The Story of Grey Towers Castle; Turns 120 This Year

Grey Towers Castle is a national historic landmark in Glenside on the campus of Arcadia University in Cheltenham Township. Grey Towers Castle turned 120 years old this year and Arcadia University has a number of anniversary activities planned, including tours during October.

From the late 19th to early 20th century, Cheltenham established itself as one of the most prominent communities in the Philadelphia area filled with massive mansions including Lyndenwood Hall. Grey Towers Castle is an architectural marvel with a history of drama and as ghost sightings that still continue today.

In 1881, William Welsh Harrison, co-owner of the Franklin Sugar Refinery;  the largest American sugar refining company (Dominos) at the time purchased an a estate in Glenside. In 1891, Harrison decided to enlarge the main house by adding a gatehouse, and improving the stables. He hired Horace Trumbauer, a young architect from Philadelphia to design the renovations.

In January of 1893, a fire destroyed the main house (Rosedale Hall), and the family fled to the stables for refuge. Harrison hired Trumbauer again to build a new home on the site of the old building. The architect planned for a grand structure inspired by Alnwick Castle, the medieval seat of the Dukes of Northumberland in England.

The construction on the castle began 1893, and cost around $6.6 million in today’s dollars.  The massively extravagant 40-room mansion was one of the nation’s largest homes when it was completed in 1898.  Fun Fact: There are more than 50 gargoyles integrated into the facade of Grey Towers Castle.  

Grey Towers truly put Horace Trumbauer on the map, and he became known for his work during the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties. Trumbauer went on to design  Overbrook Farms, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and buildings at Duke. Today, he is hailed as one of America’s premier architects, with his buildings drawing critical acclaim today.

As with most castles there is drama that can morph into legends. It is said that Harrison conducted numerous illicit affairs, which may explain the numerous secret passageways built in the castle and surrounding buildings. It is believed that one of  these passageways was used to sneak maids into Mr. Harrison’s quarters.

Those who knew the Harrisons have said that the only happy point in their marriage was their wedding night. When the Harrisons moved into the Castle they each chose their own wing, with Mr. Harrison’s quarters on one side, and Mrs. Harrison and the children on the other side.

Harrison died in 1927, and Arcadia University (then located in Jenkintown as Beaver College) purchased the estate from Harrison’s widow and son in 1929, for $712,500. Classes were held in Jenkintown and Glenside until 1962, when the University transferred completely to the Glenside property.

It is said that the Harrisons were an unhappy couple in life, and legend claims they haven’t found peace in the after life. This brings us to the numerous infamous ghost stories and tales from people connected to the Harrisons.

There are many stories, and  here are a few….

Arcadia students have reported the feeling of someone pushing on them to slow them down as they run down the staircase. The legend is that the Harrison’s daughter had a friend over who was running down the back staircase when her scarf got caught on the banister. She flipped over the banister and hanged herself. Some believe it’s the ghost of the friend making sure they don’t suffer the same fate when running too fast.

There are stories about hearing Mr. Harrison pounding the floor, demanding that his maids get him his whiskey.

There are tales of  hearing the squeaking of Mrs. Harrison’s rocking chair, as her spirit sits and still mourns the death of her daughter, who perished in a riding accident

A lot of Arcadia alumni say they never heard or saw anything. One thing is for sure, castles are great inspiration for ghost stories and legends.

The Society for Castle Restoration Tours is giving tours of the Castle on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until October 27th and a Wednesday tour on October 24, at 8 and 9 pm. This event is open to anyone, Arcadians or community members, and is Free. (Donations are appreciated and will go into the castle restoration fund)  See Event Page for Dates

Today, Grey Towers Castle is a vital part of campus life. Some freshmen spend their first year in traditional and suite-style dorms on the third floor, offering them a unique glimpse into life as the Harrisons lived it. Downstairs, the Rose and Mirror Rooms frequently hold lectures, book readings, panel discussions, and Senior Capstone Presentations. Annual events like Community and Civic Engagement’s Empty Bowl Dinner, as well as dances, dinners, and memory nights, also take place. The Castle is home to administrative offices and conference rooms that hold meetings for campus organizations and student groups.