Silver Spring Township is in the midst of a month-long period of due diligence to determine if the partially demolished Bell Tavern is as historically significant as some people believe and is structurally sound enough to be saved.
Preliminary research by township staff indicates the stone structure at 7089 Carlisle Pike may not be the building where an Anti-Federalist meeting was held on July 3, 1788 that supposedly had an influence on the development of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The township engineer could provide an opinion by the end of this week on whether the building could be salvaged, Township Solicitor Sean Shultz said Wednesday.
Township officials met Monday with representatives of Triple Crown Corporation, the Lower Paxton Township-based company that was demolishing the building to make way for future development, Shultz said.
Triple Crown has agreed to halt demolition for roughly a month to give township staff time to pursue the facts on the true history of the building and its prospects for preservation.
“Everything they have done so far has been voluntary,” Shultz said of Triple Crown. He said the township has no legal recourse to penalize the company for the partial demolition, nor can the township compel Triple Crown to preserve the building or to cover up the interior, which is now exposed to the elements.
A major snow event could arrive in the area by Friday. Shultz has been told the engineer for Triple Crown believes the building is structurally sound enough to weather the storm. The township has suggested the company use tarps to protect the interior.
The township engineer conducted an initial assessment of the building and found it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild the walls and stabilize its structure from damage caused by the partial demolition, Shultz said.
As part of their due diligence, township staff members reached out to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to seek information on the role the Bell Tavern may have played in the framing of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Historians at the center have advised township staff that while the Bell Tavern may have had significance in the Anti-Federalist movement in Pennsylvania, it is not exactly the birthplace of the Bill of Rights, Shultz said. “The real threshold question for us is whether the stone building is the Bell Tavern.
“Based on the only facts we have now, it appears the stone structure that is being demolished may not be the Bell Tavern where the Anti-Federalist meeting took place,” Shultz added. He cited two sources that support this conclusion.
The one is a letter in which Gen. George Gibson of Carlisle described to his nephew the 1788 Stony Ridge Convention that was attended by Anti-Federalists seeking to reform the Constitution.
The letter states the convention was held in a small log tavern kept by Tom Bell and located on a stony ridge about five miles east of Carlisle, Shultz said. He added, based on photographs of the damage, there is nothing to suggest the partially demolished stone building on the Carlisle Pike enclosed a log structure.
An 1872 map by F.W. Beers and Company shows evidence of two structures on the Bell tract. The township believes one structure may be the stone building in question while the other structure is now missing from the landscape west of the stony ridge near the Appalachian Trail. The two sources call to question whether the missing structure on the 1872 map could be the small log tavern mentioned in the Gibson letter.
The possibility exists the stone building may occupy the same footprint as the log structure. If that is the case, the township supervisors would have to decide whether what that means exactly in any negotiations with Triple Crown to preserve the stone building, Shultz said.
“The township is more interested in understanding the facts,” he added. “We want to make sure we do not get swallowed up into the spin.” The fate of the Bell Tavern has become national and even international news since word first surfaced of its historical significance.
The township, on being informed of this potential, issued an immediate stop-work order, which Triple Crown honored. A review of the township’s cultural resources and historic building listings found no mention of the Bell Tavern, so the order was rescinded. For now, Triple Crown has opted not to follow through with the demolition.
The company followed the correct protocol in applying for a demolition permit, Shultz said. “The township did not pressure them to suspend the demolition.” Instead the two parties are discussing ways to preserve the structure if it can be proven the building is both structurally sound and of historical significance.
Even then, there is no guarantee the stone building will be preserved, because it sits on private property owned by Triple Crown and the company has every right, under township law, to demolish it.
Any effort to preserve the building would have to be the subject of negotiations between Triple Crown and the township. “It is a freedom of choice on their part,” Shultz said. “In large part is it in their hands over what they are willing to do.”
He added that while it may be desirable to preserve structures as old as the stone building, the township needs to be sure of its historical significance before tax dollars are spent.
Meanwhile, the matter was not included during a public input portion of Silver Spring Township’s Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday night, according to an attendee.