by Barbara L. Sherf
At one time, the palatial home of Henry McIlhenny was the home of one of one of the most remarkable private collections of art in the United States Today the large estate home of what was formerly known as Park Gate is a moldering, lost hulk of a building hidden in a stand of trees just above Lincoln Drive at 6340 Wayne Avenue next to Lingelbach Elementary School.
Despite the bad shape of the house, efforts to preserve the property continue thanks to J. Patrick Moran, vice president for advocacy at the Germantown Historical Society, and a handful of hearty volunteers. Moran has spent hours putting together the initial application to get Park Gate listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places before it falls into further disrepair.
On a recent visit to Park Gate, Moran shared his thoughts on possible outcomes for the property.
“If something is not done, it may well be torn down or allowed to fall down,” Moran said. But wouldn’t it be wiser to explore useful alternatives that could save the house and allow it to become a Northwest landmark once again.
“In a perfect world, for example, the disparate cultural and community groups from throughout the Northwest might be housed in one outstanding location and also serve as a resource akin to a Northwest Philadelphia Cultural Center. It’s rich in architectural detail,” he noted standing outside of the boarded up mansion overlooking a weed-filled lot.
Moran is one of the few to have been inside the property in recent years. He was permitted on a brief tour two years ago.
“There is no electricity inside, so I used my phone as a light source and took some photographs with a flash,” he said while standing on the steps of the main building. “It was like visiting the Titanic, seeing those rooms that once held such important works of art. While there is a lot of damage from water infiltration, it is limited to certain areas and some areas, like the oak paneled stair hall, are relatively intact.”
At one time, the McIlhenny house was the home of numerous works of art by European masters. McIlhenny had collected the works during World War II when European contacts sent him the pieces for safekeeping from the Nazis. Among the artists McIlhenny had hanging in his home were: Pierre-August Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas. McIlhenny’s collection was lent at various times to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, earning the man a seat on the museum board.
The first application for preserving the house was reviewed and declined pending a number of clarifications, including a precise description of the lot size that will be bound by inclusion on the register. In December, Moran submitted a draft of the second submission with the additional information and is waiting to hear back on the outcome.
“The building is very important to the community and we want to be sure that the next time we submit the full application that it reflects all the changes and additional information that will make it a strong prospect for inclusion on the register,” Moran said from his home, located not far from the vacant mansion on Lincoln Drive
In the application, Moran argues that “Park Gate and the life, interests, achievements and impact of the McIlhenny family, make it a unique contributor to the social, historical, and architectural heritage of Germantown and Mt. Airy, and also of Philadelphia.
“Following his mother’s death, Henry McIlhenny, longtime Philadelphia Museum of Art Curator and later PMA Board chair, sold the estate to Fredric Mann (after whom the Mann Music Center was named) and moved to Rittenhouse Square to pursue a second phase of art collecting. The Manns decided that they did not want to live in the house, and the estate was sold again two years later, to the Philadelphia School District (PSD).”
As a result, PSD dismantled a stable that once stood on the property but left the house intact. The stable area and lawns were blacktopped for parking and PSD erected the Lingelbach Elementary School where the formal gardens once stood.
At one time, there was a winding driveway from Lincoln Drive, near Johnson Street, to the front entrance. Currently, the only automobile access to Park Gate is through the fenced-in parking lot of the school, at the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Johnson Street.
The stone gates, after which the house was named, remain on Lincoln Drive, marking an entrance to the Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park. The matching gates were a gift from prominent investment banker Edward Stotesbury to the community in 1900.
In terms of preservation, in its public position paper, the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia has recommended that Park Gate be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places “so that the property is protected from demolition and adverse alteration.”
“The School District needs to recognize the distinctive nature of this historic property and evaluate whether it fits into its long-term needs,” the paper reads. “If not, the School District should place preservation easements on the property and seek a buyer to restore the structure and return it to an active function.”
The school district has not provided a comment for this story.
Moran, explains in the application why Park Gate is historically and architecturally significant in excerpts from the exhaustive GHS application.
“Park Gate is a remarkable example of an American country house in the early Tudor style,” the application reads. “The house was designed in 1910 by the design firm of Durhring, Okie & Ziegler, which significantly influenced the architectural development of Philadelphia. All three partners were regularly published in influential architectural publications, such as the American Country Houses of Today series, in the beginning of the 20th century.
In a 1920 issue of The America Architect, a critic wrote ‘it is to be hoped that Mr. McIlhenny’s example may find many followers, and that we may find more specimens of truly great art brought into closer contact with our daily life.’”
Moran went on to point out that there are several examples of similarly derelict properties that are being restored such as a historic home that once belonged to a member of the Pastorius family on Price Street in Germantown.
“Hopefully these efforts nearby may contribute a good outcome for the house,” Moran said. “Currently the pergola site below the mansion is undergoing restoration, and a science teacher from the Lingelbach School has been inspired to create a fitness trail on the slope below the school and adjacent to the pergolas as a result of the improvements that are being made.
“The Presser Home on nearby Johnson Street was just as derelict and is a great example of a building once thought to be a lost cause that is being successfully restored for an adaptive reuse.”
On a personal level, Moran recalls his mother telling stories of visiting the home on a Halloween evening in the 1930’s and being mesmerized by its size and beauty. His parents and grandparents on both sides of the family grew up in the Germantown/Mt. Airy area. Moran pointed out that although many interior elements have been stolen, some remain.
“You can see in the 45-minutes we’ve been here that there is limited security, he said.”
Still, you can envision the charm and beauty this place once possessed. You can see what it was and what it could be again.”
One winter morning, Moran found a discarded newel post to the hall banister in the snow outside of the home and he has stored it in his garage.
“I would love to hand it over to a preservation effort, to be included in a restoration of the house one day,” he said.
To follow the status of the application or to learn more about efforts to preserve this and other important Northwest Philadelphia sites, call the Germantown Historical Society at 215 844-1683 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Sherf can be reached at 215-233-8022 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.