After languishing for decades, Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park appears to be on its way to a new life. A passionate group of preservationists just closed on the sale of the estate today.
Lynnewood Hall was built between 1897 and 1900 for the scion of the wealthy Philadelphia Widener family by noted architect Horace Trumbauer. It is the largest remaining Gilded Age mansion in the region.
Widener had made fortunes in multiple business endeavors, including streetcars, steel, and tobacco. He built the 110 room Neoclassical Revival mansion with a dual purpose: to house his enormous art collection and to keep his sons and their families close by after the death of his wife. The estate remained in the family until the 1940s, when it was purchased by the Faith Theological Seminary, which occupied it for the next four decades. The current owner, a former student of the seminary, intended to reopen the site, but, lacking the means, has left it vacant for decades.
The Lynnewood Hall Preservation Foundation (LHPF) was quietly formed in 2019 as a small group of preservation-minded individuals who shared a fascination with the storied building. One of them, Edward Thome, had built a personal relationship with the owner, Dr. Richard Yoon of the Korean Presbyterian Church of New York. This enabled the organization access to the building and permission to do cleaning and some maintenance.
In July 2022, LHPF went public with its intentions to purchase and restore the estate. The organization announced a basic timeline which began with a fundraising goal of $10-15 million to acquire and stabilize the building and fund an operational capital budget, a lofty endeavor for even a much larger and established organization. A goal of that size seemed likely to require many years to achieve. Surprisingly, one year later, it has raised $9.8 million thanks to a particularly large gift from its board president Scott Bentley and his wife, fellow board member Susan Bentley.
Today LHPF officially closed on the purchase of Lynnewood Hall and hired three of its members as the organization’s staff. “We are proud to play a role in bringing the property back to its former glory and making it available to everyone, particularly its neighbors in Cheltenham Township,” Bentley wrote in an email.
The largest historic mansion in the area has an equally large to-do list. First up, “Roof repairs and fixing windows to keep the weather out,” said Thome, now executive director of LHPF. “Winters, and the water they bring, are hard on houses.”
Jennifer Robinson, board secretary of LHPF and director of preservation services at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia added, “We’ve already started on asbestos remediation. Until that is done, we are limited on what parts of the house can be accessible to the public.”
Other work already completed or underway includes a security system in and outside the house and at the gates and lighting improvements to provide a presence along Ashbourne Road. The latter features a changeable color scheme designed by facilities site manager Tyler Schumacher, who noted that it will be glowing red, white, and blue for Independence Day next week.
They are not just focusing on the interior. “By next year we hope to have the grounds available to the community to some degree,” said Angie Van Scyoc, chief operations officer of LHPF.
Two other buildings on the 34-acre property, a 16,000 square foot lodge and 5,000 square foot gatehouse, will also be stabilized. “They require more work because their foundations are timber, unlike the steel used in the house,” explained Thome.
Recalling how Peter Widener would open the house to public visitors regularly to view his art collection, the new owners have a similar aspiration, tempered with a realistic timeframe. “There is a lot of interest in having people come here, but there is a lot of work to do before that can happen,” said Robinson. “So we are thinking, ‘What can we do to get there without having to wait for everything to be done?’”
Although Widener’s massive art collection is long gone, the organization wants art to play a role in the estate’s next phase. “This house was built for Widener’s art, as well as his family,” explained Van Scyoc, recalling the five art galleries and other rooms that had been designed around certain artworks. “So, art will be a part of it now.”
LHPF sees the potential for Lynnewood Hall going far beyond its historic mansion status. It envisions possibly hosting the presentation and study of art, culinary work, skilled building trades, local history, and horticultural pursuits. “In every aspect of this project we want to incorporate educational components,” said Van Scyoc.
LHPF does not plan to do it all on their own. The organization aspires to involve other historical, cultural, and educational institutions, offering the estate as a tableau for study and events. LHPF has already taken a few steps in this direction. It brought historic preservation and regional planning students from Cornell University in for a weekend of grounds maintenance and interior cleaning in May and hosted a photo shoot for an Australian fashion designer in the mansion’s great hall a few weeks ago.
The organization is taking a practical approach to its restoration plans, first tackling stabilization work and then focusing on rooms and areas based on need or potential uses. However, after spending the past few years exploring the vast expanses of the estate, each will admit to having personal favorites.
For Schumacher, it is the billiards room, library, and curio room, which are all in a row. “There’s not as heavy a lift to bring these rooms back,” he pointed out. Thome concurred, adding “The library bookcases are all black walnut. They are stunning and in amazingly good shape, considering there has been no heat in the building for 25 years.”
“I love the smoking room,” said Robinson. “In contrast to the gilding in other rooms, I love the dark, rich woodwork as well as the hidden bookcases and the secret door that leads to a bathroom with an alabaster sink.”
“I really like the kitchen and its whole grouping of rooms, including the bake shop and the scullery,” said Van Scyoc. “It reminds you that Lynnewood Hall is like America’s Downton Abbey.” Thome agreed, noting “Everything that went on upstairs depended upon all the activities downstairs.”
For his part, Thome’s choice is the Van Dyck gallery, the final of the row of interconnecting rooms, each built for a specific collection: Rembrandts, Bellinis, Italian Renaissance works, and the Van Dycks, with a fifth gallery for other works located near the grand entrance hall. Thome believes it is the most beautiful of the five, but sadly it needs the most restoration. When the gallery experienced roof leaks in the 1960s, the seminary closed it off. This room appeared to be especially important to the family. It was the site of Peter Widener’s private funeral and also a family wedding.
Other facets of Lynnewood Hall’s legacy have surfaced in the area recently. Bentley, who is now LHPF’s board president, is an active supporter of the Colebrookdale Railroad, which operates excursions between Berks and Montgomery Counties on restored steam engine trains and parlor cars. He recently facilitated the railroad’s purchase of the Lynnewood, a Pullman personal business railway car built in 1917 for Joseph Early Widener, Peter Widener’s son. “Some of the architectural details in the railway car mirror those in the house,” said Thome, noting that Widener likely used the railway car to travel from Pennsylvania to Florida and Kentucky in pursuit of his horse racing enterprises.
Thome also referred to a recent sale of a 1939 custom Cadillac, one of two that Widener ordered, in the same color scheme as the railway car. “The sale seems to have been in Pennsylvania, so there’s more of Lynnewood Hall in the state,” Thome observed.
LHPF has moved with lightning speed towards this first phase of its restoration plan. Nevertheless, it is a very long road ahead to reach their dream of an estate brought back to its original grandeur and hosting a multitude of amenities for its community. Farther along, the organization will be seeking to expand its numbers. For now, Robinson cautions that much more stabilization and safety work must be done before visitors and volunteers can be welcomed in securely.