Inside The Empty, Gilded Halls Of Elkins Estate

 

Elkins Estate, Cheltenham’s little Downton Abbey. | Photo: Kris Catherine

To describe the Gilded Age interiors of the Elkins Estate in Cheltenham as anything short of incredible would be a crime against neoclassical architecture. The rolling, 42-acre property and its pairing of Italian High Renaissance-and Elizabethan-revival mansions, designed by architect Horace Trumbauer, come into frame at the front gate with the distinguished nobility of an English country manor. The estate at 1750 Ashbourne Road speaks to a time when Philadelphia’s utility magnates treated themselves like royalty and articulated their accomplishments in the grandeur of their manors. Today, like Trumbauer’s other residential masterpiece nearby, Lynnewood Hall, the mansions of the Elkins Estate are vacant and without a capable steward willing to reactivate the properties with a financially sustainable reuse plan, while attending to upkeep and preservation. For now, the future of this resplendent white elephant remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Elstowe Manor, the crown jewel of the estate, was built in 1898 by William L. Elkins, the prominent Philadelphia businessman who, along with Peter A.B. Widener, built the Philadelphia Railroad Company and the streetcar monopoly, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, through acquisitions of smaller lines and political opportunism. The interior of the mansion, designed by esteemed French interior designers Allard et Fils, is an architectural treasure chest filled with heavenly frescoed ceilings, carved mahogany panels, stately marble columns, and an eye watering display of crystal chandeliers, gold leafing, and regal, gilded molding.

The estate’s other mansion, Chelten House, was commissioned in 1896 for Elkin’s son, George. The façade of the house is fortified in Wissihickon schist and dark timber. Its upper floors are covered in cream-colored panels of prickly pebbledash. The interior walls are suited in Tudor-style wood paneling, and a lavish web of Gothic tracery weaves geometric texture into the ceiling. Both mansions contain large, industrial kitchens where, in the tradition of the French manor, the simplicity of worn, rustic wood and abraded, stainless steel contrasts with the overwhelming splendor of every other room in the estate.

After Elkins died in 1903 the estate was passed down to his offspring. By the 1950s, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci had acquired most of the property–they purchased Elstowe Manor from William L. Elkins’ grandson, William L. Elkins, and Chelten House from Stephen X. Stephano of Stephano Bros., Philadelphia manufacturers of Rameses cigarettes, in 1948. The Dominican Sisters used the two mansions as a religious retreat for women for over 75 years, while taking care of the properties and their original interior features through dedicated conservation. (It’s worth noting that in the same period another religious organization, the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, similarly preserved Willis G. Hale’s Lorraine Hotel along with several other buildings of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age.)

Due to the financial pressures of building maintenance expenses and dwindling retreat attendance, the Dominican Sisters closed the Dominican Retreat House in 2006 and sold the entire estate to the New Age nonprofit Land Conservancy of Elkins Park in 2009, which planned to use the property for a large-scale spiritual wellness center and special events venue. By 2010, the conversancy had so far executed a scattershot business plan pitted with small yoga retreats, wedding receptions, performance space for White Pines Productions, and a three-week photo shoot for Victoria’s Secret and was in mortgage default after missing nearly a year’s worth of payments. Possession of the estate was relinquished to the Dominican Sisters in January 2013 following a heated, three-year legal battle over $6.9 million in defaulted mortgage payments and the conservancy’s refusal to vacate the premises.

A feasibility assessment of the estate for preservation and business modeling was conducted in 2012 by CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia for White Pines Productions and the Wyncote Foundation. However, finding a capable operator based on the report’s advisement was met with a tepid response by the Dominican Sisters and the Township.

In 2014 the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners approved three zoning amendments to clear the way for luxury hotelier Apeiron to purchase the estate and convert Elstowe Manor into a boutique hotel with full-service luxury apartments. The project included using a portion of the 42-acre property for a public arts and cultural destination. To date, Apeiron’s plan has not moved beyond the proposal stage and no other projects for the estate are on the table. 

Text by Michael Bixler

Inside the mansions of Elkins Estate. Photographs by Kris Catherine.

 

About the author

The world is a beautiful place, from that abandoned home hidden in the woods to the majesty of waterfalls, the world has many hidden treasures for us to explore and experience. My love for the arts started as a child and with the fine arts, but quickly evolved when I used to watch my father and his camera. When I finally had the opportunity to pick a camera up in high school, I never but it down. I have worked with the U.S. Navy and Air Force and provided photo services for major events. When I look back, I have found that many of us live our day by day life in a bubble and never get the chance to experience what the world has to offer. My goal as a photographer is to give you that experience.



67 Comments


  1. Wow, I need a tour! There has to be a use for a building so beautiful.

  2. An art student at Tyler in the late 60s, we would go on midnight walks on the property much to the chagrin of the Dominican Sisters!

  3. Checkbooks should open for this opportunity, especially if Bill Gates wanted a home on the East Coast! He could dump some of Warren Buffet’s billions given to him to own and renovate this palace.

  4. Beautiful photos!

  5. Wow!! So beautiful?

  6. Wow! This would be the perfect setting for a Hollywood movie. Surprised no one has jumped on it already!!

    • Lived for many years in Latham Park, went to Tyler School functions, had baby sitters from Tyler but unfortunately do not remember seeing this gorgeous land Where exactly is it and how on earth did we miss it while biking or hiking in the area? Next time I get back down to Philly (in Boston area now) I’ll plan to go see! Is it open for visitors at this time? Can’t believe I missed this treasure, even taking the kids around to sell Girl Scout cookies! There must be a civic organization ( or two) to save this! Up here, we “seniors” often have “functions” in properties such as this. Would certainly be a great property for a fund raiser for , perhaps, next Congressional elections?? or a movie set?

      • its at ashborne rd and penrose ave

      • Located on Ashbourne Rd at Penrose Ave. Lynnewood Gardens is across Penrose Ave. Hope this helps.

      • The address is in the article – I remember it well, as I grew up steps away from it – but I had no idea what the interiors looked like – this is mind-blowing! It was between Ashbourne Road and Spring Avenue, bordered by Cedar Lane. The Dominican Sisters were on the other side of Cedar Lane, as I remember.

    • I believe scenes for several projects were filmed here.

  7. Decent article, but horrible photos. Cheap, amateur Photomatix processing and filters applied (same nuclear apocalypse filters often used by urbexers), which would never in a million years be seen in Architectural Digest. These mansions simply DO NOT look like that.

    • David – Coming from someone who has been inside both these amazing building – yes, you are correct that the pictures were enhance and touched up. The years have not been kind mostly due to lack of financial support but the bones of the architectural beauty is still there and living on strong. These photos show how I image it looked in the glory days when Elkins Estate was first built. So try not to be so critical and cynical as you too might need some photo enhancement as you get older.

  8. Why the change between Eakins and Elkins throughout the article?

  9. This property and many other architectural gems in and around Philadelphia should be preserved by a trust from Billionaires who could help save these important buildings for future generations.

  10. Turn it back into a retreat house. They were so inspiring.

  11. This is a wonderful photo essay of two magnificent mansions. We should be grateful to the Dominican Sisters for taking such good care of the properties over the years. It’s a stark contrast to the nearby Widener estate, Lynnewood Hall, which was stripped to the bones by its successive owners and is now a crumbling shell. Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos, Kris.

  12. Good heavens, this is spectacular!! Why is this not a wedding venue?

  13. It was a wedding venue up until 2010 I think, the conservancy couldn’t keep up with the payments.

  14. Why not make it a museum and open for tours, events, weddings, ect. Maybe something similar to Biltmore and the mansions in Newport. I would definitely visit.

  15. Thank you so much for writing about these Estates. Very interesting. Cannot believe the
    Estates are in such good shape! All the chandeliers, ornate woodwork,and ceiling frescos
    Wonderful!

  16. Joanie from Jersey

    Wow, seeing these fabulous photos of the Dominican Retreat House took me back to my first visit there, back in the Fall of 1966…Being a Catholic school student in Jersey at the time, with arrangements made by my teachers, “Franciscan sisters”, I, along with a few other students at my school, volunteered to serve as “waitresses” once a month, to RETREATERS, who would stay from Friday night until Sunday afternoon….We students would help the Dominican sisters “serve” the Retreaters three meals a day, during those weekends, in exchange for free room and board….It was a wonderful experience for us girls….and, the main thing that stands out to me, other than how “beautiful” the Main Building and St. Dominic’s was, is how WONDERFUL the “Dominican” sisters treated us during those many stays….I was lucky enough to stay in contact (by mail) with one “sister” in particular, SR. JOAN, for over 40 years, and even now, we STILL exchange Christmas cards every year…..When the Retreat House was up for sale a few years ago, Sr. Joan got in touch with me, inviting me and a good friend of mine (who also served the Retreaters on those fun weekends, to come and visit her at the Retreat House, (after more than 40 years since our last visit in the late 60’s) for one last look at such a wonderful landmark that we had visited as students back in the day…One Saturday afternoon, my friend and I did go back….It was so great to see visit there again, remembering all the wonderful weekends we girls had so many moons ago…I will keep these fabulous photos of such happy memories forever, not only on this website, but also in my mind….Sincerely, Joanie….

    • Joanie,

      You could not have said it better! h do I remember this well, and I too served and chaperoned many a weekend at the Dominican Retreat house from the mid to late 1970’s. Sr. Anne and Sr. Joan were there at that time too. This photo essay brought back so many memories of the women I met and still keep in touch with; and the peacefulness I felt just being there on the grounds. The photos of St. Dominic’s Hall are the ones that I remember so fondly, as I be assigned that hall to work and would go on teen retreats in St. Dominic’s. It’s funny how Elkins Park has been on my mind so much lately and then boom, here it is in print. Those are times I do cherish and always will. Sincerely, Nancy

      • Joanie from Jersey

        Hi Nancy,
        Thank you for your response….One other thing I forgot to mention…Not sure, but I think we girls only went once, to one of the Dominican Retreat House “Halloween” parties that the “Sisters” held for all of us “retreat servers”….I can STILL remember as we walked into the “Squash House” where the party was being held, there was Sr. Maureen, looking absolutely gorgeous, in a white sheet holding a candle in her hand….Wonderful memories!…..Also, my good friend, Barbara and I used to LOVE staying over the weekend at St. Dominic’s but enjoyed “serving the retreaters” at the Main Building….I remember one night we girls were hungry….We somehow snug down to the kitchen and Sr. Peter caught us….lol….As a punishment for being somewhere that we shouldn’t be, she gave us a BIG bag of “Oreo” cookies to take back to our room….lol….I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity, as a teenager, back in the day, to meet such wonderful Catholic “Sisters”, not only throughout my Catholic school years, but also at the Dominican Retreat House….Sincerely, Joanie

    • Dorothy (Zaprala) Watson

      I was just looking on line regarding the retreat house to find it is no more. So sad it is gone. Before moving to Palm Springs, CA almost 40 years ago, I lived in the Phila. and New Jersey area. I went to the retreat the first weekend every May back in the 60’s. What a wonderful experience I had staying in that beautiful house. The pictures brought back such wonderful memories. It is a pity that someone in the Phila area is doing nothing to preserve this treasure and put it to some good use. There are so many things someone could do with that property….Sincerely, Dottie

  17. Great Photos!

    Thomas

    studio-4a.com

  18. as a big fan of lynnewood,whitemarsh hall and trumbauer i was thrilled to see these pictures to say the least!!i’ve got to somehow see this in person..it’s got to be saved and restored to past beauty..these posts have all been great…thanks for the pictures and text…get me in!!!!

  19. Used to walk through the property after school and short cut to the Cheltenham Mall many many years ago. I never knew the inside was this amazing!!

    • Harvey I saw this property for the first time a few short years ago when working at Milton’s house. I had heard the buildings were wonderful inside, and I never knew they were this wonderful!

  20. The most Beautiful place I have ever seen, Breathtaking, IS that the Dominican Retreat House, I think I was at a retreat there, yrs ago,

  21. What a magnificently beautiful Estate. It mus have been magic to live there. Thank you very much for the tour Kris, fantastic pictures.

  22. Fascinating article. I hope that the hotel manages to execute its plan. Will be lovely. We certainly don’t want demolition.

  23. Our prayer group from Medford lakes , N. J.Went there for many retreats, it took our breath away on Friday when we walked thru the door, it was like a ball room. And were greeted by the nuns. Sad when it closed, and we wondered what was happening to it.

  24. Decadent conspicuous consumption from the last Guilded Age, when most of the wealth flowed to the few at the top.

  25. Thank you, so much for this walk down Memory Lane. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s I used to come here, with friends, once or twice a year for retreat. It was always was a peaceful, restorative experience. The environment, the kind, intelligent, progressive Sisters with their talks and prayers, and the interesting, enlightening chaplains restored the flagging Faith of many, including my own. There was an additional element – the late night chats in the secret basement vaults where women supported and shared advice with each other. Some of us assisted with fund raising, but, of course it was not enough and it was a sad day when the Sister had to make the difficult decision to close. One thing not mentioned in the article was that a home was made on the estate for sisters, too frail and infirm to do active retreat work. Once again, thank you, it made me smile to “revisit those lovely buildings.

  26. I used to live across the street from Lynnewood Hall – Widener Estate – and I used to ride my bike through the grounds of the Elkins Estate all the time. I recently drove by Lynnewood Hall and was deeply saddened to see how the property has been allowed to fall into ruin. It was such a majestic place and has been pillaged over the years. Sad…just very sad. I am happy to see that the Elkins Estate has been kept up, at least so far.

  27. William R Wolfgang

    I once new of an institution named Faith Theological Seminary that was housed in a place called Elkins Park. I have to wonder what it’s connection was to that which is pictured here.

  28. I have drove pass this property and the one across the street and have wished I had the funds to purchase both. Grand Versailles we have right here outside of Philadelphia. I think the Elkins Estate should be turned into a Grand Wedding venue( which I know they had tried before but who was running it at the time had no sense of style or presentation). Events held in this Grand Estate, Ceremony, reception, rooms for wedding party to stay and prepare for occasion. And the Estate Linden Hall could be turned into a Gorgeous Hotel to accommodate Guest. From Glamorous Rooms and Restaurants to Spa’s, Boutiques, and just pure relaxation. And to get out of Philadelphia. And of course show off the Incredible grounds, with all the exotic tree’s that were brought in years ago when the owner had it built. Over the top French Gardens. A miniature Longwood Gardens to bring in revenue during the down season’s. And put both on Tour for the Holidays. Just my Dream! 🙂

  29. I attended the auction when the property was sold in 2006 (I bought a vintage sewing machine and some small art) and had high hopes that the home would be in good hands going forward – the plans were optimistic!

    Please, someone, don’t let it fall into the same state of disrepair as Lynnwood seems to have experienced. What a treasure these three homes are.

    • Would you please contact me ?
      I would like to know about the auction.
      We are developing the mansion and we
      want to get some original art piece
      of the building. Thank you.

  30. Thanks for publishing about this. I live nearby and marvel every time I pass these three places.

    (Pretty sure the Divine Lorraine Hotel wasn’t one of Trumbauer’s…)

    • I would love to have my wedding pictures taken there. I guess the gate is not open?I don’t know who to contact….

  31. Was part of the Dominican Retreat House for over 30 years. The pictures do
    present a different view. They were truly Camelot days. The rooms filled with
    women searching for God. The Dominican sisters always gracious, and willing to
    help in the search.

  32. Would love to see this place myself as well. I remember reading about it on Curbed I think. Shame the patriarch only lived there for a handful of years.

    One question: “… the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, similarly preserved Trumbauer’s Lorraine Hotel …”

    I know Willis G. Hale designed the Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad, so what is this other Lorraine Hotel by Trumbauer that I have missed out on?

  33. This complex, at one time, captured a snapshot of the gilded age. Bravo to the photographer whose artistry exquisitely captured that bygone era with exhilaration.

    As an aside, does anyone know if the Stephano Bros. (cigarette manufacturer magnet) descendants remain the current owners of Chelten House?

  34. Make them into museums of those ages.

  35. I would prefer to see this gorgeous site fast tracked for a luxury hotel (that I couldn’t afford) rather than to deteriorate unused.

  36. In Europe, from Spain to Russia, this would be one of the stops on the tourist trail. I have certainly paid admission to see lesser sites than this. Unfortunately, there’s no royal story that goes along with this.

    • Yes as on the Hudson River, but this locale is unusual for such an ostentatious display and far off the tourist trail.
      I’m most impressed by the flooring throughout, and tile-work in the kitchens, maybe the only attainable aspects for most.
      Overall, while thankful for an article on a property I knew nothing about, Elstowe Manor seems too over the top compared with Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst as an example, or even Rockefeller’s Kykuit.
      Possibly Elkins could have better adorned his employees with his largess?

  37. Ironic that the hall with chairs is the least interesting for a performance, while the beautiful ballrooms are empty. I wonder who White Pines Productions is. I’m sure this would be good recording facilities.

  38. Hi, is this open to the public for tours? I would love to come here for my wedding pictures, even if it was only for an hour. Even if we could only get pictures outside. Do you have any information?

  39. I have a great love of architecture. Have spent many hours looking on line at historic properties. This is the BEST one yet ! ! ! Don’t let this place fall into disrepair ! ! ! The interiors are the best I have seen in America. Also I am enjoying all the comments. The Dominican Sisters did a beautiful job keeping this place in what looks to me to be all original condition? I found Elkins Estate through YouTube..

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