UPPER PROVIDENCE — To the untrained eye, the plot of land across the street from Parkhouse Providence Pointe doesn’t look like much, but the fenced off area adjacent to the complex is home to more than 1,700 unmarked graves, some dating back to the 19th century.
Unique to these grave sites, however, is their lack of identity, according to Sally Hawk-Jones, director of activities for Parkhouse.
Strolling the grounds of Parkhouse Thursday afternoon, Hawk-Jones explained that back in the spring of 1928, the owners decided to remove the headstones after deeming them “unsightly.” Still, the name of each person interred there is documented in a records book kept at the facility.
What remains unclear, even to the staff of the sprawling, 300-acre nursing care complex, is where exactly all those burial sites are located on the property. Because the headstones were leveled in the 1920s, Hawk-Jones said, it is hard to tell just where the graves are beneath the earth.
“In the spring of 1928, all the ‘unsightly’ stones were removed,” she said. “The ground was graded and grass seed sown and 13 pine trees planted to give the burial ground a peaceful effect. Also at this time, the concrete monument was placed with the inscription, ‘In Memory of the Dead 1808-1924.’”
The Parkhouse campus comprises three facilities — Parkhouse Providence Pointe, which offers short- and long-term care; Montgomery Meadows, the independent living residence; and Riverview, the adult health care center.
In June, the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners approved a request for proposal for sale of the Royersford buildings, which cost the county roughly $2 million annually.
All three county commissioners have reassured members of the public that if and when Parkhouse is sold, it will be to responsible buyers willing to maintain the facility’s high level of care for its residents.
With nearly 500 beds and more than 700 full- and part-time employees, the $46 million-per-year operation is the county’s biggest budget item.
Mark Shaffer, an archeologist and historical preservations specialist with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission who reviews projects in eastern Pennsylvania, said he would like to see a little more digging in the terms of what lies beneath the ground.
“Our one concern is, are we pretty confident we know the boundaries of this burial area?” he said. “You would be surprised how many times a document or a historical map suggests a cemetery is a certain size, but then people go out to delineate the boundaries in the field and the area is much bigger than they thought.”
Shaffer cited the 1994 Pennsylvania Historic Burial Places Preservation Act, which sets forth rules on how to treat grave sites older than a century. The statute defines a “historic burial place” as “a tract of land that has been in existence as a burial ground for more than 100 years, wherein there have been no burials for at least 50 years, and wherein there will be no future burials or listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as determined by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.”
The act goes on to list restrictions for government entities:
“No municipality shall alienate or condemn through eminent domain proceedings a historical burial place or appropriate a historic burial place to any use other than that of a burial ground. No portion of any such burial place shall be taken for public use without the approval of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.”
“I think our agency would be a lot more comfortable if there were more solid documentation, and more than a historical map,” Shaffer said. “Historic documents are great, but sometimes the maps aren’t perfect. An archeological, geophysical investigation, such as ground-penetrating radar, is something that will give you an idea of where some surface disturbances are, indicative of grave sites, without even digging. This is a technique used in archeology all the time and one I think I would recommend in this case.”
Montgomery County Director of Communications Frank X. Custer said that the grave sites adjacent to Parkhouse would not be included as part of the deal.
“Should the county decide to sell Parkhouse — and I reiterate that no decision has been made — the county property on the south side of Route 113 would not be sold and would remain under county control. Therefore, the issue of the cemetery is moot,” he said.
The county has received word from several parties interested in purchasing Parkhouse, and that the county has assembled a committee with representation from both county administrative staff and Parkhouse staff to review the proposals, Custer said.
“This process continues to have three primary goals, and those are the well-being of the residents and the employees as well as what is best for the taxpayer,” he added. “The care of the residents will not be compromised. These goals have not changed since this process began.”
Mark Brosso, a Montgomery County resident, said he chose Parkhouse for his ailing father because he said it stands out as a well-run institution, calling it “a shining beacon of light as something that actually works in county government.”
Brosso suggested Montgomery County follow the lead of Chester County, whose commissioners held public hearings before the proposed sale of Pocopson Home, Chester County’s long-term health care facility. Public outcry eventually quashed the sale, and Brosso said he said he wants Montgomery County commissioners to “begin to feel the pressure.”
“Nobody can tell you where on the (300) acres people are buried,” he said. “The whole thing may be a burial ground, in which case they can’t develop any more of it. There’s just no other service in the county that will have greater demand and grow at a rate faster than that of long-term care.”
Many in the surrounding community, family members and staff at Parkhouse are waiting expectantly to learn the future of the institution, Hawk-Jones said.
“I, personally, would hope that if it did go in that direction, that whoever would be the new people, they would be crazy not to build on its legacy and promote it,” she said.
Follow Jenny DeHuff on Twitter @RuffTuffDH.