920 Spring Avenue, Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
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From Linwood to Lynnewood
In 1896, Wideners wife, Hannah, died on board the family yacht while sailing off the coast of Maine. The following year, in memory of his wife, Widener gave their townhouse in Philadelphia to be used as a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, while he moved permanently to Elkins Park. That year, he hired one of the masters of American Beaux-Arts architecture, Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938), to build him a mansion which would comfortably accommodate himself, his sons and their families; and, of course, his art.
Trumbauer drew inspiration for Lynnewood Hall from two principal sources: Prior Park, an English mansion in Bath; and, Ballingarry in New Jersey, which was another house he was working on at the time, itself modelled on The White House.
At a staggering cost of $8 million, the 70,000 square foot neo-classical masterpiece took two years to complete. Its 110-rooms (55 of which were bedrooms) required a permanent domestic staff of 37, and another 60 were employed for the upkeep of its 480-acre estate.
Seen from above, Lynnewood is laid out in a T-shape. The mansion was built with Indiana limestone in the Palladian style and its two-story, 17-bay façade measures 325-feet across, punctuated at either end by curved pavilions. It sits on a half-story base from which spreads a terrace that surrounds the entire perimeter of the mansion. The central feature of the façade is the vast portico fronted by six two-story columns supporting the decorative pediment - the circular window and carved figures were added after 1910.
The Main Rooms
The towering hall rises up two full stories from the chequered black-and-white Italian marble floor to the stained-glass skylight above. It is supported by columns and arches; and, a grand marble staircase with an intricate wrought-iron bannister splits into two opposite directions as it ascends to a surrounding balcony on the second floor.
The Louis XIV library-cum-drawing room was designed by Allard in French Caen stone with light oak. It was surrounded by low-level bookcases where Widener's grandson, Harry Elkins Widener (1885-1912), kept his collection of 3,000 rare volumes that would later form the basis of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University. Above these bookcases hung paintings by the likes of de Chavannes, de Neuville, Courbet, Froumentin and Baron Hendrik Leys; while, the ceiling was a mural by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), salvaged from an Italian palazzo.
Other notable rooms on the ground floor include the breakfast room with its fireplace of Languedoc marble; the smoking and billiard rooms; the Baumgarten-designed Dining Room panelled in rich French walnut (later replaced with green and white marble) and decorated with two vast Gobelin tapestries and a bust of Louis (1621-1686), Grand Condé.
Widener's Art Collection
Beyond the Gallery was a room dedicated to the paintings of Widener's favorite artist, Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Over the mantelpiece in the so-named Van Dyck Room hung a portrait of Widener by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), simply entitled the "Meat Packer," that amid all the European masters reminded Widener of his humble origins.
Grounds & Gardens
The 480-acre estate was principally comprised of 36-acres of landscaped gardens around the mansion itself, and a 117-acre farm. The gardens were laid out with terraces and parterres in the Italian style. Widener's youngest son and eventual sole heir, Joseph Early Widener (1871-1943), was a great admirer of garden art and it was at his behest that in 1910 the gardens at Lynnewood were completely remodelled in the French style with marble balustrades by the young Frenchman, Jacques-Henri-Auguste Gréber (1882-1962).
The Lynnewood gardens was Gréber's first large commission in America and he would go on to design the gardens at both Miramar and Whitemarsh Hall, as well as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. At Lynnewood, he incorporated several marble and bronze fountain sculptures designed by his well-known father, Henri-Léon Gréber, who is best remembered for his work at Harbor Hill.
J.E. Widener was a horse-racing fanatic who raised his own thoroughbreds and became President of the Belmont Park Racetrack and the Hialeah Racetrack. On Lynnewood's farm, he later built a polo field and a racetrack where he hosted a steeplechase.
Lynnewood as a Family Home
Tragedy struck in 1912, when George and his elder son, Harry, were drowned with their valet on the Titanic while returning to America from Europe. A large wedding had been planned at Lynnewood within a matter of weeks for Harry's sister, Eleanor Elkins Widener (1891-1966), but instead it was a quiet affair. In 1915, Peter Widener died and his only surviving child, Joseph, inherited Lynnewood and a fortune of some $60 million.
Dispersion of the Widener Art Collection
Joseph also shared his father's passion for art and he both added to and refined the collection. From 1915 up until 1940, by strict appointment only, Joseph opened Lynnewood's art collection to the public between the months of June and October.
By 1939, Joseph's nephew, George Dunton Widener, Jr. (1889-1971), was in control of the family businesses, including their interests in horses, the operations of which were now centered at Erdenheim Farm. As the family began to gravitate away from Lynnewood, Joseph announced that he intended to give away the greater and most valuable part of the family's art collection:
All of us in the family think that Father, who has always wanted to share the enjoyment of his treasures with as many people as possible, will offer the collection to the National Gallery in Washington... Lynnewood Hall can, I suppose, be called the last of the American Versailles.
Over the years, the rags-to-riches Widener family had been subject to various forms of snobbery from Philadelphia's old-moneyed elite. So, while on first glance it may appear strange that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was not gifted even so much as one painting from the Widener Collection, it was their snobbery that led to the open snub.
One year after Joseph died at Lynnewood in 1943, his heirs sold off Lynnewood's remaining contents at an auction held there, where locals and antique dealers vied furiously with agents representing the Philadelphia Museum and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The auction raised $337,000, and among other significant purchases, the Philadelphia Museum acquired a 31-by-12 foot Persian rug for $87,500.
The house, gate lodge and various outbuildings are still standing in good condition within the original stone and wrought-iron fence. However, Lynnewood's future remains very much uncertain, but many hope its fate will not follow that of Whitemarsh Hall. It is currently owned by Richard Yoon of the First Korean Church of New York. But, it remains vacant due to zoning regulations, and currently on the market for $15.5 million.
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