Greylock Mansion (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

Greylock Mansion (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by MegAnne Liebsch

After years of abandonment, Chestnut Hill’s historic Greylock Mansion, at 208 W. Chestnut Hill Ave., is going up for sheriff’s sale on Sept. 13 for $98,000. The mansion’s owner, Greylock Holdings LLC, has defaulted on the mortgage and is delinquent on three years of taxes, totaling nearly $90,000 as of 2016.

After being vacant and vandalized for nearly a decade, Greylock has an opportunity to be saved from falling into disrepair. There’s just one small catch for some potential buyers: As a historical property, Greylock has conservation easements protecting it from most development.

There are two main easements on the property. The first protects the grounds of the mansion, preventing any development of the green space and controlling water runoff into the Wissahickon Watershed. The second easement protects the façade of the mansion and the carriage house, citing them as significant buildings in Chestnut Hill’s Historic Register.

“Those easements are written in blood, in my opinion,” said Brad Bank, a resident of West Chestnut Hill Avenue and a member of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. “CHHS and the Friends of the Wissahickon have a responsibility to vigorously defend the easements.”

Wyndmoor resident Jack Bellis was originally interested in buying the property at the sheriff’s sale, but the easements were a deterrent for him.

“I believe the easements make it so unappealing that it might not sell at all or it might crumble to dust before people buy it,” Bellis said.

Bellis explained that he wanted to buy the mansion with a few of his friends as partners to split the cost of the restoration, utilities and $36,000 a year in taxes. His plan was to turn the inside of the mansion into as many as nine condominiums. With the easements and the expensive upkeep, however, Bellis said he and his partners may not be able to buy Greylock.

Though the easements allow for up to 12 units to be built in the mansion and carriage house, the site only has 11 possible parking spaces, and the conservation easements protect against adding any more impervious blacktops—a stipulation the neighbors of the mansion are particularly keen on seeing upheld.

For many of the easement stipulations, the phrase is “with CHHS approval.” In other words, a developer or future owner can propose a number of changes to the property that would comply with some of the easements, but the CHHS still holds the power to veto their proposal.

Bank explained that CHHS often allows developers to propose amendments to easements on properties around Chestnut Hill, but they rarely agree to them. Their attitude of “anything is possible” can be misleading to developers and homeowners. Bank said he wants CHHS to be tougher with people upfront and say that they will only hear proposals that abide by the easements.

“Our policy on amending conservation easements only permits us to amend the easements if it enhances the conservation value,” said CHHS’s Board Vice-President of easements Karren DeSeve.

CHHS Executive Director Lori Salganicoff added, “It is unusual for us to amend an easement, but we have done that in the past to accommodate appropriate change where conservation benefits. We are open to scenarios that would improve the conservation benefit and usefulness of the property.”

Salganicoff hopes to balance the views and interests of both potential developers and concerned preservationists.

“We need to be really clear as early as possible with what would be appropriate [for the site],” she said. “At the same time, we need to allow for creative thinking.”

Built by Pittsburgh Steel magnate Henry Laughlin in 1909, Greylock is situated on more than five acres of land. The three-story mansion was designed by William J. Carpenter and constructed with stone quarried on the property. Eventually, the property was sold to an order of nuns, and the mansion became a nursing home for more than 50 years.

Greylock was then bought by USABancShares (also known as Nova Bank) to be used as a corporate headquarters. The company negotiated with the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (CHHS) to use it for non-residential purposes (specifically corporate offices) as long as conservation easements were in place to protect the façade and integrity of the mansion grounds. The easements also gave BancShares a monumental tax break.

In 2006, due to stock market losses at BancShares, the property was transferred to an investor and lawyer for BancShares, Thomas Maiorino under the name of Greylock Holdings LLC. Greylock has since defaulted on the mortgage and is delinquent on three years of taxes, forcing the mansion to go to sheriff’s sale after being on the market for two years.

The mansion currently is owned by the FDIC as part of TARP, which allows the government to purchase toxic assets from financial institutions to protect investments and financial stability.

This spring, BancShares’ CEO and chairman were found guilty of defrauding the TARP program of $13.5 million. Through a series of circular transactions with a third party, the two made it seem like the bank had the $15 million in investment funding to qualify for TARP. The FDIC estimates that the bank’s failure has cost it $91.2 million, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

In most cases, properties that go up for sheriff’s sale due to mortgage foreclosure are bought back by the bank. Bellis, however, said he’s not sure that the FDIC will want this mansion either.

Since 2006, the property has been mostly vacant and vandalized. Plumbing and electrical wires have been torn up and taken, so the building will need renovation to restore those utilities. Due to lack of upkeep, the roof leaks and ivy has grown into the mortar of the house.

Greylock Mansion on the map. The red pin is on the home’s carriage house. The mansion is below.

Greylock Mansion on the map. The red pin is on the home’s carriage house. The mansion is below.

In buying Greylock, the FDIC would be taking on a full restoration of the house, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then it would face putting the property up for sale again after two unsuccessful years on the market.

With living space tight in Chestnut Hill, Greylock would be a prime location for developers to create more housing. Bank is concerned that interested buyers won’t read the easements or take them seriously.

In 2011, Green Wood Charter attempted to buy the property as a new location for the school. The CHHS unanimously denied proposals to amend some of the easements to accommodate the school’s use of the property.

Many of Greylock’s neighbors fought against Green Wood’s proposal because it would go against the traffic zoning that prevents more than 75 visitors on the property a day. Neighbors were concerned about the increased foot-traffic that a school would create in a residential neighborhood.

Bank said he hoped that the sheriff’s sale will be different. He hopes this time that only people who wish to preserve the easements will buy the house.

“As someone who restores houses, I would love to see somebody restore it,” Bank said.

Bellis, on the other hand, said the easements are holding the property back from being preserved. He is worried that Greylock will be demolished just like Whitemarsh Hall, an opulent Chestnut Hill mansion built by Edward Stotesbury and worth upwards of $12 million. Whitemarsh was demolished in 1980 because of its exorbitant upkeep and lack of solid ownership. All that remains of this grand six-story house are some columns and sculptures.

Though Bellis noted that the easements are well-intentioned, the combination of the interests of the tax-burdened BancShares and Greylock Holdings, the CHHS and the mansion’s neighbors’ traffic zoning requests have led to a situation where the property may fall into disrepair.

Bank admits that he is also worried about the fate of the Mansion. “It’s hard to sell a property that can’t be developed,” he said.

Salganicoff explained that CHHS doesn’t want to lead anyone down the wrong path when it comes to amending the easements, but they want to encourage creativity in finding a way to preserve the site and make it useful. “We want to be realistic and engaged with this, but our job is to defend and protect the site,” she said.

Salganicoff added, “The ultimate goal is conservation of the site, preservation of the watershed and appropriate reuse of this treasure.”

  • James Goodwin

    Bankruptcy court can clear the easements and allow people to bid on it. Whether they keep the building as is by renovating it or demoing it and building exactly what they want to build would be up to them. To keep the easements would only serve to deter people from wanting to invest in either preserving the building or building more houses on the 5 acres of land.

    • Jack Bellis

      Mr. Goodwin,
      Can you explain more about the certitude with which you state that “bankruptcy court can clear the easements?” I am not a real estate insider or an attorney, but I’m not aware of a bankruptcy court being involved. (A bank, not an individual, went under; the FDIC took its assets; among the assets was Greylock, a house no one wants, that no one is feasibly allowed to improve to the point of being valuable.) Is that an action that an uninvolved party can initiate? Are you making a blanket statement that you know to pertain to these types of easements? We are not talking about a shared driveway but a much different matter:
      Thanks, Jack Bellis

      • James Goodwin

        Where are you going to get bidders if nobody will bid on this project with protected easements? School District and bank want their money. Only way to have full auction is to remove easements and then bidders will come to make serious bids. Whether the winner will preserve property even with historic protection easements removed will be up to him or her to make. You might get lucky a developer will preserve property and market it as an executive home or demo it and build three new executive type homes.

        • Observer

          Bankruptcy applies to owner of property not holder of easements, real estate 101. If this sells for market price taking into the account the valid easement restrictions there are viable money making uses such as condos which are allowed within the existing building envelope. It could go for a few hundred thousand. At worst it becomes beautiful parkland, at best the price drops way down and someone buys it for a home or limited condos. Read the Chhs descriptions. Don’t overreact.

          • Chester Longbridge

            The historic easements flow through to the condo owners. There is no way a developer would be able to sell condos with these restrictions. People would be crazy to purchase a condo with these easements in place. Read the fine print.

          • Jack Bellis

            Woohoo! The most important thing in the 100-plus year history of Greylock has just occurred: the Chestnut Hill Historical Society has started to actually converse with the public!!! Only someone at the CHHS would refer to the “building envelope” and feel it necessary to tell us that the draconian, overreaching terms of the easement (written in blood, no less) are valid. We’ll call “Observer” Ms. Salganicoff (the top of the house of the CHHS) and let him or her tell us otherwise;it really doesn’t matter. I suspect it’s the person who wrote the easement document and lives very close to Greylock.

            Ms. Salganicoff,
            Here is what you must do to change the easement document from one that is destroying the mansion to one that supports the genuine spirit of “historical preservation” and “environmental conservation” rather than focuses overly on the zoning-intensive demands of the neighbors, which should be the job of the zoning authority:
            1. Remove every instance of “with the prior approval of the CHHS.” (One either can or can’t install a swimming pool and tennis court.)
            2. Leave all of the environmental runoff/impermeable surface requirements; they’re reasonable. Parking spaces can be added with gravel.
            3. Rewrite pretty much the rest of the documents to indicate:
            – The wall facing Chestnut Hill Avenue must not be changed other than removing the fire escape.
            – The wall and portico facing the park must not be changed.
            – The footprint of the other walls of the mansion and all of the walls of the Carriage House must not be changed. (This will allow modern windows, which by the way will NEVER be seen at all by the public.)
            – Daily traffic must not exceed 100 cars per day.
            – Truck or bus traffic to the property other than once-daily mail and parcel service is not allowed. (These are the legitimate zoning concerns and valid expectations of neighbors.)
            4. Remove all of the conditions regarding legal fees and insurance remediation.
            5. Change the requirements about events to allow paid events four times per year.
            6. Remove the oppressive Maintenance Standards and let the owners own their property… or else have the people of Chestnut Hill pay for that level of upkeep and scrutiny. It might be a nice relic but it’s neither sacred nor spectacular.

          • chazz

            Mssr: Bellis et al:
            Fascinating indeed. As an architect I love these dense and difficult projects, and the disasters of zoning regs and easements written as literature. The fact is that the CHHS cannot require the impossible — and yes the windows can be replaced “in kind” with new insulated glass, or if historic photos are available — as they may have been when original. There is a slight perviesion that says that what existing when the facade easment was written is what has to be retained. It is ‘shutter’ nonsense.

            It is also quiet possible to preserve the exterior walls and remove the entire interior (everything) because the roof has been “let to die” making the floors and what is left of the interior walls unsafe for their “intended” purpose. I nderstand that everything has been stripped. This is optimal for a facade-to-roof renovation at less cost than trying to preserve old damaged floors and interior finishes. As for the nuns having institutionalizing the interiors — there aught to be a law…

            A good client makes a good renovation. The CHHS would be but a small pebble in one’s shoe… that being said by a “far neighbor” not a “near neighbor.”

          • Jack Bellis

            There is virtually nothing in the requirements about the interior, except for the requirement about splitting the mansion into up to 9 condominiums… and what that would clearly imply about the interior. I’d say that the word “interior” does not even appear in the documents, but most of the pages are images, not searchable text. And I was told by someone who should know, that “they never come inside, they can’t.”

            Sounds like good points about the windows, but I’m pretty sure that the window sizes were unlikely to ever have been larger, and size is the main issue. I don’t have good photos of the exterior, but the ones I do have make me think this isn’t quite as bad as my original concern. A lot of the windows I see (even searching google) are double- or triple-frames, so replacing with a single panel would be a big improvement. The carriage house is a definite example of the problem, though. Its main wall has only little portholes, and the easement terms are definite about not altering that wall. Getting back to the mansion, the easement terms are so restrictive—and threatening with unlimited and undefined legal fee compensation by the homeowner—that even what you and I presume to be sensible changes to the likely second and third floor residence upgrades, cannot be presumed safe.

          • Illegible

            but a free and clear tax sale might extinguish all pending claims including the easement. I wonder if this easement has a public protection by law to survive a truly free and clear sale.

      • Illegible

        late join: it is possible that a full judical tax sale, free and clear, would clear the easement like all other liens: unless the easement has a protected public status. I’ve been wondering about all these “conservation” easements, they might be a bluff. When no one buys the place at any sale it will go to the highest bidder free and clear and extinguish prior claims.

    • robert the bruce

      Yeah, I don’t see how a court can clear the easements. It certainly seems that those easements have prevented any feasible use of the property. Who granted and took the write-offs for those easements ?

      • Jack Bellis

        Who? The useful answer is “financially distressed people who probably had little interest in arguing the fine print that would affect—they reasoned—only future owners once they got their checks.” The literal answer is “vBank/ V Bank/ Nova Bank/ USABancshares” signed the first easement in scribbled names, one of which is legible and is also, as MegAnne states, their investor and lawyer, who then took over the ownership and in turn singed the second easement document.

        • Chester Longbridge

          Nova Bank gave the easement on Greylock to Chestnut Hill Historical Society in 2004 for a hefty tax deduction. At that time CHHS could place any value on the historic easement they wanted. The IRS has since cracked down on this scam. On Friday, October 26, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities closed NOVA Bank, Berwyn, PA and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was named Receiver. They were charged with defrauding TARP of $13,500,000. See the article

          Try to find the principals behind Nova Bank or USABankshares. It is an unending string of paper companies concealing the true ownership. Why all the secrecy?

          Sounds like another dirty deal involving CHHS.

          • Jack Bellis

            Mr. Longbridge,
            Do you have any details on the actual tax deduction amounts claimed because of any of the easements? This is one of the last remaining unexposed details of the whole affair. It’s a fascinating matter. It would make sense that one deducts the amount by which the property resale value was reduced. In retrospect, with Greylock decimated (reduced to a tenth or less) they might not have claimed enough.

          • Chester Longbridge

            Mr Bellis

            Thank you for your post. I too have tried to research this but Nova Bank, previously USABancshares is in receivership by the FDIC. I have heard figures bantered about estimating that the facade easement used to be worth 15% of the transfer price of the property. When the USABankshares attorney, Thomas Maiorino purchased the house in 2004 the transfer price was $1,600,000. Fifteen percent of that would be just shy of a quarter of a million dollars. Not bad for a piece of paper dooming this property to at best an uncertain future.

            I found an article online that indicated USABancshares anticipated getting $3M for Greylock but I can’t find any specific information verifying that amount. If that were true then USABancshares would probably have received a tax credit for $450K (based on the 15% estimate) and then Nova Bank got another $250K.

            It could very well be substantially more than this. At that time the facade easements were valued at anything they wanted. In 1990 Snowden donated $275,000 to CHHS for the purchase of the easement on Hollowood the day before he purchased it. He only paid $516,250 for the property so in this case the easement exceeded 50% of the transfer price. He went to closing with $241,250 and CHHS picked up the balance with their easement purchase check.

            I have seen other articles recently that indicate that some of these easements actually have a negative value. The IRS has cracked down on the appraisers and has actually banned or disqualified some appraisers from the process.

          • robert the bruce

            The consideration, that is value, of the easement should be documented in the 132 pages held by CHHS. As you pointed out, CHHS has bought easements valued at more than half the market value (Hollowood).

          • Jack Bellis

            Page 2 of the full package, the Recording Information Summary (RIS) shows in box “3. Deed Consideration/Mortgage Amount… $1.00”. The RIS for the amendment, page 72, has no amount box.

          • robert the bruce

            Probably means CHHS gave $1, but a tax deduction would be based on loss of market value as determined by an appraiser.

      • Illegible

        late join: I wonder if a free and clear judicial tax sale would clear the easement. Unless this right has some kind of public status? Otherwise we could defeat any Sheriff Sale by recording easements.

  • Kathy

    I’m a little astounded that there’s no one who’d want a grand single family home on 5 acres in Chestnut Hill, even if it needs a million or two of work. I don’t know this specific building, but the idea that the only solution is to develop the property into condos seems ludicrous in this location.

    • Jack Bellis

      Kathy, no one wants it because the pluses don’t outweigh the considerable minuses for the only owners whose interests are within the contractual stipulations of the easements. In plainer English, first-and-foremost the house is uglier than any rich person would want (seriously); it has higher taxes than most intermediate-wealth speculators can justify; cannot be used for even modest income producing business; is too big for even the most lavish egos who would want to renovate it; and marries the owner to an oppressive list of 50+ behavioral constraints, foremost among them from a rich person’s point of view: not being able to put in large, modern windows. There are only a few formulas that work.

  • kris soffa

    I’m grateful to the FOW and CHHS and all the earnest people working to preserve this site now and for generations to come. I see a way opening for the best possible outcome for every
    one involved.

    • Paul

      It would be long before you’re thanking them for forcing the mansion to go to ruin by deterring all buyers.

  • Jesse Crandall

    There is more to this stately mansion than the discussion of easements, delinquent taxes and what to do about the future. In reporting the small peice history attached to GREYLOCK, there was a failure to mention the participation of the archdiocese of Philadelphia in its historical tainted past. As I know it, GREYLOCK was used by priests as a place of social gathering whereby young boys were delivered to the door, brought inside and left there to be picked up at a later time or date….For purposes of privacy you can conclude what occurred after the door was shut & locked…..You may not want to know this and or read about it, but the truth & reality of our past is important for those who didnt have a voice when their innocence was stolen from them….

    • Jack Bellis

      Never one to shy away from a challenge, since I started this mess, I’ll bite.

      “The one true road out of the wilderness of pain is forgiveness.” — Mother Teresa

  • Jack Bellis

    I see one minor point to improve the information in the article. It says “have led to a situation where the property may fall into disrepair.” The property has already fallen into considerable disrepair (two failed roof sections, all major mechanical systems vandalized, failed, and now inoperable) and the only question is whether the extent of it mathematically removes every last potential buyer from its prospect pool… in other words the point of no return. A good analogy is the SS United States ship moored on the Delaware.

    • Greylock Groupie

      Jack and Chester, this was fascinating. I’m sure you know more about the details of the delay in the sheriff’s sale – I see the latest date is set for Oct 18 and the back taxes are now $147k.

      My husband and I first came across Greylock in late 2010 when it was for sale at 2.2M. We looked at it as a potential case study for a real estate operations course (had to pick a property and plan out the development and financials for a mock deal). While we choose another property to spec out when we learned about the easements, we actually drove 90 min to visit Greylock bc we were fascinated.

      A door was open so we had a look around – 7 yrs ago there wasn’t yet major damage and we were pretty smitten with the place, in which we envisioned an event hall and smaller meeting rooms upstairs (ha, the CHHS would choke looking at that proposal). Anyway, crazy the story continues after all this time… I’ll be following!

  • Chester Longbridge

    Make no doubt about it, the Chestnut Hill Historic Society is the cause of this property being lost.

    We looked a buying this property a few years ago. The historic and conservation easement on GREYLOCK is 60 pages long. Yes, I said 60 pages long. Anyone who is interested in this property better read the fine print. If they do they will run from this property. The owner has very little say in what can be done to the property because the historic easement rules are so restrictive. In the event of a fire the CHHS gets a portion of the insurance proceeds before the owner gets a dime. The old drafty wood windows cannot be replaced. The list goes on ad nauseam.

    There is absolutely no incentive for anyone to buy and restore this house. You are at the complete mercy of the CHHS. The CHHS has a long and sordid history of trading historical easements for cash from wealthy donors and then giving the cash back to them in the form of an easement purchase. See the article about how Richard Snowden and his wealthy family have funneled millions of dollars through the CHHS and other organizations to receive the tax deductions, only to have the charitable organizations, including the CHHS, return the money to the donor or one of their companies or family members to use toward the purchase of the property. Scandalous!

    The worst part of this situation is the historic easement was placed on this property too late, after nearly every original piece of the building had been striped or modified. In 1945 Greylock became home to the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an order of nuns who renamed the property “The Home of Divine Providence”. Both buildings were used for senior care. The inside of the mansion was completely institutionalized by the nuns and is now no more interesting than an old school. No beautiful hardwoods are left, no beautiful woodwork, the lead glass windows replaced by cheap wood windows. The outside now features huge commercial kitchen exhaust fans, hideous rusty fire escapes, institutional surveillance cameras, huge commercial spotlights that make it look more like a prison than a house, basic black industrial railings, and a brick addition that makes the back of the house look like an inner city tenement. And the best part is…. none of this can be changed without the approval of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. You can’t even pick a new color to paint the outside without their approval, which they agree to approve or deny within 90 days. What a bureaucratic nightmare.

    No one in their right mind would go near this property. The very easement that was intended to preserve and protect this property now prevents it from being financially viable for anyone to rehabilitate and restore this once grand home. And the CHHS prides itself on making owners adhere to every letter of the law within the easements.

    The easement held by the CHHS requires the owner to maintain the property. The roof has been leaking for years and the lawn looks like it hasn’t been mowed in at least a decade. There are actually trash trees growing in what was once an open and expansive lawn. The CHHS hasn’t raised a finger to enforce the maintenance of the property but they were first in line to deny the use of the property as a school by Green Woods Charter School in 2011.

    What is the purpose of the CHHS? Our opinion is that it is an organization that creates an avenue for wealthy property owners to obtain dubious tax deductions and allows them to directly and personally benefit from their own donations. Don’t believe me. Read the articles for yourself.

    • Jack Bellis

      Mr. Longbridge,
      Thanks for adding these details. Great stuff. I hesitated to pile on too much myself.

      I can verify what you described about the building to be accurate.

      Only a couple of corrections about the easement details: 1) the documents state, albeit in vague passive language that it is DESIRED to remove the ugly brick addition and generally those other modern things. Even the fire escape facing CH Ave is undesired, but that could be subject to fire codes. And 2) on the matter of 60 pages, you are too kind by approximately half. The original 2001 easement (with vBank/V Bank/, as I viewed it at City Hall is 64 bar-coded pages. The 2004 amendment (Greylock Holding) is 13 bar-coded pages. The full document set is longer, however since the easement binds you to the Maintenance Standards requirements which are 6 pages and I’m pretty sure not on file with the city. The entire package provided by the CHHS is 132 pages, which in some ways is helpful and in other ways very unhelpful because it includes a lot of summarizing info and headings that are not legally applicable.

      Great point about the fire insurance… and as you read, they also can recover any expenses to make you comply. So they could spend hundreds of thousands on lawyers—hmmm, could those lawyers be the ones that comprise the CHHS board?—and take you to court to pay their bill. Those are some of the scariest parts of the document and the parts I re-read the most. Essentially it reveals that the CHHS OWNS those portions of the building mentioned in the docs: 6 of the 8 walls of the two buildings (all 8 for practical purposes).

      I haven’t concluded that the CHHS is entirely nefarious and motivated only on the tax angle, but having stumbled upon the Vanity Fair explanation ( of Donald Trump’s use of easements (search “conservation easement”), they’re not making it easy to be very positive.

      • Chester Longbridge

        Mr Bellis

        Thank you for your corroboration of the facts. You are correct that in the easement the CHHS desires to see the non-original and historically inaccurate elements removed from the structures but you still need their permission to do it. And you are also correct about the owner being liable for the legal fees for the CHHS to pursue the owner. You have to admire their foresight in requiring anyone who brings legal action against them or crosses them to pay their legal fees to defend themselves against your actions.

        The thing I don’t understand is the CHHS attitude which was quite accurately described by Brad Bank in the article above: Those easements are written in blood, in my opinion,” said Brad Bank, a resident of West Chestnut Hill Avenue and a member of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. “CHHS and the Friends of the Wissahickon have a responsibility to vigorously defend the easements.”

        The arrogance and ignorance of how their actions are translating into the demise of this, and quite possibly other historical buildings they “protect” is disturbing. These appear to be educated and intelligent people who can’t connect the dots. It reminds me of an old saying I once heard regarding a description of a stockbroker. A stockbroker is someone who helps you invest your money until it is all gone. An analogous situation here. The CHHS is helping to protect and preserve these buildings until there is nothing left to protect. I believe the Whitemarsh Hall example was posted here and sadly, probably foretells the future of Greylock.