NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> You know it today as Nina’s Waffles and Ice Cream, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover the landmark yellow building behind Wells Fargo Bank boasts an interesting and storied past.
And thanks to the efforts of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission, Brixmor Property Group and Blue Rock Construction, while you’re enjoying your waffle and ice cream you can acquaint yourself with the history of the building by reading a newly-installed historic marker at the site.
Borough and township historians gathered on Sept. 21 to unveil the sign and to celebrate the preservation and the new use of the historic Toll House at the Village at Newtown Shopping Center.
The marker is part of the Newtown Heritage Walk, a self-guided tour through the history of Newtown. The walk’s 34 wayside markers feature sites from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The Toll House marker gives a brief history of the building, which originally stood at the intersection of Sycamore Street and Route 532. When the Goodnoe Dairy Bar was built, the structure was moved to its current location just off of Eagle Road.
The building was recently restored by Brixmor, the owner of the Village at Newtown Shopping Center as part of a multi-million dollar renovation and expansion of the shopping center. It is now the home of Nina’s Waffles and Ice Cream, a seasonal ice cream and waffle shop based in Bucks County.
Lorraine Pentz, the vice chairperson of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission, organized the brief ceremony to express appreciation to Brixmor for breathing new life into the structure and to unveil the Heritage Walk sign.
In attendance were Josh Brawer Sr., senior leasing representative for Brixmor; Laura Parke-Carson, vice president of leasing for Brixmor; Ed Houlne, assistant project manager of Blue Rock Construction, which installed the sign; Warren Woldorf, chairman of the Newtown Joint Historic Commission; Barry Fleck, president of the Newtown Historic Association; Newtown Borough Mayor Corky Swartz; and Dave Callahan, a member of Newtown Historic Association.
Callahan was a member of a group of preservationists who in 1989 convinced the developer of the future Village at Newtown Shopping Center to save and restore the house as part of its development plans.
The recent renovation of the building and the opening of Nina’s came as good news to the commission, which has waited for nearly 30 years for something to happen at the site.
“Over the years, we would report to whoever was the current property manager at the time if we noticed something that needed attention,” said Pentz. “At one time, the main beam in the house was shifting and was of great concern to us. We had discussions with the developer and the township supervisors concerning the condition of the house and possible uses for, but there didn’t seem to be a solution. No use for the house could be found.
“Needless to say, when we heard that Brixmor was planning to rehab the house and make it part of the renovation of the shopping center, we were delighted,” said Pentz. “In this day when most developers would not even consider including an old building in their plans, Brixmor took on the job of rehabbing the house and re-purposing it as part of the shopping center renovation.”
The plans for the project were sensitive to the long history of the house, said Pentz. And she said “the finished product is a refreshing sight for all of us who care about historic preservation. We are here today to commend Brixmor for their efforts.”
She publicly expressed her appreciated to Jerry McMullen, Brixmor Senior Project Manager of Construction, and Ed Houlne, the Assistant Project Manager of Blue Rock Construction. “They were so helpful in selecting the site for the sign and providing for the installation of it. Our little sign was pretty small potatoes in their scope of work, but they never made me feel that way.”
Ryan Guheen, the Senior Vice President of Re/Development for the Brixmor Property Group, said Brixmor’s vision “is to be the center of the communities we serve by connecting vibrant uses with unique local cultural needs.
“By partnering with the township and the Newtown Joint Historic Commission, we were able to develop a renovation plan that respected the historical use and unique design of the Toll House, while adapting it for a locally favored eatery that will be enjoyed by the community for years to come,” said Guheen. “We love having a unique piece of Newtown’s history as part of our center.”
The gathering also heard from Nancy Freudenthal, a member of the Joint Historic Commission, who gave a brief history of the Toll House and gave kudos to Brixmor for renovating the building and finding an adaptive re-use for the historic gem.
“This house is not just old, having been built in the 1870s, but it represents a very different time in our history,” said Freudenthal. “Today, many of us regularly drive up the Durham Road without giving much thought to it. But until the 1920s, if you wanted to use the road between Newtown and Wrightstown, you would have had to pay a toll to the toll-taker who lived in this house.”
The toll would have cost you one cent for a pedestrian, two cents for a horse and five cents once cars began to use the road.
“You can still see the gate (or, at least a replica of it at the Toll House) that was lifted to allow people onto the road,” said Freudenthal. “And we know that not everyone was happy about paying the toll. There are stories about toll-avoiders such as two George School students on their bicycles who were chased by the toll-taker for several miles until he caught up with them.”
But Freudenthal said times changed, tolls (at least on this road) and toll houses went away, but this one survived – as a rental house. However, she said, it finally became a house without a purpose and had to be saved three times.
The first time was in 1955 when the Goodnoe family moved it to its present location from its original location to make room for its restaurant and ice cream store that so many still fondly remember.
Just about 40 years later, in 1989, a group of people involved in saving Newtown’s historic heritage – most notably Dave Callahan, Helen Randle and Dolly Gish - lobbied the original developers of the Village at Newtown successfully not to follow their original plan of demolishing the building, saving the building a second time.
“But eventually the house became unused and unoccupied,” said Freudenthal, “and those of us who care deeply about Newtown’s history watched with great concern as its condition deteriorated, the central beam sagged dangerously and we worried whether the house would survive.
“However, Brixmor Property Group, the new owners of the Village at Newtown, undertook major restoration and found an opportunity for what we call ‘adaptive re-use:’ saving an old building and bringing it back to life as a contributing part of the community.
“So we see here today an example of how preservationists and developers can work in partnership to honor our past while moving forward into our future; and we want to thank Brixmor Property Group for that it has done.”
The restored Toll House is part of a multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion project at the shopping center, originally built in the late 1980s.
“Brixmor’s redevelopment of Village at Newtown is designed with the goal of bringing upscale dining and shopping experiences to the local community and creating a place for shoppers to relax, socialize and come together as a community,” said Maria Pace, a spokesperson for Brixmor Property Group.
According to Pace, 22 leases have been signed since the start of the project with uses ranging from fine and fast casual dining to specialty fitness, health and beauty, apparel and personal service.
“We have taken special care to ensure the caliber of tenants reflects the needs of the community. We anticipate that a majority of these new tenants will be open by summer 2020 and major construction will begin to wrap-up early next year,” she said.