It’s been some time (about a year) since I wrote specifically about the history of the Neebor Lee house and its surroundings. Now that the construction season has wound down (although work on the Mason Lodge continues), I thought that I would take this opportunity to write about the Broadview Mansion, the long-gone sister building to the Neebor Lee. Unfortunately, it is not a happy tale. Rather, its a tale of neglect, destruction and legal battles. It is also a tale of redemption.
This tale begins in 1903, with the death of Dr. Charles Gumbes. Dr. Gumbes, a Civil War surgeon and country doctor who owned quite a bit of land in Upper Providence Township, the center of which was his home, a mansion called Broadview. The good doctor passed away in January 1903 leaving his property to his two sons, Francis Macomb and Charles Jr. As a condition of the will, the Gumbes property was to be split in two, with a smaller parcel containing the Broadview Mansion being left to older son Francis and a larger parcel containing a two-story non-descript farmhouse being left to the younger son, Charles. Later that year, the younger son would invest some of his inheritance in this farmhouse, adding a third floor and large wrap-around porch, converting an adjacent one-story smokehouse into a two story servant house, moving a 700 square foot playhouse from Broadview onto his new property, and constructing a workshop. He named his newly expanded home the “Neebor Lee”.
The Broadview Mansion, according to descriptions recorded by Gumbes family members, was a three-story Victorian-styled structure with a mansard roof. As far as I know, no photographs of this one stately building exist today. Francis, his wife, Rebecca Palmer Mercer, and their daughter, Rebecca Bird Gumbes, made it their home from 1903 until at least into the early 1920s, when Rebecca Bird married a dashing young naval lieutenant named Ross P. Whitemarsh in a quiet ceremony held at the mansion in June 1922. At the time, Francis had a thriving law practice in Philadelphia.
By the end of 1920s, Francis and his wife Rebecca had moved out of the Broadview Manson and settled in Philadelphia, where Francis had his law practice. They would move into an apartment on Samson Street near Rittenhouse Square where, according to US Census records, they would reside for the remainder of their lives. They retained ownership of Broadview Mansion but apparently rarely visited their country home in the later years of their lives. Instead, based on anecdotal information, they rented the Broadview Mansion to other families. Francis passed away in Philadelphia in 1945 at age 69. His final resting place is located near his Broadview Mansion in the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church cemetery in Oaks. His wife, Rebecca Mercer Palmer, would pass away one year later. She was also buried in the cemetery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Whether it was due to financial troubles related to the Great Depression, poor health, or other troubles, it is not known. Regardless of the reason, the Broadview Mansion would begin a period of decline just prior to Francis’ death. The initial trouble involved local taxes: they went unpaid. As a result, the Commissioners of Montgomery County, the county’s governing body, received title to the property on February 23, 1943 through two sales conducted for unpaid taxes, the first of which was on February 1, 1940 and the second on December 8, 1941 . Ironically, the day before the second and final sale Francis’ daughter, Rebecca, her husband, now a Commander in the United States Navy, and their two daughters were living in Honolulu, Hawaii. On that fateful day Ross Whitemarsh was commanding a naval Mine Division from the bridge of the USS Gamble. He began that morning with his ship being strafed by Japanese fighter planes and ended that day with his command sinking a small Japanese submarine near the entrance of Pearl Harbor. The Second World War had begun. Problems at home in faraway Pennsylvania were likely not in the thoughts of the Whitemarsh family on that day or in the days following.
Eight years after the end of the War, on June 1, 1953, the Commissioners conveyed the title of the Broadview property to the Oaks Fire Department. One month after taking title, the Oaks Fire Department filed suit against the heirs of Francis Macomb Gumbes in order to “quiet the title”; i.e., establish clear ownership of the property against future claims by these heirs. The defendants in the case included Francis’ daughter, Rebecca Whitemarsh, and her daughter, Rebecca Shelden Herbert. At the time of the lawsuit, Rebecca and her husband, now retired Rear Admiral Ross Whitemarsh, had moved back to Pennsylvania and were living in the Neebor Lee.
Now, I need to be careful how I explain what comes next since I am not a lawyer and could potentially be opening myself up to re-interpretation by my son and his wife, who are lawyers. With this risk taken into consideration, here is my interpretation of the case: It appears that the Gumbes heirs lost the initial lawsuit, but appealed that initial decision and won the appeal. The Oaks Fire Department then appealed the appellate court decision, bringing the case before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
According to the Supreme Court decision, the appeal centered on a mortgage taken out on the property by Francis Macomb in June 1903, soon after he inherited the Broadview property upon the death of his father. The mortgage was in the amount of $9,000 and was supposed to have been paid back within one year. However, it wasn’t paid within that first year but rather was assigned over a period of more than 45 years to a series of successors, which eventually included Rebecca Whitemarsh in 1945 and Rebecca Sheldon Herbert in 1950.
Now here is where it gets interesting. The crucial question of the case before the Supreme Court involved the validity of two alleged receipts that were found by Rebecca Whitemarsh in her mother’s papers soon after her mother’s death. These receipts referenced mortgage payments made by her mother, wife of Francis, to the then holder of the mortgage, Frank Coffin. One receipt was dated December 1, 1942 and the other was dated January 15, 1945, thereby post-dating the sell-off of the Broadview property to recover unpaid taxes. In order to obtain clear title to the Broadview property, the Oaks Fire Department needed to disqualify those receipts to prevent them from being entered as evidence.
The case was argued before the Supreme Court in April 1957 as “Oaks Fire Co. v. Herbert” and a decision was rendered one month later. In that decision, the Court’s justices found the receipts to be legitimate and held that they were sufficient to rebut the presumption of payment of the mortgage and, as a result, the justices refused to discharge the lien of the $9,000 mortgage. Thus, the Justices affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the Gumbes heirs, confirming that the Oaks Fire Department did not have clear title and allowing Rebecca Whitemarsh and her daughter to have a legitimate claim to the Broadview property.
Unfortunately for the Broadview Mansion, it was too late. More 20 years of neglect and vandalism rendered the house uninhabitable; it was too far gone to be restored. This led to a final twist in the sad tale of the Broadview Mansion. Unable to restore the Broadview Mansion, the Whitemarsh’s, who assumed ownership of the Broadview property soon after the Supreme Court decision, arranged for the final destruction of the Broadview Mansion. Ironically, that destruction would be by the hands of the Oaks Fire Department, the organization that filed suit against the Whitemarsh family in its attempt to retain title to the property. Perhaps as a means of reconciliation, the Whitemarsh family arranged for the Fire Department to burn the relic to the ground thereby allowing the firefighters to use its final destruction as a means of fine-tuning their firefighting skills.
Today, all evidence of Broadview Mansion is gone. In the 1990s the Broadview property was subdivided allowing the construction of sixteen singe-family homes. The Neebor Lee property was also reduced in size by subdivision during that same time period, leaving only a 1.9 acre parcel of land containing the original Neebor Lee Mansion and its nearby outbuildings. The only evidence of the former ownership of this land by the Gumbes family is the name of the road that follows the western boundary of the Broadview property. The name of that road is Gumbes Road.
Oaks Fire Co. v. Herbert, 389 Pa. 357 (1957) http://law.justia.com/cases/pennsylvania/supreme-court/1957/389-pa-357-0.html