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.
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.
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.
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.