Daniel Rubin: Love affair with a crumbling Cheltenham mansion

Ellen Gartner walks outside the crumbling house that began as the home of Everard Bolton, one of 15 English Quakers who settled Cheltenham. Vacant since the mid-1980s, the house is likely destined for an Aug. 25 sheriff's sale.
Ellen Gartner walks outside the crumbling house that began as the home of Everard Bolton, one of 15 English Quakers who settled Cheltenham. Vacant since the mid-1980s, the house is likely destined for an Aug. 25 sheriff's sale.
Posted: August 12, 2010

On Super Bowl Sunday 2002, Ellen Gartner fell in love with a long-forsaken lady.

Gartner's kids were 4 and 6 at the time, old enough to stay with their dad as she went with friends to see a show. She was sitting in the backseat of a car when she saw the object of her affection for the first time, though she had probably passed the place 100 times before.

Through bare trees, and at the end of a long drive, she spied Federal-era brick and Victorian scalloping on a mansard roof, a graceful porch, and a spartan fieldstone center that seemed to reach back to Cheltenham Township's birth.

"She was obviously historic and abandoned," Gartner said.

Over the next three years, Gartner dug into the history of the property at 1050 Ashbourne Rd. She learned it was the home of Everard Bolton, one of 15 English Quakers who settled Cheltenham on land bought in 1682 from William Penn.

Gartner, 43, was not a historian - she came to the area to study print design at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, now Philadelphia University. But in 2004, her efforts helped list the property - first known as Pleasant Hill, then Heidelberg, then Kerlin Farm - on Preservation Pennsylvania's register of endangered places.

Not that that success has slowed the indignities of age. The property is a disaster - gaping holes in the roof, walls crumbling, floors collapsed. If anyone wants to buy the ramshackle farm, they'd better act fast. For $749,000 they could have nine rooms, five baths, set on 7.68 acres a mile from the city, with lots of natural light, the sort caused by falling trees.

A dreamer would call it a handyman's special, but Alan Barclay is no dreamer.

"At this point," he said, "you'd probably have to import contractors from England who know how to rehab a place that has fallen in this much."

Barclay's mother grew up in that house, which he remembers fondly for its endless grounds and tiny passages. "It was like living in a mansion. Little did I know that we couldn't afford it."

At 89, Betty Barclay sits in a Davenport, Iowa, nursing home, bankrupt and suffering from dementia. She moved to the Midwest to be near a grandchild. Barclay owes money to the Kahl Home for the Aged and Infirm, and to state and local tax authorities. The mansion's sale is intended to satisfy a $63,000 obligation for her care.

If no one makes a good offer, on Aug. 25 the place goes to sheriff's sale, which Alan Barclay expects.

And who knows whether someone will buy it?

"I'm hoping a rich crazy person will show up who will want to put up an estate or restore this one," he said. "But that's a fool's errand. My mom's goal was to preserve it from development. She never had the means to do that."

Barclay allowed me to tour the place the other day. Gartner met me there, and soon Steve Banks, head of the township historical commission, showed up. The three have bonded over the old farm.

To stand at the railing of the curved staircase is to see 300 years thrown into a blender: a songbook from the 1800s, a 1903 edition of Oliver Cromwell, an Andrews Sisters 78 r.p.m. record, a 1993 copy of the Conservative Chronicle.

Members of the family have not lived on the premises since the mid-1980s, Barclay said. Squatters succeeded them, followed by dumped tires and abandoned cars and even a discarded coffin.

For all the farmhouse's years, members of only four families have called it home.

Bolton sailed in 1682 with his wife, Elizabeth, and two children. He bought 100 acres, then 400 more in Cheltenham, still part of Philadelphia County at the time.

Gartner couldn't find records to prove what year the house was built. She thinks it was between 1694 and 1710. Among the owners were Robert and Margaret Wistar Haines, both of old Germantown families, whose daughter Jane grew up among its exotic plantings.

She studied at Bryn Mawr, then traveled to Europe to learn about plants and trees, and upon her return established the country's first women's college for horticulture. Today that school is Temple University's Ambler campus.

Gartner had arborists from Morris Arboretum come to the property in 2004 to survey the trees. The experts identified dozens, including a state-champion sweetgum that's about 225 years old.

Gartner and Banks are hoping whatever happens next happens slowly. "I think what I'd really like is the earth to open up and take it back in," she said.

She finds herself drawn to the overgrown grounds and the crumbling interior. She's grown comfortable with the spirits she senses are present.

"Whenever anything good happens, I come out here. Whenever anything bad happens, I come out here. I come here in the rain and snow, just to touch base with her. I love her.

"For years there was this huge anxiety of saving her. Now I just want to be here with her."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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