 AM Said:

    Well, Being that I was born on this estate in berwyn and worked for Mrs. Hawkins for 27 years until her death, I have to set the record straight…
    Mrs Hawkins estate is Mellgran Farm. Blackburn farm was Mrs. Pacho’s property and farm next door.
    Mrs Hawkins was a political person and even hosted our current Governor, Ed Rendell at her estate both as Mayor of Philadelphia and as Governor.
    Mrs Hawkins was active on Social Work and womens rights. I had to refer to her as the “Boss Lady” jokingly most times.
    Mrs Hawkins was active to support the Berwyn Fire Company and Easttown Police Departments. She strongly upheld that she was never Burlarized and police always responded to her calls immediately and with respect.
    Mrs Hawkins wanted her estate to be the future township school / high school and Would be a little upset over what is going on.
    As her personal worker and pilot I miss her everyday and I talk about her with great stories and tales of how she was and who she was…God I miss her.

  8. Pattye Benson, on March 17, 2010 at 10:36 AM Said:

    Thank you so much m.stu for providing background on Mrs. Hawkins. You are certainly in a position to know Mrs. Hawkins wishes, having worked for her for so many years. Maybe you can help me . . . I never saw any mention of children? Did Mrs. Hawkins have any children? I think it is helpful that the residents know Mrs. Hawkins wishes concerning her property . . . that she actually wanted the property to be a school. Very interesting — thank you for sharing.

  9. John, on March 17, 2010 at 12:52 PM Said:

    The name of the Farm is Mellgran Farm and not Blackburn Farm. That was the neighboring farm.

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