Main Line's fabled castle up in the air

Fight over development persists in court and out.

Posted: September 09, 2007

Every day in Lower Merion Township's Wynnewood section, more than 16,000 motorists pass what appears to be an unremarkable swath of woodland.

Be assured it is more, much more, than that - a cache of colorful history, a monument to the joys of money, and a source of angst, anger and long-drawn litigation.

Inside the impenetrable walls of oaks, sycamores and pines is a $40 million, 44-acre estate called Maybrook and, at its center, a 35-room Gothic castle bristling with turrets and brimming with memories of high-hat life on the old Main Line.

Built in 1881 by distiller and financier Henry C. Gibson, Maybrook was his family's beloved home into the 1950s, when another man of fortune, developer and philanthropist John W. Merriam, moved in.

Most neighbors have never seen the 20,000-square-foot castle in their midst, although a glimpse of red-slate roof can be had from a particular spot at the Wynnewood train station on the estate's edge. It is more the notion of Maybrook than the sight of it that has counted to them - all the more as one great manor after another has been carved up for development.

"It's a property a lot of us don't know, but love," said Lower Merion Commissioner Cheryl Gelber, who has lived less than a quarter-mile away for 18 years and has been inside Maybrook's front gate twice.

While its admirers might have wanted Maybrook suspended in time, few doubted that something would change. And it did.

Upon Merriam's death in 1994, his sole heir was his second wife and longtime secretary, Elizabeth Lockyer Merriam, to whom he had been married two years. From her, Maybrook passed to Robert Lockyer, her only child.

In November 2000, just four months before she died, she transferred the property to a corporation he headed. Merloc Partners promptly proposed a vision for Maybrook: 280 apartments in five four-story buildings, 560 parking spaces, a pool, tennis courts, a fitness center. The castle would remain a private home.

Neighbors and preservation groups were aghast. But in March 2002, Lower Merion approved Maybrook's development, with modifications. It called for 250 units in two four-story buildings and a 450-space garage. Five single homes also could be built. The mansion would be turned into two apartments and a limited-use community center with 22 acres of open space.

Today, the "Reserve at Maybrook" still exists on paper only - a hostage in a courtroom war between Lower Merion and Narberth, the borough that abuts the estate's east side.

The battle is not about whether Maybrook will be developed. Mostly, it is about which community should bear the brunt of the Reserve's traffic. And it has been fought from Montgomery County Court to Commonwealth Court to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and back again, at a cost of $266,252 to Narberth and $29,000 to Lower Merion.

Lockyer, who joined the fray by suing Narberth over a driveway ordinance, called his own legal bills "very significant."

On Thursday, with the feud in its fifth year, the protagonists met for the first time outside court to try to settle their differences, sans lawyers and reporters. A newcomer to the arena was Toll Bros., which late last year agreed to buy the rights to the 2002 township-approved development plan from Merloc, for an undisclosed sum.

In a statement to The Inquirer last week, Lockyer wrote that he had sought out the luxury-home builder to "take the lead oar," for he had grown "a bit discouraged."

Over cookies in Narberth Borough Hall, 17 representatives from Narberth, Lower Merion, Toll, Lockyer's company, and the Wynnewood Civic Association (an intervenor in some of the litigation) talked for more than two hours.

They discussed reducing the number of apartments and redirecting some traffic, about controlling storm water and improving bordering roads. They discussed the possibility of selling, or even donating, the castle and open space to Lower Merion.

They decided nothing.

Narberth Council President Mary Jo Pauxtis called the session "constructive," though. And Bruce Reed, chairman of the Lower Merion commissioners, said the next step would be "shuttle diplomacy" between Toll and the Wynnewood Civic Association to reach a mutually agreeable number of units in the Reserve.

Not everyone is looking for a speedy resolution, among them Christopher Finley, a 10-year Narberth resident and a developer. As long as all sides have been at odds, Maybrook has stayed as is - a secret wonderland lorded over by foxes, raptors and deer, including a white one that neighborhood children are sure is a unicorn.

"The current situation, if it went on forever," Finley said, "would be wonderful."

A half-century of fighting

All over the Philadelphia region, communities are grappling with many of the same knotty issues involved in the Maybrook dispute:

The loss of open space, and local history. The push for high-density development around train stations in economically stressed older suburbs. The strains of more people and cars on aging infrastructure. The lack of coordination between neighboring towns on major projects.

Maybrook, however, has been way ahead of its time. The fights over some of those matters go back to 1950.

That was when Mary K. "May" Gibson, daughter of Henry Gibson and the castle's sole inhabitant, sold 81/2 acres to developer Jack Merriam. Lower Merion initially resisted his plan to build the 220-unit Thomas Wynne Apartments in the southeast corner of the estate, then approved it in 1951.

Merriam, who would buy the whole of Maybrook in 1956, once described his next development experience there as "frightful."

He wanted to add a 12-story building of 419 apartments behind the Thomas Wynne. This time the opposition came from the Wynnewood Civic Association, which filed two lawsuits to block it.

The litigation stretched over 10 years, cost Merriam $100,000 in legal fees, and ended in 1962 with the state Supreme Court's affirmation of his right to build. With a victory in his pocket, he shelved the project.

By then, he was preparing to break ground for two behemoths: the 1,095-unit Cedarbrook Hill apartments in Cheltenham and the Cedarbrook Mall, the first enclosed shopping center in eastern Pennsylvania.

Merriam and his wife, Ruth, settled into a sedate, fine-art-filled life in the castle, which they occupied for more than three decades. After her death in 1988, he wrote a will naming the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, the University of the Fine Arts, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as the primary heirs to his $115 million fortune.

Most neighbors stopped fretting about Maybrook's fate. Maybe, the speculation went, it would become an esteemed outpost of academe.

They did not know that, when he remarried, the will was automatically nullified under Pennsylvania law. After his death, the four institutions sued for what they considered their due. The second Mrs. Merriam settled, giving them 59 percent of his worth, leaving Maybrook to her and ultimately her son.

A push for resolution

By the time the concept of a Reserve at Maybrook surfaced, Robert Lockyer already was well-known to the preservation community.

In 1998, he had tried to sell the Merriam estate's most renowned artwork to casino mogul Steve Wynn: Dream Garden, the 1916 Louis Comfort Tiffany/Maxfield Parrish mosaic made of hundreds of thousands of specially fired and tinted glass shards.

After a legal battle lasting more than three years, and a $3.5 million rescue by the Pew Charitable Trusts, ownership of the mural was transferred to the Academy of the Fine Arts. It remains in its home of nearly a century, the lobby of the Curtis Center.

Lockyer now fears a bum rap over Maybrook. In his statement to The Inquirer, he wrote that by developing the property he'd be able to save its most important treasures - the castle, the carriage house (where he lives when not in Rancho Mirage, Calif.), and four historic outbuildings.

If the Reserve doesn't materialize soon, Lockyer said, "sadly Maybrook Mansion and its grounds are likely to become just a fond memory."

Enter Toll. The deal between Lockyer and the builder isn't final, and the specifics aren't known, including who would own Maybrook. Nonetheless, one role for Toll is clear: Get the project moving.

That means negotiating an end to the traffic war. Toll already has proposed a way to disperse cars and trucks from the complex more evenly.

The plan approved in 2002 by Lower Merion appeared to dump most of them into half-mile-square Narberth. The borough sued Lower Merion "to get somebody's attention," said Marc Jonas, a solicitor for Narberth. It also passed the driveway ordinance that so peeved Lockyer that he sued the borough.

The legal wrangling hasn't cooled since.

John Nawn, traffic consultant for Narberth, estimated an extra 155 vehicles on each of the roads bordering the estate - North Wynnewood Avenue and Penn Road - during evening rush.

"There's no way of accurately knowing until you know who is going to rent these places and where they are going to work," he said. Knowing the exact number of units, he added, also would help.

Marc D. Brookman, a real estate lawyer representing Toll and Lockyer, said substantially fewer than 250 units would be unlikely. Given Maybrook's proximity to transit, he added, even 250 is "not intense enough."

Toll and Lockyer have told local officials that the more units they can build at Maybrook, the better able they will be to donate the castle and surrounding land to the township and provide an endowment for their care.

Officials of Toll, whose vice chairman, Bruce Toll, is an owner of The Inquirer, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement Friday, the company said it wanted to "create a win-win for everyone."

Ted Goldsborough, 68, a retired English teacher from Lower Merion, is hoping that means public access.

When last at Maybrook five years ago, he was trying to take archival pictures as president of the Lower Merion Historical Society - and, he acknowledged, trespassing. He first was chased by a uniformed man with "a pistol on his hip" and minutes later by Lockyer, who, Goldsborough said, threatened to have him arrested.

When growing up in Narberth, he said, he could freely skate on Maybrook's pond.

Then again, that was when "I thought those woods went from Wynnewood Avenue to California," he said. "They seemed monstrous. Times have changed."


Read Robert Lockyer's statement on developing his property at http://go.philly.com/develop


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 610-313-8095 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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