Visions of a revived, visible, much-visited Glen Foerd

Art gallery on the second floor, with skylight, at Glen Foerd. "We have a really rich history we can tap into," says the new executive director, citing programs on classical music, art, gardening.
Art gallery on the second floor, with skylight, at Glen Foerd. "We have a really rich history we can tap into," says the new executive director, citing programs on classical music, art, gardening. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

New leader has big plans for mansion, gardens on the Delaware.

Posted: February 17, 2012

Glen Foerd is the only riverfront estate in Philadelphia still open to the public, and it's a beauty.

So you'd think this 25-room, 19th-century Italianate mansion on 18 green acres along the Delaware, tucked into the farthest tip of the Far Northeast, would be drawing crowds. And it does, if you're talking wedding reception or anniversary party; there are more than 100 of those a year.

A new executive director thinks this little-known treasure deserves a prominent place on the tourist circuit, too. She's determined to get the word out - and the public in.

"We have no real profile now," says Meg Sharp Walton, who was hired in late 2010 after a decade as curator and museum consultant for the National Museum of Industrial History and Historic Bethlehem (Pa.) Partnership.

A near-complete strategic plan suggests increasing programming and hours. Tours are now limited, and while there are public events - Irish day, lunch with the Easter bunny, talks on decorative arts, outdoor summer concerts - there hasn't been enough emphasis on what Walton calls "the Glen Foerd legacy of nature, horticulture, and the arts.

"We have a really rich history we can tap into," she says, citing a forthcoming art show and expanded programs on classical music, gardening, and history.

The mansion's history begins in 1850 with Charles Macalester, a Philadelphia financier who named his new estate Glengarry, for the family home in Scotland. (Macalester also changed the neighborhood's name from Risdon's Ferry, for the ferry that operated on the river here, to Torresdale, after Torrisdale, his old hunting lodge.)

At this time, according to local historian Frank W. Hollingsworth, "Torresdale was a very wealthy enclave, full of industrialists. It was the power-point location for the city of Philadelphia."

Macalester's successor fit the demographic. Robert H. Foerderer made a fortune in high-fashion goatskin leather. Also a U.S. congressman and phone company president, he called the estate Glen Foerd, a combination of Glengarry and Foerderer. He also doubled the size of the house, adding a dining room and art gallery.

The Foerderer era extended to 1971, when Robert's daughter, Florence Foerderer Tonner, died. She'd lived there with her husband and two children, and these were Glen Foerd's best years. The house was a showplace, the grounds impeccably planted and maintained. Florence's favorite hybrid tea roses graced the formal gardens, and the family's art collection significantly expanded.

In her will, Florence left the estate to the Lutheran Church, whose tenure brought extensive deterioration. Soon developers came calling, a court fight ensued over the will, and in the end, the neighbors triumphed. Glen Foerd was saved.

The court awarded the estate in trust to the Fairmount Park Commission, and in 1985 created the nonprofit Glen Foerd Conservation Corp. to oversee it. (The corporation leases the property from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, which now includes the commission.)

Stephen Duzinski, Glen Foerd board president from 1994 to 2003, ticked off a list of major repairs that have been done since then, including a new sea wall and boathouse and new roofs on the water tower, gatehouse, carriage house, cottage, and mansion.

"There is still so much to be done," says Duzinski, a retired city budget officer.

The house may soon need a new heater, painting, and pointing. The carp pond needs attention. Repairs are especially concerning now, Duzinski says, because government grants, a mainstay funding source in the past, have pretty much dried up.

Which brings us back to Walton and her determination to attract visitors and team with arts organizations and schools for programming.

She pictures a farmer's market at the nearby Torresdale train station, maybe an apiary and revived orchard, wine tastings, and classes on floral design and organic gardening.

She likes art and music appreciation classes for children, "tea and a talk" for adults, and more-expansive house tours that highlight not just Glen Foerd's pipe organ and Tiffany skylights, but also Florence's vast collections of art, china, textiles, glass, clocks, prints, books, and medallions.

The carriage house, now used for storage, would make a dandy visitor center. Walton mentions restoring the tennis courts and historic landscape, too.

"This is an amazing place," she says.

The landscape is much diminished, though volunteers, led by Bob and Kathy Jaskowiak, are doing their best to restore and maintain it. It's a constant fight with weed trees, invasive honeysuckle and wild grape, poison ivy, and running bamboo.

Volunteers also manage the rose garden, a visitor favorite that blooms from late May to October. It has about 50 roses now - old, new, hybrid teas and shrub varieties, climbers, and floribundas.

Bob, who worked in human resources for the city for 33 years before retiring in 2003, sounds like everyone else at this place when he says, "There's a lot more to be done."

Yet some find Glen Foerd charming as is.

Richard Harvey, a British-born artist who rented the gatehouse with his family for 18 years till they moved to Germantown last fall, says that while "people come to Glen Foerd to see the mansion, I think the pleasure of the place is its setting as much as the house."

He speaks fondly of his pleasures: wading into the river at low tide, watching the herons and butterflies, making grape juice from the purple and white grapes in the arbor, and applesauce from the one apple tree still standing in the orchard.

Harvey's three children - now 7, 12, and 14 - were born in that gatehouse. And while strategic plans and marketing efforts are all to the good, he will always cherish Glen Foerd's wildness.

"I actually preferred the bits that the groundskeepers didn't look after," he says.


Go to philly.com/ginny to hear Bob Jaskowiak discuss the roses he and his wife tend in Glen Foerd's formal rose garden.


If You Go

The grounds of Glen Foerd on the Delaware, 5001 Grant Ave., are open daily, year round, from dawn till dusk.

The mansion is open for tours every Wednesday at 11 a.m. and noon, and on the third Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m.

No reservations are required, but a call ahead is recommended to make sure no special event has preempted the tour schedule.

Tours also are available by appointment, weekdays only. Group tours, with or without lunch, also are possible.

Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (65 and older), $3 for children 12 and under.

For information, call 215- 632-5330, e-mail info@glenfoerd.org, or go to www.glenfoerd.org/.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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