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?