It has been nearly 16 years since Philadelphia lost Richie Ashburn, one of the greatest Phillies players of all time. The beloved Hall of Famer, who played for the team from 1948 through 1959, died of a heart attack in 1997 after broadcasting a Phillies-Mets game from Shea Stadium. His family buried him in the cemetery outside of Gladwyne Methodist Church, where all was quiet until some developers announced plans to turn the church into condos and put a parking lot next to the cemetery. Ashburn’s widow, Herberta, is calling foul.
The church, which was built in 1841 and is Gladwyne’s oldest house of worship, is under an agreement of sale with Main Line Realty Investors, a partnership that plans to convert the historic church and some of the surrounding buildings into nine residential units, a combination of condominiums and single-family homes that will range in price from $600,000 to $1.1 million. The church portion of the project, located on Righters Mill Road, will be known as Righters Mill Place.
The developers have proposed a parking lot behind what is now the church, so it’s very possible that suburban Mercedes and Land Rovers will immediately abut the Ashburn family plot—one of the parking spots is so close that it will be hard not to step on the grave site when exiting a vehicle parked there. It’s also easy to imagine someone dumping old coffee out the window and all over the plot. That’s how tight it is.
The family’s corner plot includes not just the remains of Richie Ashburn but also the Ashburn’s daughter, Jan (pictured as a child, right), who died in a car accident at the age of 33, and young grandson Christopher, who died just after birth in 1994. And the thought of cars spewing exhaust all over her family’s graves on a daily basis is just too much for Herberta “Herbie” Ashburn to bear.
“It’s rather hard to believe,” says Ashburn of the developers’ plans, choking up. She explains that her family joined the church the same week that they moved to Gladwyne in 1964 and that most of the family weddings have taken place inside of it. “It’s all going to be very stark and bleak. The grave site will now be facing a parking lot. It’s just so, so, impersonal. It’s very, very sad.”
“I’m sorry she feels that way,” responds Evelyn “Mac” Brand, one of the Main Line Realty Investment partners. Brand claims that while she understands that Ashburn and some other area residents have expressed opposition to the development, “most of the people in Gladwyne really like what we’re doing. We are absolutely trying to do the right thing by the community.”
Also at issue is a memorial garden for Jan that Herberta Ashburn planted in 1988 between the cemetery and the church. Ashburn has maintained the garden year after year, but the plans for Righters Mill Place don’t allow for the Jan Ashburn garden to remain on that parcel.
Brand says that the developers could potentially move the memorial garden into the cemetery, but Ashburn and other area residents are concerned that it might get demolished altogether. “If Herbie wants something from that garden,” offers Brand, “then Herbie is more than welcome to take whatever she wants from it.”
The project is not a done deal. Brand and her partners already own one of the main buildings that will be part of the overall development, but the church transaction is dependent on various zoning decisions that could be made as early as June. The next Board of Commissioners hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 5th, and Ashburn plans to be there.
“You can believe that I will be speaking out at the meetings,” she promises. “A lot of the people in the community are really fighting it now, but I don’t know if it will be enough. In the end, my family is going to have to be the one to face all of this. My husband is buried there. I have a grandchild buried there. My daughter is there and, well, my name’s on there, too. I’m 84, so there are not many years remaining where I will have to deal with this. But, it’s just, so sad.”