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Lynnewood Hall

Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania

Completed in 1900, for the widowed Peter Arrell Brown Widener (1834-1915). His family's 70,000 square foot mansion is the 12th largest historic house in the United States and following the demolition of Whitemarsh Hall just five miles away, it is the largest surviving Gilded Age mansion in Pennsylvania. The main house and an entire wing was given over to the Widener's art collection - one of the most important in the country. Valued at $19 million in the 1940s, the principal pieces from his collection can be seen today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. As the Whitney Mansion was New York's "Palace of Art," Lynnewood is "the last American Versailles". The 110-room Trumbauer-designed colossus that lost two of its residents on the Titanic and was once an epicenter of society is today threatened by demolition....
P.A.B. Widener was one of America's most prolific collectors - and connoisseurs - of fine art. His fortune was established supplying meat to the Union Army during the Civil War which enabled him to become a founding partner of the Philadelphia Traction Company that built public transport systems in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. His business prowess led him to being a principal partner in U.S. Steel and the American Tobacco Company, with substantial holdings in Standard Oil. He is recognized as one of the 100 richest ever Americans and though a "robber baron," he was a true philanthropist.

In the 1880s, Widener purchased Linwood Hall as a summer vacation home for his family. It was in his native Elkins Park and beautifully positioned among the rolling hills of the Cheltens with a stream that ran through the property. Hiring architect Angus S. Wade (1865-1932), he carried out extensive alterations to the house, principally to allow for his burgeoning art collection that was running out of wall space in Philadelphia!

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. It's 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 built 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

Trumbauer contracted two of his preferred interior designers to work on the Widener house: Jules Allard et Fils of Paris and William Baumgarten (1845-1908) & Company of Boston. The main entrance at Lynnewood is approached by stone steps that lead up to the portico. The house is entered via two sets of doors, the first set in bronze and then another pair "clad in gold" before bringing the visitor into the Great Hall. 

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 ground floor of the principal east-west section of the mansion contains the 2,250-square foot ballroom that could comfortably accommodated 1,000 guests. The walls of this room are panelled in walnut with gold-leaf pilasters supporting an oval mural on the ceiling. Among its decorations were ancient Chinese vases and four crystal chandeliers.

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

First and foremost, Lynnewood Hall was designed for Widener's art collection. Aside from a Curio Room and small gallery on the first floor, it was the top floor of the north wing that housed the greater part of one of America's most famous private collections of art and objets d'art. The long sky-lit gallery displayed literally hundreds of works by the likes of Gainsborough, Holbein, El Greco, Romney, Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt, Manet, Millet, Degas and Renoir; and, not to mention sixteen Raphaels. A long 16th century Florentine table in one of the gallery's rooms displayed signed photographs from British Royalty, namely the Duke of Windsor, King George V and his wife, Queen Mary of Teck.

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

Aside from being a monument to art, Lynnewood also contained an indoor swimming pool, squash court, expansive wine cellars, a tea room, a bakery, an upholstery shop and a carpenter's shop. It was powered by its own electricity plant and water was supplied to both the house and estate from its own reservoir.

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

Lynnewood was home to not only Peter Widener, but also to his two sons, George Dunton Widener (1861-1912) and Joseph Early Widener (1871-1943), who lived in their own grand apartments within the mansion with their respective families.

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

On taking over Lynnewood, Joseph purchased the neighbouring of estate of Ogontz, part of which he used to further pursue his passion for breeding and raising thoroughbred horses. He gifted the other part to his niece, on which she would build the spectacular Tudor-style Ronaele Manor that her husband filled with "the finest private collection in America" of European Heraldic stained-glass windows dating back to the 14th century.

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.
Between 1940 and 1942, Joseph donated some 2,000 pieces of art from Lynnewood Hall to the National Gallery in Washington. These included sculptures, porcelains, objets d'art and some 600 paintings, with a total value of $18.5 million. In Washington, Joseph took great pains in making sure that the paintings in the Gallery were displayed in the same order and style as they had been by his father at Lynnewood.

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.

Lynnewood's Decline

After Joseph's death in 1943, neither of his children nor any of the extended Widener family wished to take on the vast mansion. From 1944, it stood empty, though the family did hire a caretaker to watch over the house and grounds. That same year, 220-acres of its farmland was sold for $660,000 to a developer who built community housing on the land, named "Lynnewood Gardens". In 1948, the same developer managed to buy the mansion and its 36-acres of landscaped gardens at a sheriff's auction for just $130,000.

The developer hoped to sell it to someone interested in maintaining the historic house, but there were no takers. In 1952, Dr Carl McIntire, a controversial fundamentalist preacher, paid $192,000 for Lynnewood and converted the house into a seminary. Over the next forty years, in order to finance his "mission," he gradually stripped the house and its gardens of many important architectural features, such as the Gréber fountain, the walnut panelling, marble fireplaces and balustrades.

In 2006, after failure to pay their mortgage, the banks foreclosed on McIntire's organization and today the once great house stands empty again. Though eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, it remains essentially unprotected.

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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