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June 11, 2024

A 19th century mansion in Montgomery County is being given away for free ... under one condition

Preservationists hope to spare the 190-year-old Limerick property, once part of the Underground Railroad, from demolition by giving it away to anyone willing to move it.

Real Estate Mansions
Montgomery County Mansion Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society/Facebook

The Hood Mansion in Limerick, Montgomery County, will be demolished by developers unless someone is willing to relocate the 19th century home. The Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society says the house is free, but it would cost over $1 million to move and renovate the property.

On a large property near the Philadelphia Premium Outlets in Limerick, there's an abandoned brownstone mansion that once was a summer home for the family of a prosperous Irish immigrant.

Constructed in 1834, the house boasts 17 rooms and eight fireplaces across roughly 5,000 square feet. It belonged to John McClellan Hood, who came to the United States in 1799 and built his reputation with Hamilton and Hood, a wholesale grocer and wine merchant based in Philadelphia. The Hood family used part of the premises in Limerick for the Underground Railroad, which had tunnels running beneath the home and its outhouse. 

The 113-acre property near Route 422 is slated to be redeveloped into a series of warehouses with a retaining pond planned where the mansion stands. Anyone who wants to save the graffitied home can have it for "free," but the catch is that it has to be uprooted and relocated.

"We've gotten some quotes coming in from around $700,000 to $1 million (to move it)," said Tyler Schumacher, president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society. "Renovations would probably come in around $400,000. It's not in as bad of shape as it looks. There's a lot of vandalism, but structurally the building is very sound."

Schumacher began fighting to save the property in 2017 and formed his nonprofit two years later. The mansion sits across Lightcap Road near Possum Hollow and Sanatoga roads. The land, heavily subdivided over the years, was once the proposed site of the project that eventually became Valley Forge Casino and it also had been part of the original plans for Philadelphia Premium Outlets.

"It's a very prime piece of real estate," Schumacher said.

Abandoned since 2008, the mansion has fallen into disrepair. Every window is broken. The door is wide open. The only reason it hasn't been occupied by squatters may be its remote location. But its "bones are rock solid," Schumacher said, and it's a testament to an inspiring family history.

❗️FREE TO ANYONE WHO CAN MOVE HER❗️ The Historic Hood Mansion, built in 1834 by John McClellan Hood in Limerick, PA is...

Posted by Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society on Thursday, May 30, 2024

"They built the Hood Mansion as their summer home to escape yellow fever during the summer months in Philadelphia," Schumacher said. "They had an incredible collection of antique furniture and books that were housed in the mansion and they would come out every summer."

Hood and his wife, Elizabeth, had 11 children. One of their sons, Washington Hood, was a West Point graduate and captain in the Army Corps of Engineers. He was involved in plotting state lines in the midwestern territories and worked alongside Robert E. Lee, who later became the commanding Confederate general during the Civil War.

"As fate would have it, he ended up passing away from yellow fever," Schumacher said. "His parents had his body shipped back to the Hood Mansion, and they had him buried and erected a monument in his honor."

Members of the Hood family occupied the mansion as a summer home until the 1940s. It was then maintained by a series of caretakers who lived at the property until it was auctioned off in the 1980s. A plan for a golf course never got off the ground. The new owners rented the home out until the property was purchased by Boyd Gaming — the owner of Valley Forge Casino — for about $17 million in the early 2000s.

Because the land has been subdivided, tracing its recent history in Montgomery County property records reveals only a patchwork of information, including nominal transactions that hide its value. When real estate prices surged in 2020, Boyd Gaming sold the property to a developer out of Reading. That developer had considered subdividing and donating the mansion to Limerick to have it restored, but when an apartment project fell through, the property was sold again to its current owner for the warehouse project.

At a hearing in September, the Eastern Pennsylvania Preservation Society attempted to slow down the development timeline. The township asked the Brooklyn-based developer to grant the nonprofit access to the mansion. Schumacher and his team visited it a few weeks ago and reasoned with the developer about a solution that would allow for the home to be relocated.

"Originally, he said no," Schumacher said. "Then he came back and said, 'OK, if you can get somebody to take it off the property, I don't have to be involved. I don't have to pay anything, then they can have it.' He didn't give us an actual timeline. When I asked him straight out, he said he wasn't sure, but he wanted it done soon."

Estimates Schumacher received from contractors indicated that moving the house as-is would take one to two months, at a minimum. Dismantling to have it rebuilt elsewhere would be a more complicated and lengthy process.

Having the mansion removed from the property appears to be the only recourse left to save it. Although the home was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — which elevates consideration for protection against development — the nomination of the Hood Mansion didn't make the cut. The current developer paid a firm to finish the partially completed nomination, and Schumacher believes it was denied because the case was framed around the home's architectural significance instead of the Hood family's story and the link to the Underground Railroad. The home also is not protected by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

"It's just that so much of the interior elements have been vandalized so heavily and are missing that now it becomes, in its current state, not as architecturally significant as it was when it was built," Schumacher said.

The good news is that there has been some interest from people potentially willing to relocate the mansion.

"We had a semi-serious party that was going to disassemble the house and move it to Chadds Ford," Schumacher said. "Unfortunately, the prices just came back too steep and they weren't able to make it work."

In addition to his role at the preservation nonprofit, Schumacher serves as the site manager of Linwood Estate, the sprawling Gilded Age mansion in Elkins Park that's on track for a major restoration project.

Schumacher is keeping hope alive that someone will step in to save the Hood family mansion from the wrecking ball before it's too late.

"The lesson that we're trying to communicate is that if more people would have said something sooner, or if we had better preservation laws in this country, developers wouldn't be able to purchase historic properties like this and just let them sit. We would be able to do more. There is so little that any historical society or preservation society can do to stop this that it becomes almost impossible."