Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Spring 2023 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
In the first episode of the 2022 Discovery+ reality show Queen of Versailles Reigns Again, Jackie Siegel steps off her helicopter ready to inspect progress on the 90,000-square-foot mansion she and her husband are building. Siegel, a former engineer married to billionaire timeshare magnate David Siegel, founder of Westgate Resorts, has resumed the task of finishing the Florida mansion named for the Palace of Versailles after recovering from the financial crisis of 2008. When complete, Versailles will not only be the largest single-family home in America (“the size of a Super Walmart” is Siegel’s go-to comparison), but also the first with its very own Benihana kitchen, an exotic “bird garden,” and a pub with a 19th century bar interior shipped overseas from England. Although it may seem crass by comparison, the Siegels’ Versailles is just a contemporary spin on “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined during the Gilded Age by sociologist Thorstein Veblen. And while these ostentatious overtures highlight now, to an absurd degree, the disparity of wealth in our country, much as they did more than a hundred years ago, the success of that TV show (recently picked up for a second run on HBO), along with the same network’s eponymous historical drama, sure seems to prove that we do appreciate the spectacle.
Visitation rates to Gilded Age estates confirm it, too. George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina sees 1.4 million visitors a year. Newport, Rhode Island’s mansions draw nearly 1 million visitors annually, although most people come to see the most famous mansion–The Breakers, another Biltmore family estate. Closer to Philadelphia, former DuPont estates of Winterthur and Longwood Gardens bring visitors in the hundreds of thousands each year. Both also operate as cultural institutions, supporting extensive educational and research programs in the decorative arts and horticulture, respectively.
On a more modest scale, Philadelphia estates like Glen Foerd overlooking the Delaware River in Torresdale, Henry Mercer’s one-of-a-kind Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, and the Haas family’s Stoneleigh Estate have been revived as historic house museums, event venues, and publicly-accessible grounds or gardens. The pre-Gilded Age Ryerss Mansion in Fox Chase, impressively situated on one of the city’s highest vistas in Burholme Park, has served as a museum and Free Library of Philadelphia branch since the early 20th century, left to the City along with an endowment for upkeep in Joseph Ryerss’ will.
Most grand estates in the region, however, are now incorporated into college campuses or other institutions large enough to occupy and repurpose them as classrooms or dormitories. Many, like Cabrini College’s Woodcrest, the Joseph Sinnott Mansion at Rosemont College, Grey Towers at Arcadia University, and Dundale at Villanova have become defining features of their campuses, touchstones for student life.
Lending their impressive stature to imply a cultured worldliness reminiscent of Europe, Gilded Age mansions may be living their ideal afterlife as Instagrammable wedding backdrops, Hogwarts-style dormitories, or tourist-attracting grounds and gardens, but what would a truly radical approach to reappropriating these massive private residences to public uses be? Glen Foerd, for example, offers a popular Artist in Residency program that gives participants access to the site and collections, encouraging artists to explore themes related to environmental conservation, wealth inequality, race, industrialization and other contemporary social issues–themes reinforced by their regular programming.
Stoneleigh, donated to Natural Lands in 2016, opened its grounds to the public with a mission to “celebrate the beauty of native plants and the importance of biodiversity.” One wonders what other creative adaptations might be possible for such extravagant places?
The Last American Versailles
The question is relevant given that the fate of one of the Philadelphia area’s most impressive mansions currently remains in limbo. Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, built between 1897 and 1899 for Peter A.B. Widener by architect Horace Trumbauer, is the largest surviving Gilded Age mansion in the immediate region. Once called “the last of the American Versailles” by Widener’s grandson, the Neoclassical Revival behemoth clocks in at 110 rooms and is outfitted with five art galleries, which were open to the public by appointment during Widener’s days. The mansion was home to our generations of Wideners until it was purchased in 1944 to house the Faith Theological Seminary (seminaries and convents being another common second life for lavish, oversized properties). The ensuing years defined a period of deferred maintenance. Some pieces were sold to help support operations and maintenance costs, but when part of the roof began to leak, the seminary moved out
Now, a newly formed preservation group wants to buy it. The property’s current owner, Dr. Richard Yoon, attended the seminary and purchased the estate at the sheriff’s sale in 1996 with the hope of establishing a congregation there. Yoon has spent more than 20 years covering a six-figure tax bill, struggling to stay on top of maintenance and battling with Cheltenham Township over zoning changes that would need to happen to allow for its use as a church. It seems he may be ready to pass the torch. “We have the intention to acquire Lynnewood Hall,” Angie van Scyoc told Hidden City Philadelphia in a July 2022 article about the mansion. While the group declined to be interviewed for this story, their website, lynnewoodhallpreservation.org, outlines a vision to raise funds to acquire the property, preserve it, and to put it back into productive use for the community. The group is currently working on a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the property, which would open up the possibility of applying for tax credits for its rehabilitation.
An Aspirational Style
Watching Versailles’ contractor break the news to Siegel that the building’s marble cladding, sourced from an Italian quarry, purchased by the Siegels, and installed a mere 12 years prior, is falling and likely needs to be replaced entirely drives home another point: these extravagant spectacles can be prohibitively expensive and inefficient to maintain. “You know, Mark Twain coined the term ‘the Gilded Age,’” mused Holly Boyer, who is a project architect with Trenton-based firm Historic Building Architects LLC. “What he meant was that things looked opulent on the surface, but were corrupt or imperfect on the inside,” she continued. “He meant it socioeconomically, but I think it’s kind of appropriate when it comes to the architecture itself.”
Boyer has worked on the restoration of two Gilded Age mansions similar in size to Lynnewood Hall: Hennessy Hall, designed by Stanford White in the 1890s and now part of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey and a 1906 mansion built for mining engineer Hennen Jennings and repurposed as the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. As building technologies evolved at the turn of the century, the materials and engineering used to achieve the look of many of these estates also shifted. Limestone detailing was replaced by terracotta, which can be much more challenging, and expensive, to replace and restore, and they tend to be full of encased steel framing systems that rust and corrode over time. Adapting outdated heating and (nonexistent) cooling systems presents another challenge: many of these massive houses were built with steam heat systems, which are incredibly costly to operate. Most were designed to heat the whole house without any option to heat solely one portion. They also typically entail walls full of asbestos-wrapped pipes that need careful abatement if they’re to be removed.
While these mansions were often designed with the individual owner’s preferences in mind, they often aren’t particularly unique. “When you’re talking about architects like Trumbauer and materials like oak and marble sheathing,” said architectural history professor Lydia Mattice Brandt. “People’s only impulse is to restore it to what it was, but that often can be really limiting from a financial and intellectual point of view.” One of the interesting things about the Gilded Age, she pointed out, is that everyone was striving for the same things. “It’s a lot like what we see on Instagram right now,” she laughed. The prevalence of catalogs and mass-produced interior finishes and decorative elements were conducive to the aspirational nature of the buyers. It was also a very well- documented period of architecture. Drawings and documentation are available for many of these estates.
A Wider Context
Over the past few decades, historic preservation, as a field, has shifted to be less architecture-centric and more inclusive, focused on telling stories of a range of groups typically excluded from the historical canon. From that perspective, rallying for financial support to restore another robber baron mansion may not seem like an urgent priority. But that’s reactionary simplification that doesn’t do Lynnewood Hall’s historical context or possibility for creative adaptation justice, said Aaron Wunsch, who teaches architectural history and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. According to Wunsch, it’s a paucity of imagination that limits our ability to conceive of creative, public serving uses for such a space.
Step one is situating Lynnewood Hall in its wider context. “That whole area used to be part of a larger tract called Chelten Hills,” said Wunsch, which he said was quite diverse, both socially and architecturally. While Lynnewood Hall and other massive estates, including Jay Cook’s Ogontz estate and the relatively more modest Trumbauer-designed Stetson estate, anchored the northwest, Chelten Hills was also home to Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, whose former residence “Roadside” is commemorated with a historical marker along Latham Parkway. Also noteworthy, explained Wunsch, was a Union training ground for Black troops called Camp William Penn and Camptown, a working-class integrated suburb.
“There is a legacy of progressive thinking about land use and housing [in the area] that would be really interesting to try to engage,” said Wunsch, envisioning Lynnewood Hall’s restoration as the initial means to connect the disparate dots. But its preservation will require some serious creativity, Wunsch cautioned, since the vast rooms and open spaces can present tricky design challenges. “Lynnewood Hall is really in a league of its own,” said Wunsch. “It’s almost Roman in its scale and complexity.”
In other words, preservationists need to tap the unrestrained imaginative thinking that created these lavish sites in order to repurpose them. Institutions and nonprofits lack Siegel’s unlimited funds, of course. It’s clear that the sky’s the limit, as she casually mentioned flying to Indonesia to hand-select millions of dollars’ worth of gemstones to be inlaid to create a dramatic ballroom floor. But the inventiveness that emerges from a thorough understanding of place and context and rigorous historical study defines the best creative reuse projects today. A little playfulness and vision can activate layers of meaning that make repurposed places as diverse as Eastern State Penitentiary or Theaster Gates’ rehabilitation projects in Chicago’s historically Black neighborhoods feel both innovative and obvious. For further inspiration, Wunsch suggests looking to Europe, where adaptive reuse of all building types–from monasteries and churches to factories and relics of industrial infrastructure–and repurposing existing buildings to creative, irreverent and often socially minded new uses has become the norm.
In its semi-ruined state, Lynnewood Hall is ripe for such thoughtful reimagination. While logistically this massive mansion presents some design challenges, it also offers an opportunity to set a new standard for preservation and perhaps make a little Gilded Age luxury accessible to all.
As the Spring 2023 issue of Extant was going to press, news broke that Lynnewood Hall Preservation Foundation had reached an agreement of sale for the 110-room Gilded Age mansion, its outbuildings, and its grounds.