The Admiral’s Last War

On a cold January day in 1967 a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer arrived at the Neebor Lee house to interview retired Rear Admiral  Ross Palmer Whitemarsh and his wife, the former Rebecca Gumbes. The interview was to appear in the Sunday edition of the paper and was to be a public interest story focusing on the demise of an old home.  During that interview the retired naval officer lamented about what was come.  Both he and his wife had become resigned to the fact that their precious home would soon be seeing the wrecking ball.

The Whitemarsh’s moved into the Neebor Lee in 1949 as a place of retirement after spending decades moving naval station to naval station.  In 1930s alone they called several naval stations home, including one in Newport, Rhode Island,  one in Alexandria Virginia and another in Charleston, South Carolina.  Then, in April 1941, the Whitemarsh’s and their two daughters journeyed from Charleston to Honolulu, Hawaii where Ross was to be stationed at Pearl Harbor.   He and his family were there on December 7, 1941, with Ross serving on the bridge of the USS Gamble, during the Japanese attack that would thrust the United States into the Second World War.   Rebecca and the Whitemarsh children would remain in Honolulu over the next four years while Ross served in the western Pacific Ocean as a commander of a naval mine division.  His command would support a number of important naval and marine battles during the war including those at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. During these battles he would witness the horrors of ships under his command suffering attacks from kamikaze aircraft and enemy naval vessels. Once the war ended and Ross reached retirement, the navy veteran and his wife were determined to live out the rest of their lives in peace; the Whitemarsh’s were ready settle down in a real home. That home was the Neebor Lee.

The Whitemarsh’s moved into the Neebor Lee in 1949 and would spend the next 17 years restoring and improving the old home, which had come to be run down as its former owner, Rebecca’s uncle Charles Gumbes, aged and was unable to care for it. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reporter described it,  the Neebor Lee was,

Built in 1785 – four years before George Washington became President – the home was dear to Whitemarsh. He had been there many times before.  It was perhaps more dear to his wife. The home had been in her family since October 10, 1861, and she had been born there”. 

During the interview, the retired Rear Admiral led the reporter on a tour of the home, which the reporter described in the newspaper article:

Whitemarsh rambled proudly through his home, pointing to an improvement he achieved here, a restoration there. There was the soot-blackened chestnut molding around the fireplace which his wife had stripped down to bare wood and covered with 20 coats of wax. There was the new roof on the workshop, the fresh paint on the guest lodge, the new drive to the carriage house. There were rooms filled with family heirlooms, antiques they had added and furniture recalling trips long ago to such places as Peking and Shanghai. There were rooms that acquired characters and names of their own – the “Colonial Room”, the “Betsy Ross” room.” 

Thus, it was with much surprise and sadness that a few months prior to the interview the Whitemarsh’s received a condemnation letter. The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter quoted Rebecca Whitemarsh’s reaction to this:

“I couldn’t believe it,  Mrs. Whitemarsh said.  It was just impossible that it could happen to us.”  “Like one of my daughters said, let’s hope for a miracle.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, “Admiral Yields 1785 Home to New Highway”, January 15, 1967).

Eight years earlier, in 1959, the Montgomery County Planning Commission petitioned the Pennsylvania Department of Highways to construct a 13-mile addition to an existing limited access highway that would extend from the Pennsylvania Turnpike near King of Prussia westward along the Schuylkill River to Pottstown, Pennsylvania.  This extension, to be called the Pottstown Expressway, was intended to remove traffic congestion that was clogging local roadways in addition to encouraging industrial development in communities located along the Schuylkill River (Pottstown Mercury, “Montgomery Seeking Extension of Expressway to Reading”, January 29, 1959). Four years later, in February 1963,  the County passed a formal resolution requesting that the State perform an immediate feasibility study of the project.  However, another year would passed before a feasibility study was actually commissioned by the State Highway Department (Philadelphia Inquirer, “US 422 Link is Estimated at $56 Million”, April 5, 1964).  Over the next several years the State Highway Department evaluated potential routes and formulated plans for construction of the highway.  The County Commissioners then chose the route of the highway.

The route recommended by the commissioners and approved by the State would pass through Lower Perkiomen Valley Park, where it would take 10 acres of ground. It interchanges with Egypt Road, Oaks, at nearly right angles 900 feet east of the Reading company railroad tracks in Oaks. The new road would span the railroad tracks 500 feet west of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church property at Egypt and Black Rock road, then proceeds on a moderate curve to meet the spur near Olympia Road.” (Pottstown Mercury, “Oaks Route to Follow Original Plan”, June 22, 1968)

This placed the Neebor Lee house and five other homes in the hamlet of Oaks, Pennsylvania directly in the path of the proposed highway.  Other homes located along Egypt Road, the main thoroughfare through the hamlet, would also be condemned in order to accommodate a new highway interchange.  Altogether, the highway construction would necessitate the demolition of 26 homes in Oaks.  The Whitemarsh’s received their home’s condemnation letter in late Fall of 1966.

The original proposed route of the Pottstown Expressway (Route 422) based on a detailed newspaper article description. The aerial reveals the rural nature of the area in 1957.

At the time of the Philadelphia Inquirer interview of the Whitemarsh’s in January 1967, all seemed lost and the Whitemarsh family was looking for a miracle to save the Neebor Lee home. That is, all but Ross Whitemarsh.

As a highly decorated veteran from two World Wars, Ross Whitemarsh was no stranger to conflict and by January 1967, despite the resignation on display for Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, he was preparing for war. He was going to fight this new war on three fronts:  a public front, a private front and a covert front.  On the public front, he was serving as a director of the Oaks Civil Association and became that association’s Chairman of its Highway Committee as well as its prominent spokesperson on the matter involving the proposed highway’s path. Privately, he would send countless letters to County and State officials, using his status as a war hero and retired Rear Admiral to urge them to change the route of the highway to save his home. Covertly, he was petitioning the Federal Government to list the Neebor Lee on the National Register of Historic Homes with the hope that by being listed on that register the home would be saved from demolition. In pursuing the latter, he would invite several architectural historians to visit and inspect the home. This resulted in several valuable reports on the home’s architecture and history.

The first shots on the public front were fired in July 1967.  According to the  Philadelphia Inquirer (“Road Widening Stirs Protests in Oaks Group”, July 30, 1967), the Oaks Civics Association was arranging through the Governor’s office a meeting with State and County officials to protest the new highway.  The meeting was eventually held, but not until another nine months had passed.  During this meeting the Oaks Civics Association requested that the County Commissioners consider a more easterly route to  avoid residential areas in Oaks. Unfortunately, the route proposed by the Oaks Civics Association would put the Audubon Wildlife sanctuary in the direct path of the highway.  In addition, the route proposed by the Oaks Civics Association was determined by highway engineers to be more costly than the original route since it would involve an oblique crossing of Perkiomen Creek rather than the right angle crossing that was planned for the original proposed route.  A question of whether people were more important than birds ensued and it split the County Commissioners, but in the end the County Commissioners rejected the route proposed by the Oaks Civics Association in a meeting held in Norristown, Pennsylvania on June 17, 1968 (Pottstown Mercury, “County Rejects Extension Plea”, July 19, 1968 ).

The public rejection by the County Commissioners wasn’t the only setback for Oaks and the Neebor Lee house.  Ross Whitemarsh was not making substantial progress on his other fronts, either.  His private letters to various State and County officials were unsuccessful in bringing attention to his plight, and it was determined that because of the extensive renovations performed on the Neebor Lee house in 1903 by Charles Gumbes, the Neebor Lee did not qualify for a listing on the National Register of Homes. For the Whitemarsh family, the situation was dire.

It was then that the miracle that the Whitemarsh’s had wished for in 1967 revealed itself.  It came in the form of a United State Supreme Court ruling.

In Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402 (1971), the United States Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals ruling and upheld two 1966 statutes enacted by Congress to curb the destruction of the country’s natural resources.  It did so by prohibiting the United States Secretary of Transportation from authorizing the use of federal funds to finance the construction of highways through public parks if there was a “feasible and prudent” alternative route.  This ruling had a direct and profound impact on the plans for the proposed route of the Pottstown Expressway because the route was to take the highway through ten acres of the 37-acre Lower Perkiomen Valley Park just prior to entering the hamlet of Oaks.  As stated then by the State Highway Department’s location engineer to the County Commissioners, “There’s a parks problem” (Pottstown Mercury, “Pottstown Highway in Trouble over Restriction on Park Land”, July 18, 1971).  If the highway were to result in a loss of parkland, the United States Supreme Court decision dictated that it would have to be constructed without the use of Federal money.

This court decision appeared to reinvigorate the Whitemarsh’s and the Oaks Civic Association because it provided a new opportunity to change the route of the highway. Ross Whitemarsh on behalf of the Oaks Civics Association advocated for a more easterly route to keep the Highway away from populated areas in Oaks.  Not only was he trying to avoid the demolition of homes in Oaks including his own, but he also was trying to maintain the rural and residential character of his community. He noted that if the highway was constructed along the originally proposed alignment,

It would change the character of the community to something we don’t want. The way the road is designed, Oaks cannot remain residential“.  (The Pottstown Mercury, “Pottstown Highway in Trouble over Restriction on Park Land”, July 18, 1971).

The State Highway Department subsequently identified three alternative routes for consideration by the County Commissioners.  These three alternatives were introduced to the public in December 1972, more than five years after the Whitemarsh’s received the letter condemning the Neebor Lee house.  From the point of view of Ross Whitemarsh, none of these alternatives were improvements over the original route since, despite remaining outside the boundaries of local parks, the highway still passed through Oaks.  As stated by Ross Whitemarsh,

I have the maps here and all are worse than the one through the park.  None of the routes is better, they’re bad, they’re all worse that the original route“.

He further stated,

“Anytime you put an expressway interchange on the main and perhaps only route through the town, you have to widen existing roads to accommodate industry that will come, which will change the character of our town.  The whole plan to industrialize our area, and the expressway interchange on the part of that plan, was made in industrial circles without regard to people .  It is the opinion of the countryside, and we have tremendous support for our position, that the interchange would destroy us “.  (The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Hearing Set of 3 Oaks Area Road Alternatives”, December 3, 1972.

Discussions over this 3-mile section of the Pottstown Expressway, one of the last links of that highway to be constructed, would continue for a number of years thereafter. Construction of that highway was finally completed in 1985, eight years after the death of retired Rear Admiral Ross Palmer Whitemarsh.  Although he did not witness it’s completion, he and others members of the community were successful, at least in part, of redirecting the highway so that it avoided many of the homes that were condemned in 1966. The highway now follows a  circuitous “V” path, traveling westward from King of Prussia, then veering southwestward to avoid the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary while skirting through the northern edge of Valley Forge National Historic Park.  The highway then turns more than 90 degrees in a north-northeastward direction, remaining west of but avoiding Lower Perkiomen Valley Park. From there it traverses further north than the original proposed route, avoiding and thus saving the Neebor Lee House from demolition, before again turning northwest in the direction of Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

An interchange was still constructed on Egypt Road, with the loss of several homes.  In addition, predictions by Ross Whitemarsh regarding the loss of the character of the community came true:  industry and other development encroached upon the sleepy little hamlet of Oaks as it became incorporated into the regional suburban sprawl that would follow the highway westward.  Today, the Pottstown Expressway (Route 422) is often congested with commuters during the morning and evening rush-hours, and it has developed a tainted reputation as exhibited by the widely followed Facebook site named, “Route 422 Sucks”.

As for the Neebor Lee, the home was saved by the re-routing of the highway. However, like other in areas of Oaks there was a cost to be paid.  Portions of the Whitemarsh property were still taken by eminent domain to accommodate the highway’s new route.  In addition, after Ross Whitemarsh and his wife Rebecca passed away, the property was subdivided by subsequent property owners with those subdivisions situated west of the highway developed into single family residences.  This Neebor Lee, which once resided on 50 acres of farmland, had been reduced to a 1.9 acre lot.

If there is one constant in life, it is change.  In the case of the hamlet of Oaks, remaining free of industry, strip malls, big box stores and condominium developments was not likely possible since suburban sprawl extending westward from Philadelphia would have eventually reached the hamlet with or without the highway. The construction of the highway only accelerated this change.

Fortunately, one this hasn’t changed significantly.  The Neebor Lee house itself remains very close to the way it was over the past one hundred years ago.

The completed route of the Pottstown Expressway (2015 aerial)




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