In Cheltenham, 4 gilded mansions lie vacant

was commissioned in 1896 by William L. Elkins for his son, George W. Elkins. To be an Elkins or a Widener meant living amid such splendor that Elkins Park in the early 20th century was among the richest hamlets in the country. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
was commissioned in 1896 by William L. Elkins for his son, George W. Elkins. To be an Elkins or a Widener meant living amid such splendor that Elkins Park in the early 20th century was among the richest hamlets in the country. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer (Chelten House, designed by Horace Trumbauer,)
Posted: April 09, 2012

Stella Elkins was a lucky bride. For her spring wedding to George F. Tyler in 1905, her parents built her a cottage in their apple orchard in Elkins Park.

A 50-room cottage.

Named Georgian Terrace, it was designed by Horace Trumbauer, architect to Philadelphia's Gilded Age potentates.

Mom and Dad - Stella and George Elkins - lived next door at Chelten House, a stone-and-timber estate also by Trumbauer.

Grandfather William L. Elkins, a onetime grocer who smartly plowed his profits into oil, gasoline, streetcars, and railways, built an even more sublime Trumbauer creation, Elstowe Manor, just a robust croquet stroke away.

Aunt Eleanor and Uncle George - she an Elkins, he a Widener - stayed across the street with the rest of the Widener clan in Lynnewood Hall, the most capacious Trumbauer home of them all with 110 rooms, a two-story portico, and formal gardens to rival Europe's finest.

To be an Elkins or a Widener meant living amid such splendor that Elkins Park in the early 20th century was among the richest hamlets in the country.

Alas, the 21st century isn't starting out nearly as well.

Having passed one by one out of family hands decades ago, the grand estates have been repurposed variously as an art school, a fundamentalist Christian seminary, a Catholic nuns' retreat, a Korean church, a wedding venue.

Now, in a strange twist of real estate synergy, all four mansions and the 100 acres on which they are clustered are in simultaneous states of flux - their fates uncertain, and worrisome.

Georgian Terrace, which became Temple University's Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art in 1935, is empty and for sale after the university moved the school to its main campus in 2008.

More than 80 years after buying Chelten House and Elstowe Manor, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci sold them in 2009 to a hastily formed conservancy, which just as hastily tanked. Barely a month ago, a bankruptcy judge undid the sale. The sisters are back trolling for a buyer.

And over at Lynnewood Hall, New York urologist and pastor Richard S. Yoon may have to move. His First Korean Church of New York recently lost two court cases against Cheltenham Township over use of the estate as a religious institution. Even if he and his tiny congregation stayed, the multimillion-dollar cost of renovating the deteriorating house would be prohibitive.

Although all the mansions are fine examples of the work of Trumbauer, Elstowe Manor and Lynnewood Hall in particular are Gilded Age gems that are "like visiting the palaces of Europe," said John Gallery, director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

"They're physically unique and tied to a part of Philadelphia history that we tend to completely forget" - an era when the city's economy was so vigorous, it could mint millionaires the likes of Elkins and Widener.

Their homes reflected their jaw-dropping wealth.

Lynnewood Hall's interior is 100,000 square feet. "That's two acres under roof," said Mary DeNadai, a Chadds Ford architect who specializes in historic restoration. "There are very few properties like this in America that are available for restoration and adaptive reuse."

The unsettled futures of the mansions of Elkins Park worry Harvey Portner, a Cheltenham Township commissioner whose ward includes them. With more than 15 percent of all property owned by tax-exempt churches and schools, the township has some of the highest real estate taxes in Montgomery County.

"The only way we progress as a township is through development and redevelopment," Portner said.

"My only fear is that nothing is done with the properties and they lay fallow for years," he added. "We just can't let any of these properties go by the board."

The Widener Home: Lynnewood Hall

About once a month, Richard Yoon drives down from New York to lead a church service at Lynnewood Hall.

There is no sign on Spring Avenue or Ashbourne Road indicating a congregation meets inside or visitors are welcome. A tall iron fence and electric gate keep the estate's 34 acres off-limits.

Arriving at the mansion late on a Sunday afternoon, Yoon walked down a cold, dark hallway, with peeling paint on the ceiling, and into a sunny, Louis XIV-style room that once was a library for the Widener family.

It's the only room of 110 now used on a regular basis. On the ceiling is a mural of angels on clouds, imported from an Italian villa when construction on the great house began in 1898.

The clan's patriarch, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a butcher who made a fortune supplying mutton to Union troops during the Civil War, designed the room for his grandson's book collection.

But after 27-year-old Harry Elkins Widener and his father, George, went down with the Titanic in 1912, the family converted it to a ballroom and shipped Harry's books to Harvard University.

Faith Theological Seminary, run by the fundamentalist Christian preacher Carl McIntire, bought the mansion in 1952, a decade after the Wideners moved out. When the school had financial setbacks, Yoon, a 1984 graduate and former chancellor, lent it $2.2 million. The seminary couldn't pay him back, and in 1996, First Korean Church acquired the title to the place at sheriff's sale.

On a recent Sunday, a dozen or so older Korean men and women were scattered among 14 wooden pews, facing a small altar adorned with arrangements of silk flowers.

In the beginning, the First Korean services typically drew about 60 people. Today, Yoon said, membership is down to around 20.

The more immediate threat to the church's continued existence here, however, has come in the form of back-to-back losses in court cases against Cheltenham Township in the past year.

First Korean pays $132,755 annually in local taxes and has been current on its payments since taking title to the mansion. At the same time, though, Yoon has fought for tax exemption as a religious organization.

Last June, Commonwealth Court ended that 13-year battle, rejecting First Korean's final appeal. A lower court had determined the property was not used enough for church purposes to qualify for tax relief.

Another blow was dealt in federal court, where First Korean had argued that Cheltenham's zoning laws violated the church's civil rights. First Korean is appealing the decision.

Since 2003, the township has not allowed educational and religious institutions to operate in areas zoned residential. First Korean congregants may gather to privately worship, but the church may not post a sign to publicize its presence.

On Feb. 29, a federal judge ruled for the township, leaving Yoon to conclude, "We cannot survive here. We have to move out."

In an interview, he called the court decisions "unjust and unfair" and asked, "What is the definition of a church?"

Yoon would like to stay, but said he does not want to fight. "Maybe God is giving me a message not to do any more," he said.

DeNadai, the Chadds Ford architect with John Milner Architects Inc., said there were interested buyers for the palatial fixer-upper.

Last September, she toured Lynnewood Hall with a team of engineers on behalf of "potential clients" who, she said, wanted to evaluate the building's condition. The behemoth, she explained, would lend itself to office space, a hotel, or a special-event venue - but not residential use.

From taming feral gardens to repairing the leaking roof, renovations would cost about $10 million, she estimated.

"There is interest," DeNadai said. "The problem is the cost to do it."

The Elkins Homes: Georgian Terrace, Chelten House, Elstowe Manor

Plywood covers some windows of Georgian Terrace, the H-shaped brick manor where Stella and George Tyler and their three children lived until their 1932 move to Bucks County.

An aspiring artist and sculptor, Stella donated the property to Temple University. A greenhouse and stables were turned into art studios; the main house was divided into classrooms and offices.

Since the 2008 relocation of the art school to the North Philadelphia campus, Temple has sought a buyer for the property, which includes seven buildings and 17.7 acres.

Rich Rumer, the university's associate vice president for business services, said he had had "pretty active conversations with two or three" parties about taking over the site, appraised at $5 million.

A buyer might want to resume the educational purpose of the property, he said. Another possibility: converting it into a 55-plus residential community.

Temple, Rumer added, would be open to a joint deal with its neighbors in this exclusive nook. "We may look to do something together," he said, "if it makes good sense for both of us."

Those neighbors - the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci - never expected Chelten House and Elstowe Manor, together known as the Elkins Estate, to boomerang back to them.

"There's such a cloud over everything," said Sister Anne Lythgoe, the order's president.

More than 80 years ago, the sisters bought the mansions and 42 surrounding acres from the Elkins family and converted them to a Catholic retreat, administrative offices and a retirement community.

But in 2009, the sisters decided to sell the estate. They needed to raise money. They also recognized that the sprawling, century-old house was no longer ideal for religious retreats.

They sold the properties for $8.4 million to the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park, a nonprofit created for the sole purpose of acquiring them. To expedite the deal, the nuns loaned the conservancy $7 million.

At the time, Cheltenham Township officials hailed the nonprofit's president, David Dobson, as a preservation miracle worker. Dobson, a Hare Krishna follower, had another nonprofit called Food for Life that provided housing and services for the poor and ex-offenders.

He invested millions in upgrading the mansions for weddings and retreats.

From the marble pillars of its two-story reception hall to the gold-leaf accents on the walls of its music room, Elstowe Manor had retained many of its original, rich details, dating to 1896.

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

Chelten House, a summer getaway for Elkins' son George, is an Elizabethan-style manor house with a balustraded terrace. Set on a hillside above a pond, the 30,000-square-foot home was refurbished by Dobson as a retreat center.

But the Dominican sisters' sale went bust.

The conservancy stopped making mortgage payments in June 2010, and the sisters reclaimed title to the properties the following November. In 2011, the conservancy filed for bankruptcy.

This past February, a bankruptcy judge in Philadelphia upheld the transfer of the title back to the Dominican sisters. They now are trying to evict Dobson in Montgomery County Court.

"We can't really have any meaningful conversations with potential buyers until everything is settled," Lythgoe said.

Even if the conservancy were to come up with a significant payment tomorrow, she said, her order no longer has any interest in dealing with Dobson. She would like to find a buyer committed to preserving the property.

The two mansions that make up the Elkins Estate are "in extraordinarily good condition," said Gallery, of the Preservation Alliance.

It would be a "really worthwhile effort," he said, to rescue them from "being demolished - or becoming a relic in the middle of some subdivision."


Get a rare glimpse inside Lynnewood Hall in a video at www.philly.com/elkins


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or follow @j_linq on Twitter.

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