Lower Merion Residents’ Call to “Save Oakwell!”

On October 21, 2022, a group of Lower Merion residents and students gathered outside of the Lower Merion Administrative Building to protest the district’s plan to build auxiliary playing fields for Black Rock Middle School on a historic forest.


The property was seized by eminent domain by Lower Merion School District and bought for $12.9 million. Dr. John Bennett, the current resident of the Oakwell estate, calls the event a “travesty.” When speaking to the Save Oakwell group as they were touring the property, he motioned to the thriving land and remarked, “there’s the parking lot.” Dr. Bennett has worked to keep the property in peak condition so that the district could not move quickly on the plans by claiming that the area was “abandoned.”

Oakwell Mansion

Oakwell is far from abandoned. The area is categorized as a parkland due to its arboretum-like features, such as heritage trees among mowed lawns and shrubs. Along with beautiful scenery, there are many historic structures on the site, and Save Oakwell activists have uncovered fascinating history about the property. The estate was worked on by famous architects and landscapers, notably the Wilson Brothers, Frank Miles Day, and the Olmsted brothers. One Save Oakwell member even discovered a telegram between William Bodine, the estate’s owner in the early 1900s, and the Olmsted Brothers. The Bodines were influential turn-of-the-century horticulturalists. For example, William’s parents both worked to provide food to the Lower Merion community during World War I, with Samuel Bodine leading the Main Line Community War Garden Committee, and Eleanor Bodine establishing a gardening training program for young women. The women were housed in a building known as Squirrel Inn, and the Superintendent lived in Acorn Cottage. The only currently protected buildings are the Oakwell Mansion and Squirrel Inn, meaning that Acorn Cottage, the tea house, and the greenhouse complex are set to be destroyed. 

Olmsted Brothers’ Plan for Oakwell

The history of the property has inspired Save Oakwell members to expand their message to include the preservation of history. They recognize that the reason we can appreciate Oakwell today is because of the dedication each of the owners had in taking care of the land. Activists also see many future opportunities to return Oakwell to its use of educating and helping the members of the community. The movement hopes to convince the district that by learning the history of the estate, students can investigate and appreciate the origins of their community. 

Greenhouse Complex

Some teachers are also wondering about what message the school district is giving with their decision. While speaking at a Board meeting, Black Rock Middle School teacher, Jennifer Ekert remarks, “My students who I teach in this district are painfully aware of environmental problems that they are inheriting. They express anxiety and sadness over it. They will understand a decision by adults to avoid environmental destruction with our public money to preserve Oakwell and they will appreciate that the adults are putting them and their futures first.” Lower Merion senior Noa Fohrer echoes this idea in her address to the Board proclaiming, “You are supposed to be helping us. I honestly feel like this would be doing the complete opposite.” 

Save Oakwell members have been working tirelessly to grow the movement and amplify the voices of students like Noa. Protests, like the one seen recently, have been going on since February. Save Oakwell calls them “Fire Drill Fridays” in reference to the idea that the climate crisis is an emergency. And indeed, the movement has been gaining traction. Throughout the district, residents have put up “Preserve Oakwell” lawn signs and proudly worn “Save Oakwell” badges. Little by little there have been more people attending protests, more people speaking out in board meetings, and more media coverage.


The student movement to save Oakwell emphasizes the potential of the property without destruction. Many hope to transform the space into a center for environmental education where schools can perform biology labs, go on nature walks to identify trees, or research the uncovered history of the property. Others hope to see the property utilized to promote wellness and a respectful engagement with nature. Repurposing Oakwell in these ways could benefit all students, instead of simply athletes, as well as bring the community closer together. 


Save Oakwell is working against the clock, as demolition is scheduled for May 2023. However, not all hope is lost. If the district were to put in an application to transfer the area to the Lower Merion Historical Commission and the Board of Commissions, Oakwell could be saved for today’s students, as well as future generations. Until then “Fire Drill Fridays” and calls to “Save Oakwell!” will continue.