West Coast crusade helps save Kennett home

A former resident of the historic Fussell House believes the overgrown shrubbery helped hide the home's deterioration. He applauds Kennett Township officials for rescuing the former Underground Railroad stop.

In 2009, a California transplant returned to the area and decided to drive by his boyhood home in Kennett Township: The shock of what he saw would haunt him for years to come.

Andrew Tavoni (center, front row) poses with his siblings at The Fussell House.

Andrew Tavoni (center, front row) is shown with his siblings in the living room of The Fussell House. Photo courtesy of Andrew Tavoni

The historic Fussell House, also known as The Pines, once a bastion of the region’s proud past as a key stop on the Underground Railroad, was not only suffering from obvious disrepair, but it was also now sitting in the shadow of a Marriott Fairfield Inn.

Peeling paint adorned the windows and front door, shutters had disappeared, the hardwood front porch was blistered and rotted in spots, and the varnished hardwood ceiling of the front porch had faded dramatically, recalled Andrew Tavoni.

“Overall, the impression was of neglect,” he said, remembering the sight of shrubbery growing unchecked in the front of the house, obscuring the damage for passersby. “I'm sure very few understood its significance as it sat crumbling when they drove by it on Baltimore Pike. Seeing it in disrepair and clearly being neglected broke my heart. I realized I needed to do something to save it from destruction.”

Tavoni initiated a comprehensive campaign to save the residence, but he hit a number of stone walls in the process. After more than five years, the situation seemed bleak. So when he heard the news that Kennett Township had rescued the building last month, he was ecstatic.

“I’m so excited that Kennett Township has the vision and determination to save this historic structure! The Pines/Fussell House is a well-documented stop on the Underground Railroad,” he said. “It is of local and national historic significance and should rightfully be considered an important historic resource worth saving.”

Tavoni credits township officials with saving the building, a complex process that unfolded quietly over the course of the past year. But many of the advocates pushing for The Fussell House’s preservation said that Tavoni’s activism had an impact, despite occurring from thousands of miles away.

One of Tavoni’s first contacts was the late historian Mary Dugan, who already had the Fussell House on a list of significant buildings. He also reached out to township officials, started an email writing campaign, created the Save The Fussell House Facebook page, and built a website: http://thefussellhouse.weebly.com/about-me.html.

He even took advantage of his proximity to Hollywood to promote the cause. He appeared as a contestant in 2012 on “The Price Is Right” TV game show, where he wore a t-shirt featuring an image of Dr. FusselI on it. And although the experience didn’t make some township officials more receptive to his crusade, he won some posh prizes, including a 51-inch flat-screen TV and a Honda scooter.

Tavoni said members of the Kennett Township Historical Committee, especially Sara Meadows, embraced his mission, but the supervisors did not share their enthusiasm.

“Over the last couple of years, I lost hope that anything could be done as I had not heard of any progress,” Tavoni said. “Since I don't live in the area, I felt stifled in my efforts to do anything more than I had already.”

But back in Pennsylvania, John O’Neal, a principal with the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC), said his organization was well aware that Dugan and Frances Taylor had compiled an extensive inventory of Underground Railroad locations in the Kennett area approximately 15 years ago, a list that included The Fussell House.

About four years ago, the building came up for discussion at a KURC meeting as an example of a historic resource “undergoing demolition by neglect,” O’Neal said. He said he and others had seen Tavoni’s website and had encouraged others to view it.

The KURC had tried unsuccessfully to make a deal with the building’s owner to donate the building to the 501(c)3, O’Neal said. By now, a change in leadership was beginning in Kennett Township. Thanks in part to publicity generated by Tavoni, Supervisors’ Chairman Scudder G. Stevens had the property on his radar, as did Township Manager Lisa M. Moore.

Stevens, who took office in 2012, was joined on the board by Richard L. Leff in 2014 and Whitney Hoffman in 2016, both of whom supported the acquisition. When they made the announcement that a year of negotiations had culminated in the sale of The Fussell House to the township, Hoffman had already prepared a video of the interior.

Tavoni said he found out about the purchase because someone posted the news on the Facebook page he had created; he also received an email from Meadows. After he paused from celebrating, he added Hoffman’s video to his website.

“I'm surprised and happy to see from that video that the house isn't in more decay, given the lack up upkeep,” Tavoni said. “Kudos to Kennett Township! The township supervisors and members who made this bold move to buy the structure should be applauded. Too many historic resources are destroyed in the pursuit of profit.”

Kennett Township officials said that plans for the building will be a work in progress and that community input will be welcomed. O’Neal said he expects the KURC to participate in the brainstorming.

Tavoni said he hopes the community will take advantage of the opportunity to help determine how the house will be used and how the restoration will be funded. He said he views the purchase “as a victory for preservation” and he hopes the momentum will continue.

 

 

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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