Looking for history in the library’s yard

Pushing a machine that looks much like a lawnmower, a preservationist spent Wednesday methodically walking up and down the green space adjacent to Mt. Airy’s Lovett Memorial Library, shooting radar into the ground as he went.

Heritage Guild Works’ Eugene Hough, hired by the Friends of Lovett Memorial, watched the ground-penetrating radar device’s monitor for signs of objects below his feet – objects that considering the location along Germantown Avenue could be buttons or ammunition from the Revolutionary War or items left behind by a local militia that trained on the lot in the 1800s.

Friends Treasurer Irv Miller and former president David T. Moore – a library and local historian – wondered if the land might even contain the remains of a Revolutionary War soldier. Neither has any information pointing to that fact, but both note that in the 1980s, the remains of a British soldier were found in a basement.

“The Battle of Germantown was a very haphazard affair,” Miller said, so fallen soldiers could have been buried on the site, which is thought to have never been developed.

Miller talks about the park project and the desire to look for artifacts.

Repeating uniform stripes on the radar monitor in some areas showed Hough that the soil was compacted, and there was likely nothing to find in that spot. But in 300 other locations, wavy lines showed that radar was bouncing off some object. The radar does not provide any detail about what that object might be, Hough said. But he saw enough to conclude the ground is worthy of further exploration – limited physical digging, which in turn could indicate a need for more extensive archaeology.

“Where we’re at right now, there are any number of possibilities,” Hough said.

Hough said among Tuesday’s discovering were “ghost images” showing a shaft feature where soil was disturbed from about three feet below the surface to about four or five feet down. “I can’t determine at this point whether it’s a grave or not,” he said.

The ground Hough worked on is slated to become a park that will include an amphitheater, reading garden with accessible-for-all seating, and story ring where children will sit on chairs that are sculpture. The project is happening through a partnership between Mt. Airy USA – a non-profit community development corporation – and The Free Library of Philadelphia.  Read more about the project here.

The project is “important to the long term viability of the neighborhood branch” of the library,” said Mt. Airy USA Executive Director Anuj Gupta.  “When we have events there, it will add to life of the streetscape.”

Miller said the park project is very important – he believes it will attract new patrons who aren’t using the library now.

The project was also the impetus for Miller and Moore to pursue the radar exploration of the sub-surface.

Hough explains his work.
Moore, a former Germantown Historical Society librarian who researched and wrote about Lovett library for its centennial celebration, said as far as he can tell, the ground has never been built on.

In 1887, Charlotte Lovett Bostwick built the original library building and donated the land for future expansion as a memorial to her late brother, Thomas Robert Lovett. The newer portion of the building was erected in 1959, Moore said.

This land, a bit more than one acre, was part of an area that in the 19th Century was known as the 10 Acre Field, Moore said. In the early part of that century, Col. Augustus Rumford drilled a local militia there, he said. “It would be cool to do a dig and come up with some remnant bullets or an old bayonet,” Moore said.

Before the Lovetts owned the land, it was owned by the Pierce family, who planted mulberry trees there in hopes of raising silk worms – which eat the leaves – to produce silk for umbrellas.

Moore and Miller said in interviews before Hough’s update that if further investigation is needed, fundraising would have to be done to pay for it. Hough estimated a series of test wells would cost about $1,400 to $1,500.  But in the later interview, he said he told Miller he will volunteer a day of work on a weekend to dig a few probe holes and sift through the soil to see what can be found.

Depending on what is discovered then, a team of volunteers could be assembled to help with further work, he said. Hough, who spends much of his professional time helping to locate lost graves and restore cemeteries, said many people who saw him working Wednesday expressed an interest. 

The Friends of Lovett want to get local school students and young people who use the library involved in the project. Miller said it could help bring history to life for them.

“I feel like I’ve recruited 20 volunteers – I just can’t use them yet,” Hough said. 

Any physical digging would require Free Library permission, since the library owns the ground.

“We all love the idea of finding special things from our past. I can’t imagine we wouldn’t want to do that,” Sandy Horrocks, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s vice president of external affairs, said.

Still, she said, there would need to be some discussion among all the parties about how any explorations could impact the improvement project. The library is very much in favor of any project that brings reading and other activities outdoors, she said. “We would have to talk about if there would be a delay – if that’s a challenge in any way,” she said.

Hough running the ground-penetrating radar.

The park improvements are set to be done in phases, said Gupta. Construction is set to begin on the first phase – a public plaza – in spring or early summer, he said.  But this addition of chess tables and other furniture and landscaping will happen near the oldest part of the building, behind the bus stop, not in the open space.

Preliminary design work done by the Community Design Collaborative calls for an amphitheater, an outdoor story ring and a reading garden in the area where the Friends conducted the radar study, but construction won’t begin until LRSLA Studio completes more extensive design work, a process Gupta said will take about six months.

After that, the work will be done in phases. He isn’t sure which will come first – it depends in part on where the funding comes from. “Some foundations may be interested in funding cultural space, and that would be the amphitheater. Some might be interested in literacy initiatives, and then it would be the story ring,” he said. 

Gupta says he’s no construction engineer, but he believes only the construction of the amphitheater, and possibly a rain garden,  would require digging deep enough to disturb any artifacts. So he thinks archaeology over much of the green space could happen after the park is finished.

Mt. Airy USA has raised $45,000 to date. The current estimate to cover the total project cost is between $400,000 and $500,000, Gupta said, but that could change.

“Definitely we’re interested in our community’s history,” Gupta said. But he noted that excavation anywhere along Germantown Avenue might turn up something. If there was something on the grounds of the library, “I would have suspected when they dug (for the expansion), they would have found it then,”  he said.

Gupta said he will look to the library for guidance on whether park work would be delayed, but added that his organization really wants to get the park built.

“We’ve built up a lot of interest and momentum over the past couple of years,” he said. Mt. Airy USA has hosted outdoor events, including screenings of movies and of the Olympic’s opening ceremonies this summer, to which 300 people came.

Gupta also noted that digs can be very expensive, and said his organization does not have the money for it, nor does the city.

How to pay for any future dig is “one of the questions the friends and others need to be able to answer,” he said.

Moore and Miller say if there is cause for more exploration, they will immediately begin working on that answer.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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