Lynnewood Hall: Architectural Marvel Sits Vacant & Deteriorates in Cheltenham

In Cheltenham Lynnewood Hall, the largest surviving Gilded Age mansion in the Philadelphia area sits vacant and neglected on an overgrown lot of  almost 34 acres.  At one time it housed one of the most important Gilded Age private art collections of European masterpieces and decorative arts assembled by the Widener family.

Lynnewood Hall is a 110-room Neoclassical Revival mansion in Elkins Park was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer for industrialist Peter A. B. Widener between 1897 and 1900. Trumbauer also deisnged Grey Towers Castle, The Jeswick Theater and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Peter A.B. Widener was the son of poor parents, and began working as a butcher  which led to establishing a successful chain of meat stores. Widener became a merchant who supplied meat to the Union Army during the United States Civil War, and acquired prominence in the city and by 1871 had become Philadelphia City Treasurer.

Widener leveraged his political connections, and he and William L. Elkins gained control of Philadelphia’s street railways, consolidating and modernizing the system in the process. They also invested in street railways in New York City, Chicago, and other cities as well as in public utilities around the United States at one time with financial holdings valued at $1,500,000,000. Widener also participated in the organization of the United States Steel Corporation and the American Tobacco Company.

Widener’s Victorian brownstone mansion on Broad Street just above Girard Avenue became too small for his collection of fine paintings, Chinese porcelain and his growing family. He then decided to buy a larger Victorian country estate, Lynnewood Hall, to house his art and to serve as his country residence.

Lynnewood Hall was originally  located on a 300-acre tract of land between Spring and Ashbourne Roads in Cheltenham Township. At this time, the Main Line attracted the old, established wealthy Philadelphia families, while Cheltenham became the center for the entrepreneurial men who had made their fortunes in the rags-to-riches tradition. Beginning in the 1880s, men such as Jay Cooke, John B. Stetson, Henry W. Breyer, William Welsh Harrison, Joseph Wharton, John Wanamaker, Edward T. Stokesbury, Cyrus H.K. Curtis, Abraham Barker and Joseph Wharton Lippencott all built country estates in Cheltenham.

To make Cheltenham even more desirable and accessible, Widener and Elkins routed streetcar lines out to Cheltenham in the late 1890s. The ease of transportation made it possible for these men to erect permanent residences on grand scale, and to give up their in-town residences.

In the 1890s Trumbauer designed Lynnewood  Hall for Widener’s growing family and art collection. The construction began in 1897 and Lynnewood Hall was completed n 1900.

On the south side of Asbourne Road, originally Cheltenham Avenue, Widener had a 117-acre farm, now an apartment complex named Lynnewood Gardens. The farm contained chicken houses, stock barns, greenhouses, a half-mile race track with a polo field in the middle and stables for raising thoroughbred horses. In addition to the farm, the estate had its own power plant, water pumps, laundry, carpentry shop, and bakery.

Widener was so concerned about a fire destroying his art collection that he had a hot air heating system installed at the farm and piped the heat approximately fifteen hundred feet to the house. Thirty-seven full-time servants were employed plus extra help was called in frequently for lavish parties or to perform special maintenance jobs.

Exterior video tour of the estate from 2016

Trumbauer was also hired to design a carriage house and a gate house at Lynnewood Hall. Both houses exhibit similar designs as the main house, though the carriage house, known as Conklin Hall, is said to feature elements from the Petite Trianon at Versailles Palace. Between 1909 and 1910, Trumbauer enclosed the swimming pool, added the Van Dyck gallery.

In 1912 Widener’s sons George Dunton Widener and grandson Harry Elkins Widener both died when the Titanic sank in 1912. Widener died at Lynnewood Hall at the age of 80 on November 6, 1915, after prolonged poor health. The Widener family continued to live in Lynnewood Hall, and in the 1920s, Trumbauer returned to Lynnewood Hall to redesign the carriage house to provide living quarters for Joseph’s son Peter, Jr. and his family.

Members of the Widener family remained at Lynnewood until 1941, when the house was vacated and left in the hands of one caretaker. In 1952, Lynnewood Hall was purchased by Faith Theological Seminary as living quarters, classrooms and a chapel.

The building has been severely altered and neglected, and today is in a terrible state of disrepair. Most of the original 300-acre tract has been sold, and Lynnewood Hall now stands on an overgrown thirty-six-acre parcel of land. The fountains were all sold in 1989, and in 1993, the owners attempted to dismantle and sell many significant architectural components of the mansion. The sale was halted, but there is still great concern for the future of Lynnewood Hall.

Lynnewood Hall was purchased by Dr. Rev. Richard S. Yoon in 1996, at a sheriff’s sale, and he planned to turn it into a branch of his church, The First Korean Church of New York.  The immense property was too expensive  for Yoon to maintain between repairs and the $100,000-plus in property taxes.  Stuck in constant court battles over First and 14th Amendment rights regarding taxes and zoning, as Yoon’s church tried to acquire a tax exempt status as a place of worship but was denied. In 2014 it put up for sale. It started off at $20 million and is now listed at $15.5 million.

When Lynnewood Hall  was originally listed for sale an architect infamously estimated that it would cost a staggering $50 million to repair the mansion. The current real-estate agent  disagrees, telling that a renovation of the building “could cost as little as $3 million to $7 million.”

Interior Video Tour from 2017 showing the beauty that still exits along with deterioration

Here’s the Real Eastate listing description in full:

Lynnewood Hall one of the largest surviving Gilded age Mansion in the Philadelphia area … 2 parcels 310000820004 and 310000823001 (33.85 Glorious Gated Acres) Endless Possibilities For Development in Proposed MU 3 (Mixed Use Overlay District) This 110 room Neoclassical mansion was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer for industrialist Peter A.B. Widener between 1897 and 1900.

Hopefully someone buys the property to restore it so the new generations can appreciate the history and beauty.