Development

Historic Grounds of Lindenwold Castle Under Siege

December 11, 2019 | by Stacia Friedman

In 1912, asbestos magnate Richard Van Zeelust Mattison remodeled his mansion in Ambler to resemble Windsor Castle. The historic grounds of Mattison’s 45-acre estate, last owned by St. Mary’s Villa for Children and Families, is currently being cleared for 104 high-end homes and a luxury retirement community complex. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In March 2019, bulldozers began tearing into the grounds of Lindenwold Castle located at 701 Bethlehem Pike in Ambler, Pennsylvania to make way for a luxury mixed-housing development. Some in the community are calling it progress. Others are saying the project is just plain wrong.

“The castle is an impressive and beloved oddity. Now it stands hideously naked without it’s beautiful landscape,” said Eddie Flotte, an artist and lifelong Ambler resident. 

The relationship between Ambler residents and the castle is integral to the very existence of the town. In 1882, Dr. Richard Vandelous Mattison of Bucks County stepped off of a train and chose Ambler as the location for his asbestos factory, Keasbey & Mattison. At the time, Ambler was a sleepy mill town with only 70 houses and a population of 250 people.

Mattison made Ambler the “Asbestos Capital of the World,” drawing workers from as far as Italy. Among those Italian immigrants was the grandfather of celebrated journalist and author Gay Talese whose 1992 book, Unto the Sons, describes turn-of-the-century Ambler.

An undated photograph of Richard Mattison. | Image courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society

As business expanded, Mattison, known as the Asbestos King, built over 400 homes for his employees, ranging from modest cottages for manual laborers to stately Victorian mansions for managers. The grandest mansion of all was Mattison’s. In 1912, he renovated his mansion to replicate Windsor Castle in England, bringing in stone masons from Italy and German craftsmen to make the ornate iron gates. It has a multi-story central tower with circular corner turrets and crenellated battlements across the roof.  Many of the homes he built for his managers have these same Medieval features, but on a much smaller scale.

Known then as Lindenwold Castle, the property featured gardens, fountains, and statues to rival the grand palaces of Europe. At night, Mattison could gaze down from his castle on the hill at lights flickering inside his managers’ homes like a child admiring his toys.

The Asbestos King was generous. He gave Ambler a library, an opera house, and the Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church. He was also greedy. In addition to being the town’s largest employer, Mattison owned Ambler Water Company, Ambler Electric Light Company, and the Heat & Motor Company. Talk about a company town.

The Great Depression shut down the asbestos factory and its king. Mattison died in 1936 at the age of 85. Later that year, Lindenworld Castle was sold to the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth which established it as St. Mary’s Villa for Children and Families. By then, the estate had been whittled down to less than 50 acres. For the next 80 years, the castle, with its Gothic towers, elegant gates, and lush landscape, appeared that it would last forever. Then came the sale of St. Mary’s Villa in 2013. Not long after came the  Facebook group The Concerned Neighbors of the St. Mary’s Villa – Ambler, PA. They represented 572 residents who were alarmed that multiple commercial entities planned to turn the bucolic country estate into a densely populated housing development.

An undated, aerial photograph shows Lindenwold Castle and the landscaping of Mattison’s former estate. | Image courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society

The initial buyer in 2013 was Leonard Poncia, owner of Aquinas Realty Partners. Ponica sold off the estate’s two gatehouses to Peter Monaghann of Endeavor Property who has since leased one to a tenant and is currently renovating the other. In 2017, the Upper Dublin Planning Commission gave the green light for a large portion of the estate to be developed by the Goldenberg Group which partnered with Guidi Homes to build 104 new carriage house and villa-inspired homes Ponica subsequently sold another portion of the property to a joint venture of South Bay Partners Inc., Lamb Properties LLC, and Sage Senior Living to build a luxury senior living complex with over 250 units. The surrounding community felt like it was under siege.

Without irony, the Goldenberg Group describes their proposed development, Mattison Estate, as a “masterfully-planned luxury community… nestled on the beautiful grounds of the legendary Lindenwold Estate.” Homes will range from $300,000 to $7,000,00. That’s a sharp hike for Ambler where the average four-bedroom house sells for under $425,000.

The adjacent, 55+ community, Sage Senior Living, will include independent living, assisted living, and a memory unit. Its amenities will include an indoor pool, fitness center, yoga studio, two movie theaters, a dog wash and dog run, art studio, multiple indoor and outdoor dining venues, bars and lounges, barbecue grills, fire pits, and a putting green–and a hefty price tag that goes with all that.

When complete, Mattison Estate will feature homes for sale between $300,000 to $7,000,00. | Image: Goldenberg Group and Guidi Homes

A rendering of plans for Sage Senior Living, a luxury retirement community that will fill the sizable lot behind Lindenwold Castle. | Image: SageLife

Residents are largely concerned about the impact of the development on local traffic. “Right now, getting into and out of Ambler during evening rush hour is horrific,” said resident Linda Palmarozza. “The cars are all single lane along Butler Pike. Sometimes the back-up is close to a mile long.”  

But traffic isn’t the only issue. Residents are also worried about the environment. The development calls for reducing the size of the two-acre lake, creating a dam, and adding a water feature with wetlands. Sensing pushback, the Goldenberg Group is promising to plant 1,600 new trees, over 2,400 shrubs, and 400 ornamental grasses with 3,000 perennials.  

Businesses in Ambler are guardedly optimistic. “We do expect to see an increase in customers once it’s complete,” said Jon Roesser, general manager of Weavers Way Coop. “Our belief is that folks who choose to move to the Mattison development are doing so because they want to be part of a densely populated, walkable community and we therefore expect they will be frequent customers of the co-op and the other businesses in downtown Ambler.” 

Meanwhile, what will happen to the castle? Leonard Ponica is keeping it for himself to lease out as office space.


A walk around Lindenwold Castle and the Richard Mattison estate. Photographs by Michael Bixler.

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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

13 Comments:

  1. Hartranft says:

    The wildlife that lived here are on their own; last summer a huge, old snapping turtle was wandering around, the lake is gone. It is disgusting what greed has done.

    1. I lived in that castle for 10 years what they did was destroyed a historical landmark that should of never been destroyed. Much art of gothic style design and the craftmanship of very skilled artist and stone masonry work and the interior design of expensive carved wood and stairwells every thing on that property was an expression of some of the greatest works of art in every way the style was incredable. And all the memories of beautiful times we had there. And two movies with Ida Lapino,Rosalind Russel June Harding and Mr French ECT. Than Mrs Russell and Lapino, had a Gym basket ball court indoors and a new kitchen and caffateria dinning room.plus they always had annual boy scout and girl scout jamboree some of the largest ones I ever seen. There was so much you can do and learn there. There is so much stories and history behind the orphanage. I am so shocked and disappointed. What a great loss of such a historical site. So sad.

  2. Concerned Ambler Resident says:

    Upper Dublin ripped out Ambler’s history, literally, by the roots. Pa Game & Fish we’re called because of the way they were handling the land’s wildlife.
    There have been severe accidents at the intersection of Bethlehem and Lindenwold once a month. And that’s before this monstrosity is completed.
    I don’t know what they did with all the wildlife that lived there but I saw pictures of dead animals laying on the property.
    This is the purest picture of greed by the UDBOC. As a lifelong resident of Ambler, I’m completely disgusted by Upper Dublin’s decision to rape our land.

  3. Ed Duffy says:

    Ah, fond memories from 1966, the filming there of ‘The Trouble with Angels’ starring Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell.

  4. susan says:

    Wasn’t this the site of filming the movie..In trouble with Angels
    Sad to see beauty go because of greed

  5. Pat Gray says:

    Disgusting, After everything Mr. Mattison gave that town back in the day, this is how your legacy lives on, by destroying your grand diamond of Ambler. Iam from Chester County and happen to have drove by and was mortified to see what some towns do for greed who got paid off. Where is global warming assets after you destroyed trees,gardens wildlife. I was heartbroken and don’t even live there. It goes on everywhere so so wrong. I have greedy neighbors here that just timber out all ground for greedy $$ And then encroach on other peoples property to hunt. So sad😪

    1. Donna says:

      I can’t believe they did this to historical the castle was beautiful. I Worked there back in the day. It had so much history. I hope the ppl that did this something evil happens to them.!!!

  6. Mama Jen B says:

    My wife was placed at St Mary’s in foster care twice. She was very mixed memories of her time there, but we remain greatly concerned about what will happen to things like furnishings, stone formations and statues that were important to memories and hallmarks for the children who were placed there. Does anyone have information on the disposition of these items? Throwing them away feels like throwing away the history and story of so many abused and neglected children who were placed there to heal.

  7. Eleanor ArmstrongEmery says:

    This is so sad. I remember ice skating every winter on the pond at St. Mary’s. We had so much fun. I am a graduate of Ambler High Class of 1960. I live in Doylestown now but every time I go through Ambler I have to remember my good times there and that beautiful property on Lindenwold Avenue. It is just horrible to ruin a Landmark like this.
    E.A.E

    1. Winni says:

      I remember too, Eleanor. The skating pond, with the lighted statue in the middle and beautiful music playing is one of my favorite childhood memories. We lived on the corner of Mattison Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. On winter evenings, we walked up Bethlehem to Lindenwold, past all the spooky houses, to the gate where one of the St. Mary’s nuns would greet us at the gate and take our quarter entrance fees. Sometimes there was no nun waiting and the quarters went into a metal box affixed to the stone gate. Do you remember the small stone shelter with a big fireplace(always burning) on one end and benches on either side were we could warm up and drink a cup of hot chocolate sold by the nuns for a nickel? Sitting and watching the fire was pure heaven.
      I wonder if the orphans at St. Mary’s skated at night. At the time I felt very sorry for them because I thought they were probably already in bed, but now I like to think that they also enjoyed the skating.
      The few nuns around were low key and though there was no notable supervision I don’t remember there ever being trouble, other than during the filming of The Trouble with Angels. There I saw Rosalind Russell, the quintessential movie star, with dark glasses, a leopard jacket and cigarette holder. Quelle glamorous! During one sleepover party, when I was about ten, we all snuck out and climbed the stone wall across Bethlehem Pike to explore the estate. The statues were quite spooky at night and we stumbled on what we though was a mausoleum. At dawn we all sat in our nightgowns on the stone wall and waved at the drivers going by on Bethlehem Pike. So many memories of Ambler. My best friend and I saw Jesus in the gorgeous old Episcopal church! The stories of Mattison’s life were many, mostly tragic. I don’t know how many of them were true. I think the house we lived in was haunted. My family moved from there to Doylestown in 1965, and you live there now. This morning I woke wondering whether anyone remembered skating at St. Mary’s. So glad you do. Wasn’t it beautiful? Do you know who the angelic statue in the skating pond represented? I’d guess St. Mary?

  8. Winni says:

    Eleanor, I meant to write that my family moved from the haunted house to Doylestown, and that you also live in Doylestown now. Not that you now live in the haunted house!

  9. Kathryn Dupuis says:

    Hello Eleanor. My name is Kathy Dupuis.I lived at Saint Mary’s orphanage in the 1950’s you only mentioned st Mary’s villa. How come. In 1950 ‘s it was an orphanage for boys and girls that were abused by their parents. So, me and my sisters lived ther until we graduated 8th grade.i would love to talk to you about my experience at St Mary’s.

  10. I too lived in St. Mary’s Home for Children.
    I was 6 years old in 1963 when my sister, brother and myself came to live in the beautiul Castle. The home was run by nuns. They were so good to the children who were either orphans or children from desperate homes. We went to school there, played in the rose garden and learned how to ice skate on the pond.
    I was chosen, as the youngest child there to have pictures with Ida Lupino and Roseline Russell on the front steps of the Castle.Wish I had those pictures today. I remember the filming of The Trouble With Angles. Good memories during troubling times in my life. So sad to see these pictures of whats happening to that beautiful area. They call this progress. Nothing is sacred anymore.

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