In 1970, Lower Merion Township commissioners began an effort, spearheaded by then- Commissioner Nolan Atkinson Jr., to bring federal funding into the township to build housing for the low-income elderly. He was met by opposition from other commissioners at the time, who needed to be convinced that federal funds for lower-income residents was appropriate in a wealthy community such as ours.
Senior living opportunities like Beaumont and Waverly did exist for the affluent, but none were available to lower-income seniors. Eventually, Lower Merion set about creating top-flight, affordable housing for seniors with virtually no experience in this area, but with access to a wealth of committed people. This journey took 15 years to bring to fruition.
In early 80’s HUD eligibility for block grant funding recognized efforts for affordable housing. Lower Merion Township also desired to promote affordable housing in general, and for senior citizens in particular. This was the genesis of the idea for Ardmore House.
This story was one of overcoming challenges that might have caused another community to give up. The first application for federal funding was denied to due lack funds. HUD insisted that the Township partner with an agency more experienced in federal housing initiatives, and a partnership with Trinity House of Tredyffrin was established.
To quote private consultant John “Jerry” Nugent: "It was a very difficult program to make work," given the construction costs, what they are today, and the general reduction in federal participation in such projects, and given the competition. In the Philadelphia region, which extends from Harrisburg, there might have been 100 other applications (for HUD money) for 400- or 500-unit buildings. That's a hurdle too. And the application has to be exact and stronger than anybody else's. It has to be economically feasible. You have to show that the demand for the housing is there and that legally it's set up right."
Many trips were made to Washington DC by Lower Merion leaders to solicit the support of US Congressman Lawrence Coughlin. When Section 202 funds did become available, and HUD committed $2.7 million toward the Ardmore House project, many strings were attached. HUD issued cost containment requirements for basic room sizes, what amenities could or could not be included, what building materials could be used, etc.
Yet Lower Merion leaders continued to insist that this project be reflective of our township, and that our residents deserved more than standard-issue HUD minimum project requirements. They insisted the building needed a second elevator, a community room, and a brick exterior that would be far more appropriate to Lower Merion’s rich architectural history. Since HUD would not pay for such a façade, the team spent time on the state level, petitioning the assistance of State Rep. Richard Tilghman, to line up $350,000 in state funds from the Housing and Development Assistance Fund of the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs.
And finally, the township committed $500,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds toward Ardmore House, and it donated the land, which was the former site of Ardmore Avenue Elementary School. Construction began in June 1985, and completed ahead of schedule in June 1986, with a dedication in September 1986. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that more than 600 people sought applications for units in Ardmore House, and the waiting list continues to hold upwards of 100 people today for the 63-unit building.
The wisdom of going beyond the minimum stands as a testament to Ardmore House’s continued success 25 years later. The façade is still impressive, and the building is in remarkably good shape, as tours of the units will attest later. The community room is used constantly by residents and has truly fostered a sense of community among the residents. Partners like Main Line Health provide health and social services to residents, enabling them to age in place independently.
There are many people who contributed toward the success of Ardmore House; those who worked tirelessly up front, and those behind the scenes: Ray Smith, architect; Lou Fryman, lawyer; John Rosenthal and Pat Gianguilio of Penrose Management; Lower Merion Board president Charles Ward; Township Manager Pat Joyce; Paul Bartle, Chair of Montgomery County Commissioners; Joe Mahoney, District Director for Congressman Coughlin; the Wynnewood resident who acted as a “silent” plan reviewer; Nelson Ray, first President of Ardmore Housing for the Elderly, and Ora Pierce, who served as AHE President for nearly 20 years thereafter.
This all goes to prove how something can be accomplished, over time, with commitment and diligence, and of course, proper funding!
Written by Maryam Phillips, President, Ardmore Housing for the Elderly with help from Philadelphia Inquirer article, “A Place to Call Home” August 21, 1986, and recollections from John Nugent, President Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Ardmore House. June 23, 2011.