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Newtown Borough to purchase half of historic Bird-in-Hand property


The deal hasn’t been signed yet but Newtown Borough has reportedly come to an agreement over the terms of sale with the owners of the historic Bird-in-Hand property.

Located in the 100 block of State Street, the Bird-in-Hand property was subdivided last summer by owners Jonathan and Mary Elizabeth Hunt with the purpose of selling the back half at 112 Court St. to someone who would make plans to build another dwelling facing Mercer Street.

However, Newtown Borough Council members had other designs for the land and none of it involved building of any sort. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the borough council unanimously approved a resolution that gave it the power to condemn the property and acquire it via eminent domain if it could not come to an agreement of sale with the Hunts.

That measure will no longer be necessary. The borough will purchase the property for $410,000. The town hopes to close an agreement of sale on the property either Feb. 20 or 21.

In a work session that took place Feb. 6 in Newtown Borough Council chambers, officials voted unanimously to move forward with the purchase.

The land parcel in question was once part of the first six squares that comprised the original layout of the borough.

Situated at the corner of South State and Mercer streets, the property was the site of a Loyalist Raid in 1778 that sought to stop the production of uniforms meant for distribution to Colonial troops camped out at Valley Forge.

Known as the Newtown Skirmish, the battle was said to be the only Revolutionary War action that took place in the borough.

“It was important to the people of the borough to keep this as open space,” said Borough Council President Kevin McDermott.

“We thought it was important historically but we wanted to do the right thing.

“So we decided to take a leap of faith and say, ‘it’s worth it.’”

The borough hopes to obtain $88,000 for the land from the Bucks County Municipal Open Space Program. Council voted unanimously to authorize a $115,000 loan and the remainder will come from the town’s Reserve Operating Fund.

The town also hopes to raise funds for the purchase through a drive conducted by the Newtown Historic Association.

“Normally, we don’t like spending a lot of money,” added McDermott. “We’re a small borough and we don’t want to raise taxes.”

“This was an historic piece of land that’s important to the borough and we wanted to keep it unspoiled.”

“There was no desire to see another house go up there.”

As part of the agreement, the Hunts will hold onto a parking easement they were granted when they subdivided the property last year.

Built by one of the town’s first settlers, Shadrack Walley, more than 330 years ago and said to be the oldest frame structure in Pennsylvania, the Bird-in-Hand property is one of Newtown Borough’s historic gem pieces.

The building at 111 State Street was known as the Old Frame House until 1817 when artist Edward Hicks painted a sign representing Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Ever since, the building has been dubbed The Bird-in-Hand.

According to the Historic Association, Edward Barnsley rescued the structure from extinction in 1937 after a Philadelphia oil company wanted to demolish it to build a gas station.

For the next two years, Barnsley painstakingly restored to its original condition what is reported to be the first tavern and later, the first post office in Newtown. Since then, the association says the property has been the centerpiece of the town that pre-dates the American Revolution.

Sitting at the Court Street side of the property is a carriage house that’s currently used as a two-car garage and there’s also a smaller structure referred to as an out-building.

McDermott says he doesn’t see either the usage or the looks of the property changing in the months and years ahead. There’s talk of placing a few park benches and maybe a plaque. There is additional talk about building a walkway between the yard at 112 Court St. and the Boone Garden, a plot that was donated in 1972 by the estate of the late Grace R. “Missy” Boone and located on the southwest corner of Centre Avenue and State Street.

Most Newtonians, however, are content just holding onto another piece of the town’s history.