At the head of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion Township is the beautifully restored 1890 Cynwyd Station and Cynwyd Park. The trail, the station and the park are a wonderful triad of environmental stewardship and community effort that enhances the lives of Lower Merion Township residents and visitors.
Cynwyd Station is now the home of Cynwyd Station Café and Tea Room, a new independent small business operated by Sadie Francis, that combines a community center, gift and book shop, museum, tea room, and ice cream parlor.
The building owes its current, revitalized state to a partnership between the Lower Merion Historical Society, Montgomery County, SEPTA, and Lower Merion Township who each contributed funds and resources over the course of a five-year green historic renovation.
History worth preserving
The station is one of the last remaining Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot stations in the area representative of what Francis calls “vernacular architecture” — that is, representative of Lower Merion’s industrial, worker-class roots. Its renovation used as many of the original materials as possible in order to reflect local traditions.
Perhaps that is why Francis has been keenly involved in the station revitalization. With a background in green building, environmental science and policy, she returned in 2009 to her Lower Merion roots from a decade spent traveling and, at the Historical Society’s request, became an active player in the station’s initiative.
“The station presented an interesting case study,” says Francis. “Historic properties have so much more to offer, and so many more surprises, than other green building projects. Most of the green building projects you see are new construction, but here in Philadelphia, we have a treasure trove of amazing, historically relevant buildings that we largely take for granted. And each one presents amazing opportunities for community and economic revitalization.
“I think this is what is largely missing from the sustainability discussion in this country: Even the U.S. Green Building Council doesn’t have a certification category for historic buildings.”
But why another coffee house? you may ask — with Starbucks only a few blocks away. But Francis says emphatically that her vision is not just another coffee shop, but rather a community center that serves the neighborhood at large.
“I’m not anti-Starbucks, per se,” she says. “I’m anti-homogenization of our towns and cities. The fact that every single Starbucks everywhere looks exactly the same is largely what makes it unpalatable to me.”
She wants the café and tea room “to provide a safe space for gatherings, classes, makers … and celebrate what is unique about each of us, including our shared history.”
A business model with priorities
Because the station is the last stop for people who live in the area and work in Center City, I assumed her core customers would be these commuters. Not so. She says most of her patrons are those who use the 1.8-mile-long Cynwyd Heritage Trail, the first and only public trail in Lower Merion Township. Beautifully designed with a dual path (half soft surface for walkers and joggers, and half paved for cyclists), dotted with benches, and cutting through several neighborhoods, it is a destination for many Lower Merion residents.
In addition to the trail and the café, Sadie has turned her attention to the adjoining one-acre Cynwyd Station Park, which she has spent the last three years clearing out and maintaining. She has already hosted Yoga in the Park from two local yoga studios, a community concert, annual craft fairs and native plant sales, and a Mother’s Day high tea, all raising proceeds to benefit the park. More activities, including free outdoor movies, are being planned for the future.
Most importantly, Francis embraces what she calls the Triple Bottom Line: people, planet and profits. First come people, for the purpose of social innovation and community building; then the planet, including environmental stewardship and education; and lastly profit, so the café can continue to grow and thrive.
In other words, while Francis wants the station to run profitably, she also wants to run the business that supports local economies that work in harmony with local ecosystems. It’s a philosophy that supports just, democratic societies and community life.
“Running a business like mine is more complicated, but much more rewarding and fulfilling, than just running a business whose only goal is to make profit,” Francis says.
Sadie Francis is a visionary. From an abandoned train station more than 120 years old, this energetic entrepreneur has created a community-focused, modern meeting place. I’m hooked! I plan to make the café a regular stop when I walk the Heritage Trail and to bring it to the attention of other groups and residents. The idea of a community center within walking distance that reflects my green values is truly a wonderful addition to the Lower Merion neighborhood.