When I drive by it on my way to the post office, or coming back from Target, I never look too long. I am vaguely aware that the natural environment is in the process of reclaiming the built, that the trees, covered with vines, have taken on that rounded, gumdrop look that occurs in wild, abandoned places; that the building has become a kind of rock face we pass, an escarpment of the romantic past, rising up out of high grass. I pass it like a cemetery.
We barely notice it in the rain. But there are afternoons when that creamy Indiana limestone looks gold in the late light, and reminds us that the mansion at 920 Spring Avenue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, once glittered, once required the services of a hundred servants, and for two generations held one of the most important private art collections in the nation.
It was, and still is, Lynnewood Hall, the Neoclassical Revival home designed for Peter Arrell Brown Widener by Horace Trumbauer. Built between 1898 and 1900, its architecture recaps the aspirations of a family who made it in the Gilded Age, begun by a man who went from being a butcher to a traction magnate, whose opulent home aspired to European grandeur. French Caen stone and light French oak in the library, beneath a ceiling of painted angels taken from an Italian palace. French walnut in the dining room. A mantle made of French Languedoc marble in the breakfast room. And outside, a terraced lawn in the Italianate style. Later, French landscape architect Jaques Gréber would remove those terraces and plant parterres, and feature the sculpture of his father, Henri-Léon Gréber, in a magnificent fountain.
P.A.B. Widener built European-inspired Lynnewood Hall to shelter three generations of Wideners, to have sons George and Joseph and their wives and children and his art collection all beneath one T-shaped roof. And it seemed they had everything that ten American aristocrats might need: the 110-room mansion was framed by a 36-acre residential park and stood across the street from a 117-acre farm. As self-contained as it was showy, in its heyday the Widener estate included an electric power plant, reservoir, greenhouses, a polo field, and a racetrack.
The residents of Cheltenham Township, a first-ring suburb just north of Philadelphia, live quietly with their share of history and architecture. Underlying the contemporary residential and commercial built worlds are remnants of an era of big estates. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, land use in the township sustained large, elegantly-named residential spreads. Just two blocks from my 1920 stucco bungalow lies what was once the western boundary of Philadelphia dealmaker Charles Henry Fisher’s 100-acre estate, Brookwood, built in 1850.
Indeed, the township was once the place for the wealthy. Jay Cooke’s Ogontz, John Wannamaker’s Lindenhurst, Cyrus Curtis’ Lyndon, George Horace Lorimer’s Belgrame, William Welsh Harrison’s Grey Towers, George Elkins’ Chelten House, John B. Stetson’s Idro, William Lukens Elkins’ Elstowe, John Gribbel’s St. Austel Hall—all rose up out of Cheltenham’s open spaces as material proof of wealth and good taste. These lofty manors illustrated the personal prosperity of self-made men who profited from sectors that included war contracts, railroads, banking, publishing, sugar refining; who then expanded their holdings into oil, tobacco, and steel. They, in turn, passed along some of their wealth to the architects, interior decorators, landscape architects, art dealers, and book dealers who created aristocratic environments for the newly rich. Some of the gild of that age rubbed off.
But for all its gilded grandeur, Lynnewood Hall’s stint as a happy home for three generations of Wideners was short-lived. P.A.B.’s wife, Hannah, died in 1896, two years before the construction of Lynnewood began. P.A.B. was only able to enjoy his palatial home for 15 years before his death in 1915 following a long illness. His elder son, George, and George’s son, Harry, enjoyed the mansion for even less time; both perished on the Titanic in 1912.
Younger son Joseph Widener took over the family’s affairs in 1912. He refined his father’s art collection, and made it available for public viewing by appointment during summer months in the 1920s and 1930s. The reconfigured galleries housed paintings by a portfolio of European artists that included El Greco, Gainsborough, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Manet and Renoir. In 1942, a year before his death, Joseph Widener donated more than 600 works of art to the National Gallery of Art in memory of his father.
Joseph’s death in 1943 was the end of the Lynnewood estate as it had been designed. The contents of the Hall were auctioned in 1944, the house purchased by a dispassionate buyer who developed the farm as an apartment complex and in less than a decade, sold Lynnewood Hall to conservative evangelist Carl McIntire.
McIntire owned the estate for more than 40 years. During that time, it functioned as Faith Theological Seminary, and many of its architectural assets—its Gréber fountain, marble walls and mantles—were sold off piecemeal to sustain operations.
In 1996, seminary graduate and board member Dr. Richard Yoon and a group of investors known as First Korean Church of New York, Inc. acquired Lynnewood Hall at a sheriff’s sale, having foreclosed on Yoon’s note to McIntire. Since then, the mile-long iron fence that circles the estate has kept the curious wondering about the condition of the mansion. The exterior is the ruin we drive by, not because it is crumbling, but because it has lost its grandeur, its purpose.
The fate of Gilded Age mansions in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs has often been institutional use or demolition. They become part of a college campus or a religious retreat. Vacant, like Lynnewood, they tease the imagination: elegant senior housing, a fancy spa, or the less imaginative consolidation of municipal services.
What are its realistic chances for renewal? At what point in its decline will it cease to charm?
David B. Rowland, president of the Old York Road Historical Society, laments the Hall’s derelict nature, but notes that it still stands in reasonably good condition. It was built with steel and concrete and continues to hold up against the elements. However, he has serious doubts about the economic feasibility of restoration. His estimate for renewing the mansion and grounds begins at $40 million.
Restored or in ruins, evidence of the original Lynnewood Hall is evocative: it suggests the romance of sealing wax and butterfly collections, a cool wine cellar, antimacassars on velvet chairs, cigar smoke, and women wearing cameos and long gloves, descending wide staircases. Throw in the scent of camellias and tea roses and the golden light of gas chandeliers, a band playing a waltz…. It is a manor house movie set for a collection of narratives with sad endings.
To a location scout, poet, or historian, just beyond that second-floor unscreened window, a servant is packing a leather trunk for young Harry Widener, who’ll soon be traveling on that new ship, the Titanic. Or that looks like Carl McIntire beneath a tree, writing a sermon that condemns dancing and drinking, smoking and racetracks—the high life that the Wideners once enjoyed there. He’s headed for a converted WWII minesweeper docked in international waters off Cape May, where for a short time he’ll broadcast his sermons. And there in the doorway is someone who looks like Dr. Yoon, turning out the lights for good.
It is easy to imagine another ruinous ending for Lynnewood Hall.
But in a certain light, it still glitters. There are Save Lynnewood Hall groups on Facebook. Cheltenham Township plans include it as a major cultural resource, and the township has drafted an ordinance that would protect its integrity by including it in an historical overlay district. Its appeal extends beyond planners, historians, and architects: it is featured in various YouTube videos of the curious doing dizzying drive-bys or attempting to talk their way past the caretaker.
Even in a weak economy, the occasional potential buyer toys with the prospect of saving the elegant estate that Trumbauer built for Widener. It is still unthinkable to abandon it.
For more than 20 years, Deborah Fries has earned a living through the written word — as a teacher, journalist, freelance writer, and public affairs professional. She works in multiple genres — including poetry, short fiction, essays, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, The Bright Field of Everything, will be published by Kore in 2013.
Header photo by Deborah Fries.