Historic Structures

History Lynnewood Hall Mansion, Elkins Park Pennsylvania

In 1898, Peter Arrell Brown Widener (more commonly referred to as P.A.B.) commissioned Horace Trumbauer, a 29-year old architect from Jenkintown, to design a new country home. Lynnewood Hall, the home that Trumbauer is believed to have designed after a manor house at Prior Park in Bath, England, was said to have cost eight million dollars, but many believe this figure to be high unless it included the furnishings.

Widener grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a German bricklayer. He was apprenticed to a butcher and learned the business so well that he went into business for himself. He opened a stall in the old Spring Garden Market and soon opened other shops around the city. The butcher's stall in the market became a gathering place for politicians and local ward workers, and within a short time Widener became the Republican leader of the 20th Ward. This position enabled him to obtain a contract to supply mutton to all the Union Troops within a ten-mile radius of Philadelphia during the Civil War.

Widener earned $50,000 from the mutton contract and, after the war, he invested in horse-car companies and streetcar railways. Widener remained involved in politics, and in 1873, he was appointed city treasurer of Philadelphia. At this time, the position was considered the most lucrative political office in the city because the treasurer accrued all interest from city deposits as legitimate spoils of office.

In 1875, Widener and William Luken Elkins pooled their money and began operating streetcar lines in Philadelphia. They also invested in franchises. Widener and Elkins quickly purchased many small competing lines and formed the Philadelphia Traction Company. By 1883 they owned all of the City's streetcar lines. In 1884, they merged with New York operators to form the WidenerElkins-Trimble Traction Company. The rapidly growing company expanded to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, thereby owning and operating over 500 miles of tracks. During this time, Widener expanded his investments, becoming one of the original organizers of the U.S. Steel Corporation, the American Tobacco Company and the International Mercantile Marine Company.

Widener's affluence enabled him to purchase a Victorian brownstone mansion on Broad Street just above Girard Avenue. It also enabled him to start an art collection of fine paintings and Chinese porcelain. Upon returning from a European shopping trip, Widener realized that the walls of his house were too crowded for his new acquisitions. He thus decided to buy a large Victorian country estate, Linwood Hall, to house his art and to serve as his country residence. He later, in 1900, gave the Philadelphia house to the Philadelphia Free Library and it became the H. Josephine Widener Memorial Library. Linwood Hall was 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. Their mansions, many modeled after European designs, were built with mostly tax-free money acquired from sales of products such as hats, ice cream, sugar, department store merchandise, magazines, gas meters, iron, leather goods, and meat products. To make this area even more desirable and accessible, Widener and Elkins routed streetcar lines out to Cheltenham in the late 1890s. Ease of transportation would then make it possible for these individuals to erect permanent residences on grand scale, and to give up their in-town residences.

In 1890, Widener hired Angus Wade, a well-known architect who came to Philadelphia ca. 1883 and worked in the office of Willis G. Hale, to make extensive additions and alterations to Linwood Hall. Widener and his family used this house for several years, but eventually outgrew it. Thus, in 1898, he commissioned Horace Trumbauer to design a new, larger mansion and several dependencies. The mansion, which he named Lynnewood Hall, was built as an opulent showplace for his art and home for his family.

Widener's estate was virtually self-sustaining. 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.

Widener was a self-taught art collector who, with his son Joseph, amassed an internationally renowned collection that was estimated to be worth fifty million dollars in 1940. Originally the paintings were hung in the Victorian fashion, frame to frame, floor to ceiling. Many of the classic masters, including El Greco, Titian, Frans Halls, Vermeer, Veronese, Corot, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Manet were represented. There were fourteen Rembrants, including The Mill which caused an uproar when Widener purchased it for $400,000. The British did not want it to leave England, but nobody would match the offer and Widener brought it to the United States. There was a gallery dedicated to the works of Bellini that included jeweled creations by Benvento Cellini. The gallery next to the ballroom was often referred to as the Raphael Room because it is said to have housed Raphael's acclaimed painting The Little Cowper Madonna. In addition, at the end of the north wing, there was a rectangular gallery specifically designed for displaying the paintings by Van Dyck. In 1903, John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint P.A.B. Widener and several members of his family. In 1940, Joseph Widener gave the collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Horace Trumbauer received his architectural training with the Philadelphia firm of George W. and William D. Hewitt, whom he joined in 1884 when he was sixteen years old. He established his own office in 1890 and completed a series of designs for the builders and developers Wendell & Smith. Grey Towers, a castle he designed for William Welsh Harrison in 1892, was his first major commission and its acclaim placed him in great demand among America's wealthy. Throughout his career, Trumbauer designed all types of buildings along the East coast, ranging from town and country houses to academic and religious structures. He emphasized French seventeenth and eighteenth-century designs, yet he was equally competent with Georgian and Tudor revivals. Trumbauer designed several mansions for his wealthy entrepreneurial clients in Cheltenham, including Estowe Park for William Lukens Elkins, Chelten House for George Elkins, Georgian Terrace for George F. Tyler, and in the mid 1920s, Ronedale for Eleanore Widener Dixon, granddaughter of P.A.B. Widener, and her husband Fitz Eugene Dixon. After 1902, his chief designer was Julian Abele, the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture. Together they designed many celebrated buildings, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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. In 1909-10, Trumbauer enclosed the swimming pool, added the Van Dyck gallery, placed a bas relief in the previously blank pediment, and enclosed the east and west porches to create loggias. P.A.B. Widener died in November 1916, however his family continued to live in Lynnewood Hall. 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 family 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.