A new era may dawn for the Elkins Estate

Elstowe Manor. A development firm hopes to buy the estate, owned by an order of nuns, for a hotel and condo project.
Elstowe Manor. A development firm hopes to buy the estate, owned by an order of nuns, for a hotel and condo project. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 03, 2014

After years of ownership changes and court battles, a new era may be dawning for one of the area's grandest Gilded Age estates.

The Elkins Estate, a circa-1900 complex of Horace Trumbauer-designed mansions in Elkins Park, has caught the eye of an international development firm with visions of a high-end boutique hotel and luxury condominiums.

The plan is in its early stages, but Cheltenham Township commissioners are considering a new zoning ordinance to accommodate it. A hearing will be scheduled for late July or early August.

For most of the last century, the estate has been owned by an order of Catholic nuns who used it as a spiritual retreat. They say they can no longer afford to maintain the property, and are eager to sell it to someone with more resources.

The development firm, Apeiron, says it will preserve not only the historic Italian Renaissance-style Elstowe Manor, but also the 30,000-square-foot Chelten House, the white gatehouse, and the cottage-style stables.

Some additions and new buildings are planned, but illustrations presented to township commissioners show most of the green space and the creek that runs through the property remaining intact.

Commissioner Morton Simon said he felt confident that Apeiron intended "to maintain the overall glory of the whole property."

"They've agreed to things that are fairly unusual," Simon said, such as preserving public views of the property from Ashbourne Road, and putting most of the parking underground.

Elstowe Manor, a 46,000-square-foot gold-leafed palace, was built in 1896 as a summer home for railway magnate William Lukens Elkins. His son, George, lived next door in the Tudor-style Chelten House.

In 1905, George Elkins built the 50-room Georgian Terrace for his daughter, Stella, and her new husband, George F. Tyler - a member of the Widener family who grew up across the street in another Trumbauer palace, Lynnewood Hall.

From 1935 to 2008, Georgian Terrace housed Temple University's Tyler School of Art. Apeiron partner Muayad Abbas told the Building and Zoning Committee in May that it was in talks with Temple to buy the 17.7-acre Georgian Terrace and integrate it into the hotel and condo project.

It's unclear what Apeiron plans for the Temple portion of the property, and that parcel is not included in the township's proposed zoning change.

Sister Anne Lythgoe, special-projects manager for the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci, said several parties had expressed interest in buying the Elkins Estate over the years. The sisters were holding out, she said, for a buyer well situated to preserve the property and maintain a stable presence.

The sisters sold the property once before, in 2009, to a hastily formed conservancy that used it as an art space and wedding venue. The conservancy quickly went bankrupt, and the sisters reclaimed the estate in 2010 and spent the next three years in court to get the conservancy evicted.

The sisters have done expensive renovations since then, fixing damaged pipes, repainting the interior, and replacing the ornate stained-glass window overlooking a two-story marble reception hall.

"It's a mixed emotion," Lythgoe said. "On one hand, sad that we're ending an era, and on the other, excited about the future for the estate."

Emotions run high when anyone talks of changing the Elkins Estate, one of Cheltenham's most prized landmarks.

The involvement of Martha McGeary Snider - ex-wife of Flyers owner Ed Snider, and a former arts and culture adviser to Gov. Ed Rendell - on the board of the development firm has imparted some measure of faith that the project won't go sour, Simon and others said.

Snider has deep ties to the neighborhood, and the buildings themselves, having graduated from Tyler and made her home in another Trumbauer-designed former Elkins mansion in Wyndmoor.

"She's ensconced in the historic aspect of [Elstowe Manor] and the other buildings on the estate," said Commissioner Harvey Portner.

Snider is also committed, Portner said, to setting aside a portion of the estate for concerts, exhibitions, or other cultural events.

"We hope it will bring not just people to stay at the hotel, but to events held on the grounds," said Simon. That cultural aspect, he said, will be crucial to elevating the hotel's brand and making it "not just another place to sleep and spend money for the night."

Apeiron is a relatively new firm.  Its founders have worked on some of the world's grandest hotels, including the St. Regis in Rome and the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai. But for now, the Elkins property is planned as an independent boutique hotel.

The hotel would include a fitness center, health clinic, restaurants and bars, and studio and exhibition space. The condos, according to Apeiron's proposal, would primarily draw affluent "empty nesters" who want to downsize from large homes to luxury serviced apartments.

David Cohen, an Elkins Park resident who helped draft a new land-use plan for the township, said he supported the hotel proposal, but wants to see more details in the zoning ordinance, including the actual number of units proposed and how the additions to Elstowe Manor would look.

"Even the best intentions don't always turn out the way that they are proposed," Cohen said.

Simon said the ordinance was still being tweaked.

"I hope this would be the final time that the Elkins Estate will have to be saved," he said.


610-313-8117 @JS_Parks


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