If Silver Spring Township officials and a local real estate developer didn’t know that an old stone house on Route 11 is the reputed birthplace of the U.S. Bill of Rights before they started demolition there last week, they definitely know now.
On Jan. 6, workers began demolishing a two-story stone house at 7086 Carlisle Pike in Silver Spring Township that most recently was the site of Stone House Auto Sales.
This just isn’t any stone house, however. Built in 1780 as the James Bell Tavern, the structure hosted the Stony Ridge Convention on July 3, 1788, a meeting of Anti-Federalists opposed to ratification of U.S. Constitution, which led to amending the document with the Bill of Rights.
Triple Crown Corporation, the property’s owner, legally obtained a permit from the township for the demolition, according to Christine Musser, a member of the township’s Conservation and Preservation Committee.
Musser said she was informed about the stone house’s history by an “outside source.” After “doing some digging” about the matter at the Cumberland County Historical Society, she alerted township officials about the matter.
Demolition of the historic structure was “put on hold” and discontinued on Jan. 7, Musser said. To her estimation, about a third of the building was demolished during the initial process.
“Triple Crown apparently had no clue of the building’s historical significance. It was an oversight,” Musser stated.
“Late Wednesday, January 6, township staff became aware that demolition of a building later identified as the Bell Tavern had begun by Triple Crown Corporation,” Silver Spring Township officials said in a news release issued Thursday. “Township staff issued a stop-work order on the demolition, and the developer complied. By that time, a portion of the building had been demolished. The stop-work order allowed us to assess the situation and whether the developer was in compliance with our ordinances.”
“Currently, the law requires building and demolition permits to be issued within tight timeframes,” the news release read. “The onus is then upon applicants to ensure that they are in compliance with other laws and ordinances, including the section of our zoning ordinance that serves as some protection for historic buildings.
“Whether intentional or by error in 1995, the Bell Tavern was not listed as an historic, protected building on the Township’s Cultural Features Map and Historic Buildings List referred to in our zoning ordinance. Based on that, the Township had to lift the stop-work order. Despite the lifting of the order, the developer has continued to suspend demolition, affording us the opportunity to engage in discussions about the preservation of the building.”
Musser is no stranger to Cumberland County’s history. Her pictorial history book about Silver Spring Township was published in 2014 as part of the Arcadia Press’ “Images of America” series.
According to meeting minutes obtained by Musser, the 1788 Stony Ridge Convention held at the former James Bell Tavern was attended by Benjamin Blythe, one of Shippensburg’s first settlers, and Robert Whitehill of Cumberland County. Whitehill is noted as the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” according to ExplorePAHistory.com, with its conception reportedly happening at that meeting at the Bell Tavern.
Before that, Whitehill had led an anti-federalist minority at the 1787 convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Anti-federalists opposed a strong central government as proposed in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, which amended the Constitution with individual rights and limitations of federal and state government limitations, was adopted in 1791, according to Britanica.com.
Whitehill went on to serve in the state House of Representatives from 1797-1800; the state Senate from 1801-1804; and the ninth Congress and four succeeding Congresses until his death in 1813. In the 1990s, a historic marker was designated at the site of Whitehill’s home, Lauther Manor, at 1903 Market St., Camp Hill. The homestead of Benjamin Blythe at 217 Means Hollow Road, Shippensburg, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What to do?
For now, the fate of the Bell Tavern stone house remains undecided. Triple Crown representatives did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
“Those of us, Township staff and elected officials, who work on behalf of the people of Silver Spring Township, were upset by the circumstance. To further protect historic buildings and sites within the township, we have taken steps to update the historic building map and list,” the township’s news release reads.
“We have put in place an interim administrative measure to ensure that future demolition permit applications are screened for historic site compliance by the township prior to the issuance of demolition permits, rather than leaving the responsibility on the applicant. Additionally, we will be considering further preservation measures in the coming days and months to provide greater protection for our invaluable historic architecture in the township.”