The clock is ticking for Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall, the former Widener family estate completed around 1900 in Elkins Park. "If it continues to be neglected as it is, it will be beyond salvage" within five to 10 years, one specialist in historic architecture said of the 110-room mansion.
Lynnewood Hall, the former Widener family estate completed around 1900 in Elkins Park. "If it continues to be neglected as it is, it will be beyond salvage" within five to 10 years, one specialist in historic architecture said of the 110-room mansion. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 11, 2014

Local officials and neighbors in Elkins Park have been waiting with bated breath for the former Widener estate, Lynnewood Hall, to come back to life.

When the property finally hit the market last month, the listing was not exactly the breath of fresh air they were hoping for.

The owner, a New York urologist and pastor of a Korean church, is asking $20 million for the 110-room, 34-acre estate, which one architect said needed about $50 million in repairs and even then would have limited uses.

So begins another tense chapter in the history of an estate that has been in decline since the Widener heirs sold it in 1944. Even before that, the house was in many ways haunted by heartbreak.

In the late 1800s, butcher-turned-railcar magnate Peter A.B. Widener gave away his mansion at Broad and Girard and decided to build a bigger one - a much bigger one.

Back then, "new money" was unwelcome on the Main Line, so Widener followed other self-made millionaires, including John Wanamaker, Cyrus Curtis, Henry Breyer, and John Stetson, up Broad Street to Cheltenham Township. Widener and his best friend and business partner, William Lukens Elkins, bought adjacent plots on Ashbourne Road and commissioned the up-and-coming architect Horace Trumbauer to build mansions befitting their status among the nation's wealthiest men.

Lynnewood Hall, completed around 1900, was a Georgian-style mansion large enough to house Widener, his two sons and their wives, five grandchildren, one of the nation's largest private art collections, carpentry and upholstery studios, a power plant, and a ballroom large enough for 1,000 guests to waltz without bumping elbows.

The hallways and galleries were filled with art that Widener had acquired "like a greedy boy plundering apples from an orchard," Fortune magazine wrote in 1932. The house was dripping with silk, velvet, and gilded moldings, the rooms furnished with chairs from Louis XV's palace, Persian rugs, and Chinese pottery, the halls crammed with art by Raphael, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Dyck, Donatello.

The decor left no doubt as to the Wideners' money. One writer called the rooms "suffocating in their over-decorated intensity."

In 1912, Widener's son George was hosting a grand dinner party aboard the world's most luxurious cruise ship, in which Widener was an investor. The ship's captain had to leave the party early to check on reports of icebergs up ahead. Hours later, Eleanor Elkins Widener boarded a lifeboat and waved goodbye to husband George and son Harry, who remained aboard the sinking ship.

Three years later, Widener died in his bed at Lynnewood Hall. The New York Times reported that he succumbed to "old age and deep sorrow caused by the loss of his son and his grandson in the Titanic disaster."

Peter Widener's only surviving son, Joseph, carried on the family's businesses and immediately got to work curating and perfecting his father's vast art collection.

He got rid of hundreds of paintings, keeping only the best items and redecorating the galleries to perfectly showcase them. Once a month, sometimes more, Joseph would open the home for tours.

Fortune called it "the finest private collection of past art to be found in the U.S."

Despite the improvements, Joseph's son Peter A.B. Widener II, whom the family called Arrell, returned from the Army after World War I and felt a cold distance from the home where he was raised.

"It's a mausoleum," Arrell told his mother, according to his 1940 memoir, Without Drums. "It's a museum, not a home. It's as cold and as formal as if real people didn't live here."

 In 1924, when Arrell married, Joseph converted the stables into a home for the young couple.

In 1929, servants found Arrell's mother collapsed on the floor.

With his father tending to his thoroughbreds in Kentucky, his sister living in New York, and himself in the carriage house, Arrell lamented: "She had died alone in that great lonely house."

Joseph Widener and his father had always intended to donate their art collection to a public museum, as stipulated in the patriarch's will.

Although he was on the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Joseph bequeathed his collection to the National Gallery, which was still under construction in Washington.

In 1942, as the gallery packed up his life's work, valued back then at $15 million to $20 million, Joseph Widener was in tears, said David Rowland, president of the Old York Road Historical Society.

A year later, Widener died of a heart attack.

Lynnewood Hall had been designed as a showcase for Peter and Joseph Widener's art, and Harry Elkins Widener's expansive collection of books. With all three men dead, the art gone and the books donated to Harvard, there was little life left in Lynnewood's 70,000-square-foot expanse, Rowland said.

The loss of the art collection "served as a death knell for Lynnewood Hall," Michael C. Kathrens wrote in American Splendor, a book about Trumbauer.

Arrell's "mausoleum" had claimed two more victims, and only servants were left in the great limestone corridors. In 1944, Arrell and his cousins put the house on the market and auctioned off the remainder of the estate.

For a $1 entry fee, the public was invited into Lynnewood Hall to buy furniture, rugs, silverware, cookware, and cars. Some of the more impressive items ended up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Life magazine photographed one heirloom being placed in the trunk of an automobile, embossed silver balancing atop a spare tire.

Thus began a slow tide of new owners ill-equipped to keep up with the Wideners' legacy. The estate was first sold to an association that wanted to build a Protestant university, then to a housing developer, then to a seminary, and then to another church. The property went through decades of bankruptcy proceedings, was repossessed and auctioned and sold for pennies to creditors - all the while descending further into disrepair.

Today, Lynnewood Hall sits fallow, a hulking, haunted mansion with foliage encroaching from every angle. Some of the rooms are destroyed, a result of water damage and broken windows.

But those who have seen the interior in recent years said most of the house's fine, historic fixtures are still there.

Mary DeNadai, an architect who specializes in historic restoration, said it would take about $50 million to restore its former glory, but time is running out.

"If it continues to be neglected as it is, it will be beyond salvage" within five to 10 years, she said.

Kathrens, the architectural historian, said whatever the cost, "it would be a shame to lose it, because it really was one of the finest houses every built in this country."

The real estate agent handling the sale, Frank Johnson of Berkshire Hathaway Fox & Roach, said that he has had inquiries and "a number of [parties] on the fence" and is trying to "get the pricing appropriate."

He would not elaborate.

Rowland, the local historian, said he had seen "interested parties" come and go over the years. He is not optimistic that modern eyes will ever see a better version of Lynnewood Hall.

"It was always loved more by the people who'd never been inside it than by the people who actually lived there," he said.


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo

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