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Repeat Vandalism Marring Lansdale History

The Lansdale Historical Society has been dealing with broken roofs, illicit spraypainting of historic structures and littering of needles and rubbish for the past few years. The public safety committee may offer some help

Some days, Lansdale Historical Society President Dick Shearer hates to pull up to because he never knows what he will find.

He knows it will never be something radical or drastic — just a little more of the same.

For instance, take the metal pole sticking out of an elaborate and decorative white casting along the entrance to the homestead from the Jenkins Avenue sidewalk.

It isn't as much a broken hitching post as it is an irreplaceable piece of Lansdale's history.

The same can be said of the cedar shakes that adorn the roof of the Jenkins Homestead spring house.

The slate steps between the research center and Jenkins house could become victims to skateboard tricks; a plywood ramp was recently confiscated by volunteers after being left on the steps.

The Jenkins house, built between 1770 and 1795, has iron retainers for the shutters. Now, there are holes where retainers have been ripped out of the masonry.

The front porch of the Jenkins home was recently painted. A recent tour of the wooden porch tells a different story, one plagued with cigarette butts and spraypainted and handwritten illicit phrases, words and images.

All of these items — including the cleanup sessions that involve picking up used condoms and needles — haven't occurred all at once, but rather are parts of a larger problem that has evolved over the last few years.

Dick Shearer became president of Lansdale Historical Society 10 years ago. For the first half of his tenure, there were no problems at Jenkins Homestead.

"In the last three years, it's either tripled or quadrupled with bits of vandalism," Shearer said. "In time, stuff adds up." 

Each week, there's another boxwood crushed from youth riding bikes through flowerbeds.

"It's usually smaller kids and they either don't know any better or aren't taught any better," Shearer said.

Sometimes, volunteers and board members witness the vandalism and can actually physically go outside and tell a boy or girl to stop riding Huffys through the plants or a teen to stop making the walkway and steps into their own skate park.

"We're not a 24-hour presence," Shearer said. "If we're not around, we have kids use the staircase as a skateboard ramp. We have slate slabs on there, and from running skateboards over the end of those, they get chipped off." 

A decade ago, the society never gave a thought that the open fieldstone wall or even a flowerbed might be the subjects of vandals. Now, Shearer said those are the types of artifacts that are constantly being rebuilt.

"Kids come around and use them as building blocks. In some cases, they have built staircases to get on the spring house roof, where we've had the most damage," Shearer said. "A lot of time, kids will come over at night, disassemble the stones from the walls from the bed, make a staircase and climb on the roof."

Recent vandals have used a picket from the historical society's fence to pry off the cedar shakes, causing gaps where rainwater leaks inside the spring house. 

"It's never the case where there are 24 shakes on the ground. It's like three or four a day," Shearer said. "If it goes on for two weeks in the evening, that's a pretty signficant amount of damage done there."

The society could decide to repair the roof, but then, how would it maintain it afterward?

Vandals have also hit the retainers for the shutters. Within the past couple weeks, at least three have been pulled out of the wall and left in the flowerbeds.

"Eventually, we will mortar them back in," Shearer said, "and I hope they hold." 

The new porch on the side of the house has become a late-night congregation spot for middle-schoolers, Shearer said.

"Especially in rainy weather, they gather on there and proceed to use it as a smoking area, crushing cigarettes on the stucco," Shearer said. 

The middle schoolers also left behind a piece of art: a smiley face with its tongue sticking out spraypainted on the stucco. 

"We usually get to it right away and get it off," said Shearer. "We've had it on the back of both buildings." 

When the research center was dedicated nine years ago, along with the new landscaping and new brick patio, there wasn't a problem whatsoever, just the occasional McDonald's wrappers.

Now, it has escalated to broken hitching posts,where somebody pulled most of it off and dropped it in a yard up the street. It's escalated to people practicing slapshots off the buildings from the alley, or practicing their golf swing against the spring house.

Even the society is facing its own challenge with getting people to volunteer outside. The grounds get clean one week, and are ruined by the next.

Who's to blame for the vandalism? Ignorant children? Ignorant parents? The ever-changing neighborhood?

Shearer thinks its a combination of all three. 

"I tend to think a lot of it is the sign of the changing times and a sign of the changing neighborhood," he said. "When the historical society first came in, it was fairly easy to keep an eye on the place."

Original board member Byron Schultz and his wife Betty used to live across the street from the homestead on Jenkins Avenue in the 1970s. Naturally, they kept an eye on the place - and even made their bathroom available when the powder rooms at the Jenkins Homestead didn't work during the infancy of the society.

"It was a lot easier than running down to Memorial Park," Shearer said.

Jenkins Avenue is packed with rental properties and renters with children. Yard space is something to be desired and to play on it may not be encouraged by the property owner. 

That leaves the alleyway and the huge open space known as the Jenkins Homestead, stuck smack dab in the middle between Line Street and Chestnut Street and a stone's throw from Stanbridge Apartments.

"We'vea had boxes, mattresses and the like lying in the alley from time to time," Shearer said. "We are open space in the neighborhood."

Gone are the days of sandlots and spontaneous organized games. While existing, the summer recreation programs may not be an accommodating option.

Young children from East Main Street select the area in front of the research center and Jenkins home as the place to throw balls off the stucco, and the stairway as the spot for a 2-by-4 sheet of plywood.

"The way it is now," Shearer said, "this is inviting for all of them. This is the open space in an area where there really isn't much." 

Shearer and his colleagues have gone out and talked to the youth about the vandalism. They stand there and listen and don't mouth off, he said.

"As I turned around to go back in the building, one of them asked, 'Can you tell us where we can play? We get chased out of everything.' I know they have had ramps in the lot by McDonald's, but get chased out of there. They play in the alley, which is downright dangerous and used as a cut-through," Shearer said.

There was a time when it was OK to play ball or football on the property, but more toward the street and away from the buildings.

"It spread. More started to come. The older groups like to smoke and drink, and we find liquor bottles around the property, as well as condoms and needles and that sort of thing," Shearer said. "A few years ago, it was unheard of." 

Parental supervision is at a loss, which makes the situation worse.

"No one keeps an eye on the kids, or very few do," Shearer said. "Younger kids seem to be scared of older kids. There's some friction among them." 

There's also another factor - a major one in the society's eyes - that comes into play: no appreciation of history.

"They are not taught that much in school at all (about history appreciation)," Shearer said. "It's a one-week course in local history, and that's it."

Shearer claimed that very few neighbors have any idea of the significance of the Jenkins Homestead, which is the only Lansdale property on the National Register of Historic Places.

"They can't relate to the amount of time of when it was built and how long it's been here," Shearer said. "There's no reference point for that. It's just an old house to them."

Shearer has even talked to children — and adults — on the history of the homestaed and its role in the history of Lansdale.

He has even mentioned George Washington, and he said most have never heard of him - even the parents. Maybe the Revolutionary War would have been a stretch.

"I explained to them that the town was part of the farm and this is all that's left. Some father came around to round up his kid. I finished up and said to the father, 'Do you know who George Washington is?' The father's response was 'He had something to do with the Civil War, I think.'"

There is one important point to note in all this: the Lansdale Historical Society does not own the property.

Lansdale Borough is the rightful owner of 137 Jenkins Avenue. Lansdale Council must make any decisions on the future security of the Jenkins Homestead.

It's not as simple as putting up a 7-foot fence and some cameras and a couple "No Trespassing" signs and calling it a solution. 

Shearer recently met with Lansdale Police Chief Robert McDyre about the issues, and said the issues will be discussed within the Public Safety Committee. The vandalism was first brought to their attention this summer by Lansdale Historical Society treasurer Anne Henning-Scheuring.

Shearer said he wouldn't be against a fence around the property: it may detract from the history, but it's something to seriously consider if it means protecting history.

"The homestead should be treated as something different because of its uniqueness and because of the historic value of the property," he said.

Alas, the property isn't posted against vandalism and there's no law-abiding guideline for what can be done on the property, as far as restricing access to it.  

"We will go along with anything (council) feels is appropriate. We're here as their guest," said Shearer. "It means a lot to us to be here. Our responsbility is to make the borough aware of problems like this."

The borough could decide to place "No Trespassing" and "No Loitering" signs, so that the police can enforce those children next door. The borough could place a curfew on the property, also aiding in enforcement.  

But how much would the police actually be able to do? That's where the responsibility falls back on the neighborhood and its people.

"We wish that people understand the importance of the property and they take some responsibility in keeping it a valuable part of the Borough of Lansdale," Shearer said. "Individual, these things are petty. Put together, they are disheartening."

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Gwendolyn Snyder August 29, 2012 at 03:03 PM
Camera's and/or live surveillance connected directly to the Police are without a doubt the way to go. Inexpensive and very effective. Hatfield police have camera’s in Centennial Park and it has stopped the Vandalism, and after curfew violations that plagued the park prior to the installation of the camera’s.
Tony Di Domizio August 29, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Thank you all for your great comments and advice! The property is owned by Lansdale Borough, so it is up to them to decide on cameras/signs/fences and the like. The historical society can't legally do anything
Kristen Mahon August 29, 2012 at 06:14 PM
The cops are too busy shooting themselves.
Happy person August 31, 2012 at 02:22 AM
My family has lived in lansdale since it has been built and i cant believe how this town has changed in the past ten years for the worst. I used to want to get old here and pass like the rest of my generations but now i cant wait to move and get out of this over packed and over rented drug and vandalized area.what a shame this town has become.where evev scared to walk ouside at night. The police may as well put cameras everywhere because everywhere you turn someone is doing somthing shadie. Good luck
Tony Di Domizio August 31, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Kudos to the residents and readers offering advice. It's great that we were able to inform some neighbors about this historic property!

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