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Mystery room discovered in West Chester

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By Jeremy Gerrard
Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 5:39 p.m.

WEST CHESTER — Borough folklore often tells of tunnels and secrets beneath the centuries-old brick streets, and believers will be heartened to know the discovery of a mysterious underground room on Church Street may offer proof.

The room, found on the southeast corner at the intersection of Market and Church streets, was discovered by construction crews during the completion of the Church Street sidewalk project that required the removal of a brick sidewalk.

Borough Public Works Director O'B Laing said contractors discovered the opening Tuesday when they broke through a glass cover that separated the manhole-size opening from the room below.

“The excitement was there,” Laing said.

On Wednesday, the public works department sent a camera down into the room.

Inside, the camera captured a brick room containing a chair, a glass bottle and other debris.

“This had transparent glass in it in the middle of the sidewalk. What we think from the camera is that it was linked to the building on the same side,” Laing said, noting the glass. “That's what made it unique. That was the interesting thing about it.”

According to Laing, there is talk the room possibly extended across the street and linked to other buildings.

Now the site of the Sovereign Bank building, the corner was once home to the Mansion House Hotel.

According to a survey of the hotel from the Department of the Interior, it was designed for William Everhart who constructed it in 1832. The structure was built as a temperance house and later became a licensed hotel serving as a summer resort for Philadelphia residents.

Originally, the structure was known as the Chester County House before changing names to the Mansion House Hotel in 1846.

The report notes the structure underwent several remodels and alterations throughout the years, but there is no mention of an addition to the east side or of the room.

The hotel was demolished in 1972.

“I was trying to see if I could find some vintage wine, but I didn't see any,” Laing joked.

Laing said the department will bridge the opening and reinforce it with a concrete slab before replacing the brick sidewalk.

No further excavation of the room is intended at this time.

Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the borough's Business Improvement District, said the space is definitely a curiosity.

He said in talking with other residents, when the Mansion House came down, people discovered several unknown rooms.

In addition to the stories of tunnels, rumors point to its use as a possible stop on the Underground Railroad.

According to Johnstone, Everhart was a known abolitionist.

“There is certainly legitimate speculation that there was Underground Railroad activity there,” Johnstone said.

Jeremy Gerrard is a staff writer with the (West Chester) Daily Local News.

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