Elkins Park palace in precarious state

Main quarters of the William Lukens Elkins Estate in Cheltenham. A hastily formed conservancy that bought the property in 2009 has filed for bankruptcy, and faces a court battle with the sisters.
Main quarters of the William Lukens Elkins Estate in Cheltenham. A hastily formed conservancy that bought the property in 2009 has filed for bankruptcy, and faces a court battle with the sisters.

Dominican nuns, a Hare Krishna charity, and the fate of a Gilded Age gem.

Posted: April 03, 2011

William Lukens Elkins' old summer estate in Cheltenham is a shell of its former self.

Gone are the lavish furnishings that filled the oil-and-streetcar tycoon's great hall. The works of Dutch and Flemish Old Masters that covered his walls have been replaced by prints. And an aging chandelier now hangs precariously over his elaborate double staircase.

The fact that the property remains intact at all - more than a century after Elkins' death - is something of a miracle, preservationists say. In 2009, a hastily formed nonprofit conservancy bought the Italian Renaissance palace and its surrounding 43 acres - just off Route 611 - for $8.5 million, saving it from those who would carve it up for residential development.

Two years later, that new owner has fallen on hard times.

The Land Conservancy of Elkins Park filed for bankruptcy last year. Questions have emerged over the original real estate deal. And if you ask who exactly owns the Elkins property today, the answer sounds like the setup to a bad joke: An order of Dominican nuns asserts that it rightfully took it back from a group founded by a Hare Krishna charity worker.

The result: One of Philadelphia's last Gilded Age estates could be in danger again.

"How many of these old estates are left in the Philadelphia region?" asked John Gallery, director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "The Elkins Estate is a unique remaining example of what used to exist here. And unfortunately, right now, it's caught in the middle."

When David Dobson - a 57-year-old nonprofit manager who had previously grown a small Hare Krishna ministry into one of Philadelphia's largest housing charities - first floated the idea to purchase the Elkins Estate and turn it into a retreat and banquet center in 2009, preservationists hailed him as a hero.

From the marble pillars of its two-story reception hall to the gold-leaf-accented walls of its music room, the estate had retained many of its rich details meticulously planned during its construction in 1896.

It had been intended as a retreat from city life for Elkins, who had clambered his way up from a job as a grocery clerk to become one of Philadelphia's top business and philanthropic moguls. He was integral to the formation of what would become SEPTA and the Philadelphia Gas Works.

The nuns, in the nearly eight decades since buying the estate from the Elkins family, had kept the property intact - although Dobson said he was shocked to learn that they had been in talks to sell the estate to a developer and were selling off many furnishings at auction.

He bought what he could and decided to come back for the rest. "I went in hoping to buy a little table or chair for my house," he said. "But when I saw that they had started to rip the place apart for scraps, I was appalled."

Leaning on loans floated by his housing charity - Food for All - Dobson formed the land conservancy; named himself and his wife, Ettel, to its board of directors; and offered a down payment of more than $1.5 million, promising the remaining $6.9 million through a self-financed mortgage held by the sisters. Stipulations in the agreement gave the nuns the right to retake the property should he default on payments.

At issue in the current bankruptcy case and a separate lawsuit filed in federal court is whether Dobson's charity made those payments on time.

The nuns said Dobson missed at least one $250,000 principal payment in February 2010. Dobson maintains that the nuns misapplied previous payments the land conservancy made in excess of what it owed and that they failed to follow through with promises to rehab portions of the property before the time of sale.

What's more, he argues in court filings, they illegally took back the deed to the estate last fall without giving him or the conservancy a chance to respond.

"They surreptitiously took the deed," he said. "We've been trying to work with them ever since, but it's been a fight all the way."

Now, the question of ownership lies in the hands of a bankruptcy judge.

The nuns' interest in reclaiming the property remains unclear. The sisters and their attorney declined to comment for this article. In court filings, they seek to recoup the money they are owed, but they lay out no specific plans for the property.

In their previous 75 years of ownership, they ran it as a spiritual retreat, converting its two Horace Trumbauer-designed homes - the 64,000-square-foot Elstowe Manor mansion and the smaller Tudor-style Chelten House - into dormitories for aging clergy.

At the time of the 2009 sale, Sister Carolyn Krebs, former president of the congregation, said maintaining the large historic property had become too much for its aging members. The sisters had to hire caretakers to maintain the grounds - money the order felt could be better spent in supporting its mission.

Since taking over, Dobson has turned the Elkins Estate into a yoga and wellness center and rented out space for banquets, corporate retreats, and weddings.

He maintains that he's committed to keeping the property intact. And he has approached his previous work with, if the phrase can be applied to anyone in the nonprofit sector, the entrepreneurial zeal of a magnate.

Since its founding in 1984, Food for All has amassed holdings of $14 million in assets, according to its most recently available tax filing, providing him and his wife a combined $390,000 salary. The group runs one of Philadelphia's largest homeless shelters at Broad and York Streets and owns dozens of North Philadelphia properties that it leases to low-income families.

But the sisters' legal team has raised questions about Dobson's ability to maintain the estate.

The original loan that Food for All floated the land conservancy to make the purchase falls so far afield of the charity's stated mission of helping homeless and low-income residents that it raised eyebrows among several nonprofit lawyers. Subsequent payments on the mortgage have also come from the charity's coffers, according to court filings.

And the land conservancy has yet to prove it can independently afford its acquisition costs. Although it reported a $516,000 net income in 2010, that sum doesn't even cover the more than $600,000 in annual principal and interest payments it owes the sisters on its mortgage - not to mention the $400,000 in property taxes Cheltenham authorities have assessed since revoking the property's tax-exempt status in 2009.

Dobson said, however, that absent the question over the mortgage, the land conservancy was solvent.

In its bankruptcy filing, it lists more than 50 brides-to-be and event-planners as creditors - for down payments they made for events planned this year.

"We are eagerly looking for other philanthropic support," he said. "It has a good business model that can support it."

For now, the carved faces of angels etched into Elstowe Manor's marble columns continue to stare down at its empty great hall - their future as uncertain as the palace itself.

"There's no question that the land conservancy has made a very bold move here," said Gallery, the preservationist. "I think you have to take your hat off to them to recognize the importance of the property and their willingness to go out on a limb to take care of it."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.


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