*Editor’s Note After the Local went to press, the sale of the Elstowe manor and the rest of the Elkins Estate to Landmark Developers in New Jersey was announced. The firm has extensive plans to renovate the property and turn it into a hotel. While it was fair to call the future of the estate “unclear” at the time of publication, that is no longer the case. The Estowe estate now appears to have a clear path to a new use that preserves the property.
by George McNeely
The recent loss of the main house at Laverock Hill (see Our Town, 7/5/19) reminds us that three immense Gilded Age piles currently sit empty and forlorn in nearby Elkins Park.
All three were designed by Horace Trumbauer, the favored architect of Philadelphia’s titans of industry. They were built for two storied and closely connected local families: Elkins and Widener.
William L. Elkins (1832-1903) was a classic 19th-century American entrepreneur who built a vast fortune through strategic involvement in a range of emerging and interconnected businesses, including oil and gas, street cars and railroads. His great friend and business partner was Peter A.B. Widener (1834-1915), who turned an early windfall from supplying meat to the Union Army into another vast fortune based on a dizzying array of businesses, including street cars, public transit systems, railroads, steel, and oil. They made a formidable pair. Their children intermarried and thus linked the two families for generations.
Together they created nearby family compounds in Elkins Park. William Elkins’ son, George, first built Chelten House in 1896. Elkins then built his own nearby Elstowe, completed in 1900. And Widener built the even larger Lynnewood Hall, also completed in 1900. All three are now in limbo.
Elkins Park developed as a street car and railroad suburb in the 19th century and was convenient for those who lived or worked on the north side of Center City. At that time, Old Philadelphia families frowned on living north of Market Street, and North Broad Street had become a parade of large city houses for families with newer fortunes, including both the Wideners and Elkins. Rather than travel farther to the Main Line for respite from the city heat, these families traveled north up Broad Street and Old York Road into the verdant Chelten Hills.
They were aided in that travel by the street car system. Elkins Park was also close to both the Reading Railroad’s Wayne Junction station and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s North Broad Street station, and thus also offered convenient access to Wall Street for local business tycoons.
Horace Trumbauer created these three country houses in a range of styles. They were designed early in his career; he was only 28 years old in 1896. The many Trumbauer enthusiasts may disagree, but all three perhaps suffer in their own particular ways as youthful and slightly clumsy late-Victorian reinterpretations of historical styles. As with good wine, Trumbauer’s designs improved as he aged. Nevertheless, these three houses are well worth investigating.
Chelten House, the earliest, was designed in what architectural historian Osbert Lancaster dubbed “Stockbrokers’ Tudor.” Incorporating Tudor half-timbering into walls of local Wissahickon schist, Trumbauer produced a huge English country house. But sadly the house is stiff and heavy, lacking the picturesque qualities of many authentic Tudor houses. The interiors, with Tudor style paneling, are unexpectedly restrained, but are mostly the result of a more tasteful rebuilding of the house after it was struck by lighting in 1908. An almost industrially scaled stable complex extends the ensemble.
With nearby Elstowe, built for the senior Elkins, Trumbauer changed styles completely. Looking beyond England, Trumbauer turned instead to Italian Baroque precedents to create an immense wedding cake of carved and bracketed limestone.
Architects usually study other buildings as they determine what or what not to do with a current project. Trying to decipher the inspiration for a particular building is one of the great pleasures of architectural history. So what was Trumbauer thinking when designing this confection?
Admirers have suggested that it was based on the immense Villa Farnese in Caprarola, a town north of Rome, which was built for the Farnese family and completed in 1573. That is a bit of a stretch. He was more likely influenced by several similar houses that had recently been built closer at hand for other Robber Barons.
One was The Breakers, built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in Newport, Rhode Island, which readers may have visited. That house was designed in the Genoese Baroque style by noted New York architect Richard Morris Hunt and was instantly a sensation for its size and opulence.
Another less well-known house had recently been completed for E.C. Benedict, a business associate of William Elkins. That house, called Indian Harbor and located in Greenwich, Connecticut, was designed in a similar style by another New York architectural firm, Carrere & Hastings that is perhaps best known for its designs for the New York Public Library.
Inspiration for the interiors of Elstowe shifts from Italy to France. Trumbauer brought in the Paris decorating firm, Jules Allard & Fils, which specialized in creating elaborate rooms that echoed various 18th-century French styles, sometimes incorporating authentic paneling and fittings. Allard had just recently completed the interiors of The Breakers. Acres of marble, carved woodwork, and gilded plaster encase the primary public rooms at Elstowe, which were filled with furniture in various historical styles, much of it recently manufactured.
These opulent late Victorian interiors were intended to impress rather than to accurately recreate period rooms. They were stage sets, and, as with the formal rooms in European palaces, were not intended for daily use. They were also expensive and hard to maintain. With evolving tastes and the advent of income taxes, they quickly went out of fashion. Paul Miller, the former curator at the Preservation Society of Newport County, owner of several of the grandest of the summer “cottages” from the same period, has lead the way with serious academic study of these interiors, which is long overdue.
It was with Widener’s nearby Lynnewood Hall, the third of our trio, that Trumbauer went all out. As with his other local palace, Whitemarsh Hall (demolished), Trumbauer created a vast English Palladian country house. Designed to accommodate three generations of the Widener family, the house extends uncomfortably far on either side of the central pedimented portico. Around the back is the huge gallery wing and nearby are various support buildings, each large on its own. The house was surrounded by 34-acres of elaborate formal gardens with the expected complement of terraces, balustrades, sculpture, and pleasure pavilions. The handsome wrought-iron fence miraculously survives.
It has been suggested that Trumbauer was looking at Prior Park (circa 1740), the great English country house near Bath, when designing Lynnewood Hall. Others have referenced Leinster House in Dublin, the Georgian city house of the Dukes of Leinster, now the seat of the Irish Parliament (completed 1748). There are strong similarities to both.
But neither have the engaged pilasters that march heavily across Lynnewood Hall’s main façade, dividing it into chunks. For those it is possible that Trumbauer was looking instead to such earlier English Baroque country houses as Chatsworth or Stoneleigh Abbey. They both have heavy engaged pilasters and simple, wide massing.
Onto those earlier models Trumbauer has imposed the prominent central portico. While such applied porticos first appeared in ancient Rome, this one may be based on Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. They both feature similarly elaborate Corinthian capitals and sculptured pediments. Designed by George Dance the Elder and completed in 1752, Mansion House has long been a popular prototype for American architects.
Clearly the young Trumbauer was combing his architecture books and travel postcards for design references that would be suitably magnificent for his client, who was then one of the richest men in the U.S.
As with Elstowe, the interiors were the work of Allard and also originally featured the usual suite of supercharged replicas of great European rooms. The two-story central stair hall is believed to be a copy of the same room in our Newport favorite: The Breakers. But Lynnewood Hall also has that attached rear gallery wing that was constructed to house Widener’s huge collection of paintings.
Widener was a major art collector and worked with all the most fashionable art dealers of the period to assemble a remarkable group of English, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish Old Master paintings. They were displayed in those special gallery spaces with elegant period furniture and decorate arts. It was a dazzling display, and in this case most of it was authentic.
Widener’s son, Joseph, later renovated most of the main rooms to keep up with evolving tastes. Rather than the hodgepodge of different styles, the new decoration was more consistently in the Louis Seize revival style of around 1910. The writer Edith Wharton and architect Ogden Codman had published their seminal book, “The Decoration of Houses,” in 1897 and it transformed early 20th century decoration. Along with his updated rooms, Joseph Widener gradually edited his father’s extensive collection to feature only the best works by each painter.
In order to imagine those galleries, we may look either to the Frick in New York (another house designed by Carrere & Hastings) or the Huntington in Pasadena, CA. Both were created around the same time by industrialists comparable to Peter Widener.
The Widener collection was later donated to the National Gallery in Washington D.C., where it shined with the Mellon pictures when opened in 1943. The story of how Philadelphia sadly lost that remarkable collection is for another article.
All three of these immense houses are currently in flux. All were sold out of the families after World War II and have had various institutional uses since. Hats off to the Dominican sisters who owned and occupied both the Elkins houses for decades and maintained them well. The Sisters have been trying for over a decade to unload the property. The first buyer, a new-age religious organization, eventually defaulted on its mortgage and the Sisters ended up as owners again. More recently a hotel developer from New Jersey has been working on plans for a mixed-use hotel and resort development, but its prospects are unclear.
Lynnewood Hall was owned first by the Faith Theological Seminary, which resorted to selling off garden sculptures and some interior fittings as its finances deteriorated. More recently it has been owned by the minister of a Korean Christian church based in New York. In the meantime, the house has deteriorated and the gardens are overgrown. The house is currently on the market for $11 million.
Finding financially sustainable and appropriate uses for such properties is a significant challenge. These three do not retain their original contents, are sadly deteriorated, and come with no endowment funding. Similar houses with much of their original contents are open to the public. In addition to those in Newport, Rhode Island, other prominent examples include Biltmore in Ashville, New York, Henry Flagler’s Whitehall in Palm Beach, Florida, and the Mills Mansion in Staatsburg, New York. But all house museums are struggling as younger generations have less interest in the dusty past so commercial uses must be found here.
In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his poem “Ozymandias” about coming upon remains of the past: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
These houses were built as great monuments to their owners. But instead, we have these vast Gilded Age dinosaurs dozing in their gardens. They can be seen easily from nearby streets. Their futures are uncertain, so now is the time to go and admire them.