Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall is a spectacular Neoclassical Revival masterpiece and is considered one of the greatest surviving Gilded Age mansions in the United States. The stately home was once one of the finest homes in Pennsylvania, but due to its complex and sad history, the magnificent house now sits shuttered and in a state of disrepair. Lynnewood Hall was built between 1898 and 1900 for streetcar tycoon, prolific art collector, and an investor in the ill-fated Titanic, Peter Arrell Browne Widener. After construction, the mansion stood on a large 480-acre estate in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall (photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Born on November 13, 1834, to German immigrant parents, Peter Widener was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, he began a butcher apprenticeship and later opened a shop in a local market. The market shop became a social gathering place, and within a short time, Widener was elected Republican leader of the 20th Ward. During the Civil War, the position enabled him to obtain a contract to supply mutton to the Union Army within 10 miles of Philadelphia. Widener earned $50,000 (roughly $850,000 today) from the meat contract. After the Civil War, he invested his earnings in a chain of butcher shops that would become very successful. In 1858, at the age of 24, Peter Widener married Hannah Josephine Dunton Widener, and the couple had three children, Harry (who died in his teens), George, and Joseph.

While in his twenties, Widener became business partners with William L. Elkins. He remained involved in politics, and in 1873, was appointed as city treasurer of Philadelphia. The position was the most lucrative political office in the city since the treasurer accrued all interest from city deposits as spoils of office. Widener noticed a need for public transport and branched out into streetcar railways, horse-drawn commuter cars that would hold a dozen or so people. The streetcars were considered a necessity for those who needed to commute in the growing city. Automobiles would not be available to the masses for several more decades. By 1883, Widener and Elkins had consolidated all the streetcar lines in Philadelphia and later merged with New York operators. The rapidly growing company expanded to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, owning over 500 miles of tracks. Peter Widener then diversified into railroads, helped organize U.S. Steel and the American Tobacco Company, and invested heavily into Standard Oil.

In 1887, Elkins and Widener bought a pair of Victorian townhouses across the street from one another. After all, the two were now family since Widener’s oldest son George married Elkins’ daughter Eleanor. Widener’s vast wealth also enabled him to start an art collection of fine paintings and Chinese porcelain. Yet, being filthy rich was certainly no guarantee that tragedies in life were avoidable. Sadly, in 1896, Widener’s wife Hannah died on board the family’s yacht off the coast of Maine. In the throes of mourning, Widener decided to vacate the townhouse. He commissioned renowned architect Horace Trumbauer to design a new home, a place he could showcase his art and somewhere “comfortable” for him and his family. Discussions between the two resulted in Lynnewood Hall, a 70,000-square-foot Neoclassical Revival mansion built of Indiana limestone. Trumbauer took inspiration from two architectural gems: Prior Park in Bath, England, and Ballingarry in New Jersey. When the Widener family moved to Lynnewood Hall in 1900, the estate had a full-time staff of 100 servants that tended to the house and grounds. After he moved, Widener donated the townhome in honor of his late wife to the Free Library of Philadelphia, becoming the H. Josephine Widener Memorial Library.

Across the road from the main house, Widener had a 117-acre farm with chicken houses, stock barns, greenhouses, a half-mile race track with a polo field in the middle, and stables for his thoroughbred horses. In addition to the farm, the property had a power plant, water pumps, laundry, carpentry shop, and bakery, making it virtually self-sustaining. Peter 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 1,500 feet to Lynnewood Hall. Horace Trumbauer also built a carriage house and a gatehouse at Lynnewood Hall. Both houses exhibit similar designs as the main house. The carriage house and stables, later known as Lynnewood Lodge, features elements from the Petite Trianon at Versailles Palace. In 1909-10, Lynnewood Hall went through a renovation; Trumbauer enclosed the swimming pool, added the Van Dyck gallery, and enclosed the east and west porches to create loggias.

Peter Widener decorated his palatial estate with the finest furnishings. He was a fanatic about art and antiquities, a self-taught art collector who, with his son Joseph, amassed an internationally renowned collection. The paintings were displayed in Victorian fashion frame to frame floor to ceiling. Among his many works of art were 14 Rembrandts, including The Mill, which caused an uproar when Widener purchased it for $400,000. The British did not want it to leave England, but Peter outbid Britain’s National Gallery in 1911. The seller was a trustee of the gallery and expected to give the gallery a discount. Nobody would match Widener’s offer. Before being shipped to Philadelphia under protest, it was displayed for two days at the National Gallery. More than 22,000 people came by to get one last look. Peter Widener admitted he overpaid for The Mill but explained to friends it was an investment. The acquisition for that price instantly increased the value of the rest of his Rembrandts.

In the 1920s, Trumbauer returned to Lynnewood Hall to redesign the carriage house to provide living quarters for Joseph Widener’s son, Peter Jr., and his family and named Lynnewood Lodge. Peter A.B. Widener became friends and business partners with J.P. Morgan, working closely together in the steel industry. In 1912, Widener became a 20% stakeholder in the International Mercantile Marine Company, famed for building the RMS Titanic. At that time, Peter Widener was nearly in his eighties and declined the offer to ride on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Instead, he sent his son George and his grandson Harry. George was the heir of Lynnewood Hall and had followed his father in business and set to take over once Peter stepped down. George Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry planned to return home on the maiden voyage, following a family vacation in Europe. George hosted several dinner parties aboard the ship in his father’s honor. The lavish event was attended by Captain E.J. Smith, whose death was never officially confirmed and subject to much mystery and speculation. On April 14, 1912, four days into the voyage, the Titanic hit an iceberg. Sadly, both George and Harry lost their lives when the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 2,224 people were on board, and more than half lost their lives, making the Titanic one of history’s most devastating marine disasters. Eleanor was lucky enough to survive, boarding one of Titanic’s famously limited lifeboats. After arriving in New York, Eleanor Widener took a private train back to Philadelphia. She devoted herself to charitable work after losing her husband and son to the sea. She would later present Harvard University with the Widener Memorial Library in memory of Harry. In 1931, she donated the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Science building at the Hill School, Pottstown. Her son was a student at both institutions.

Lynnewood Hall
Peter A. B. Widener

On November 6, 1915, after battling a long illness, which some speculated was caused by the grief of losing his oldest son and grandson, Peter A.B. Widener passed away at the age of 80 at Lynnewood Hall. At the time of his death, he was worth over $100 million (equivalent to nearly $2 billion today). His only surviving son, Joseph, inherited Lynnewood Hall. Over the next several decades, the estate would remain central to the Widener family’s activities, remaining in the family even during the Great Depression. Joseph Widener began breeding and racing horses. He shared his father’s love of art and took over the curation of Lynnewood Hall’s renowned art collection. He opened the estate to the public by appointment only between 1915 and 1940. For this reason, the property became known as “the house that art built.” In 1940, Joseph Widener donated the family’s art collection to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Joseph E. Widener passed away at Lynnewood Hall in 1943. After Joseph’s death, Lynnewood Hall slowly began to decay. His son, Peter A.B. Widener II, remained active in the family businesses, including breeding and racing horses. As a result, the Wideners and their relatives spent less and less time at Lynnewood Hall. In 1944, only a year after Joseph’s death, the contents of Lynnewood Hall were auctioned off. The sale was such an event, it was covered in a 1944 issue of LIFE magazine. For the first time in its history, Lynnewood Hall became vacant, although a caretaker was hired to keep watch over the empty mansion and grounds. The same year, a Philadelphia developer purchased the 220-acre farm from the original estate and built a housing community named Lynnewood Gardens. However, the mansion didn’t sell after years on the market. None of the Wideners or Elkins family wanted it. The same developer purchased it for $130,000 in 1948. He was not able to find a buyer until 1952.

The Reverend Carl McIntire paid $190,000 for the title and another $150,000 to update the electrical system and repair some vandalism damage, according to McIntire’s biographers. He acquired a large amount of surplus paint from the Philadelphia Naval Yard at low cost, and many of the interior walls were painted using this battleship grey paint. McIntire, considered conservative even by evangelical Christian standards, used Lynnewood Hall as a theological school. In 1935, McIntire was removed from the Presbyterian Church after calling their missionaries “too liberal.” He was found guilty of “sowing dissension within the church.” He would go on to form his own Presbyterian Church.

For the next 40 years, Lynnewood Hall would be the home of McIntire’s religious school. He had several hundred students attending at a time. Reverend Carl McIntire was an avowed anti-Communist and spent much of his time during his radio broadcasts working to expose Communists in America during the height of the red scare. Although Lynnewood Hall had full-time residents, McIntire quickly discovered how costly it was to maintain the grounds and the estate. McIntire made his money through contributions from followers, most of which listened to his 30-minute radio show each week. The show aired out of a suburban Philly radio station to more than 600 stations. The FCC shut him down for violation of the “fairness doctrine,” which required radio stations to give equal time to anyone attacked on the air. Religious and civic groups complained about McIntire. According to one clergyman, he used the show to spew his “highly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Roman Catholic” views to the world. Not one to be deterred, McIntire, who declared the FCC would have taken Jesus Christ off the air, decided to start his pirate radio broadcast. He purchased a decommissioned navy minesweeper and set out for international waters off the coast of New Jersey. The U.S. Coast Guard quickly put a stop to it. A two-year legal battle between the FCC and McIntire ensued. He lost the case and hundreds of radio stations bailed on him, separating him from the people that donated close to $4 million annually. Carl McIntire’s empire began to crumble.

Under his ownership, many of Lynnewood Hall’s architectural assets – its one-of-a-kind fountain, marble walls, and mantles – were sold off piecemeal to sustain the school’s operations. McIntire was surrounded by people who just wanted money. They auctioned off many of the fine furnishings, took the money, and disappeared. By the 1990s, McIntire’s organization began to dwindle. He lost many supporters, which caused funding to dry up, and the maintenance costs continued to rise. Lynnewood Hall had fallen into disrepair. The slate roof eventually collapsed. There was major water damage and the costs to repair were high. McIntire only used a small section of the building, so the damaged areas were sealed off and ignored. Selling off items did not solve Carl McIntire’s money troubles. He nearly lost Lynnewood Hall several times through a series of loans he took on, including one from a student named Dr. Richard Yoon. In 1993, McIntire was struggling, but still in possession of the property. At a court hearing, McIntire and the Cheltenham Township worked to create an ordinance that would preserve Lynnewood Hall and satisfy the preservation advocates. When the property fell into foreclosure again and a sheriff’s sale was scheduled, preservationists hoped Lynnewood Hall would soon be in their hands. However, Dr. Yoon took over the property in late 1996.

Dr. Richard Yoon was the head of the First Korean Church of New York. He spent a lot of his time fighting local authorities over taxes and zoning, trying to say that Lynnewood Hall was a place of worship and exempt from taxes. The courts disagreed with Yoon and for the last several years the property has been up for sale. It started at $20 million but has slowly trickled down to $11 million in 2019. Today, the mile-long iron fence that surrounds the estate has kept many wondering about the condition of the mansion. The fate of the Gilded Age mansions in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs has often been institutional use or demolition. They become a part of a college campus or religious retreat. Lynnewood Hall has stood the test of time, built of concrete and steel, and continues to hold up against the elements. However, there are doubts about the economic feasibility of restoration. One estimate for renewing the mansion and grounds begins at $40 million. For now, Lynnewood Hall remains in a state of disrepair, teetering on the brink of abandonment.

Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
The cost to build Lynnewood Hall is said to be $8 million in 1900, which equals roughly $256 million in 2021.
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
Once among the most spectacular homes in the United States, to refer to Lynnewood Hall as simply a mansion is an understatement. Dubbed “The Last American Versailles” by Widener’s grandson Harry, the colossal 110-room estate includes 55 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms, an art gallery, indoor swimming pool, and a ballroom large enough to accommodate 1,000 guests.
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
The Great Hall remains one of the best preserved rooms in the mansion. For years, this view greeted the likes of diplomats, high society, and royalty. In 1931, the Italian Foreign Minister stopped by for a visit before heading to Washington D.C. Other notables that made house calls to Lynnewood Hall include members of of royalty from Spain, The Crown Prince of Sweden and the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia.
Lynnewood Hall
Two sets of doors greeted visitors at the entryway, the first set covered bronze and the inner set clad in gold. These stunning doors led visitors to the spectacular Great Hall. It is important to note, however, that the upper echelons of society were not the only frequent guests at Lynnewood Hall. From 1915 to 1940, Joseph Widener opened the house during the summer months, by appointment only, to the general public. Anyone could call and schedule a time to come in and tour the art galleries. The Wideners were one of the few families of that time to periodically open their private home up to the public.
Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall
The current rendition of the first floor Reception Room is original to 1915 when Joseph E. Widener redesigned the inside of the house. It’s done in the Louis XV style and the gilding is done in 24-karat gold. The one and only work of art that hung in the room was the “Dream of Rinaldo” tapestry done in 1751 by Francois Boucher. It is the tapestry that John Singer Sargent used as a background when painting a portrait of Ella Pancoast Widener in 1903.
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
Across the hall from the Reception Room is the Smoking Room, one of the rooms that has been recently vandalized. Despite the broken mirror, the room retains its beautiful walnut paneling and marble fireplace. A built-in wardrobe on the left and a curved door on the right leads to a bathroom.
Lynnewood Hall
Other notable rooms include the Baumgarten-designed dining room, which was once paneled in rich French walnut and later decorated with green and white marble. The room was adorned with two Gobelin tapestries, as well as a bust known as The Grand Conde, which depicted Prince Louis II de Bourbon, who lived between 1621 and 1686. During its days as a seminary, the marble paneling was removed and sold off by McIntire.
Lynnewood Hall
The Breakfast Room, one of the rooms that Rev. Carl McIntire painted battleship grey and used as conference room for his theological school.
Lynnewood Hall
The Butlers Pantry located on the main floor right outside of the dining room.
Lynnewood Hall
The first floor section of the servants stair hall. The door on the left goes into the Butler’s Pantry.

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Lynnewood Hall
After the sinking of the Titanic, Peter Widener converted the library into an extravagant ballroom. It was the largest space in the entire property and measures an impressive 2,550 square feet. The ballroom was decorated with walnut paneling, fluted columns and gold leaf embellishments. Its extravagant ceiling boasted filigree plaster and floral motif moldings accented with gold leaf.

Lynnewood Hall

Lynnewood Hall
The Ballroom is easily one of the most beautiful sections of Lynnewood Hall. Although the room was remodeled after 1912, transforming from a library into a ballroom, the ceiling remained the same since the construction of the house. The murals on the ceiling come from a 16th-century chateau in Europe. The room was last used as a chapel for Dr. Yoon’s First Korean Church.
Lynnewood Hall
Before being converted into a classroom, this was the only art gallery located on the main floor of the mansion. Referred to as the Travertine room or the Raphael room, this space held several important works of art, including the Little Cowper Madonna painted by Raphael in 1505.
Lynnewood Hall
The wood ceiling dates from the 16th century. Two medieval stained glass windows flanked either side and were affixed to the window sills.
Lynnewood Hall
The Billiards Room on the main floor of the North Wing.
Lynnewood Hall
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Originally, this room was Peter A.B. Widener’s office. It has since been repurposed as an office for the First Korean Church of New York.
Lynnewood Hall
The indoor pool has not seen any water since 1943. The rope around the top of the pool is original and well over 100-years-old.
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
Lynnewood Hall
This room is the former bedchamber of Peter A.B. Widener. Although the fireplace and chandelier remain, this was the only bedroom in the house that was stripped and the panels sold off in the early 2000s by the First Korean Church. It was one of the nicer looking rooms in its day. Widener passed away in this room in 1914.
Lynnewood Hall
Peter A. B. Widener’s personal bathroom, last renovated in 1910. To the left is the door leading to his bedchamber, to the right is a massive glass door that leads out to the balcony which is situated on top of the east loggia.
Lynnewood Hall
Directly across from Peter A.B. Widener’s bedchamber, is what is believed to be the bedroom of Ella Pancoast Widener, the wife of Joe Widener. She passed away here in 1929. At the time, her husband was on vacation and her son and his family were living in the carriage house with their children, so she died alone. The servants heard a thud and rushed to find Ella slumped over by the door to her bedroom.
Lynnewood Hall
Ella Pancoast Widener’s personal bathroom, located off of her bedroom.
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This room was Ella P. Widener’s private boudoir, or dressing room. The door on the right leads to Joseph Widener’s bedroom.
Lynnewood Hall
The former bedchamber of Joseph E. Widener, Peter A.B. Widener’s youngest son and eventual heir to his father’s estate.
Lynnewood Hall
This room is listed as the Governess’ Room, although it was used by family members at one point. Many of the bedroom arrangements were constantly moved around depending on the needs of the family. The Governess was a fancy French nanny that cared after the Widener children. The children were instructed to only speak French with her. Around 1915, there would of been no need for a nanny anymore so this room likely became a family bedroom again.
Lynnewood Hall
The bathroom attached to the Governess’ Room.
Lynnewood Hall
Located next to the Governess’ Room is the former bedroom of George and Eleanor’s daughter, Eleanor “Dimple” Widener. Her parents and brother went to France to pick up her wedding trousseau and to hire a new chef for their new hotel they just built in Philadelphia, the Ritz Carlton. They wanted a real French chef for the hotel and had to get Dimple’s trousseau. They returned on the RMS Titanic which left George and Harry deceased. Dimple, who was 22 at the time, got married anyway due to what her father would have wanted, and her mother built her and her new husband a massive Tudor-styled mansion right across the street and behind Lynnewood Hall. Their mansion was called Ronaele Manor, which is Eleanor spelled backwards. It was demolished in the 1950s.
Lynnewood Hall
This room was once the personal bedchamber of Eleanor Elkins Widener, wife of George Dunton Widener. Located at the end of the hall in the West Wing, the windows overlook the front driveway and French gardens.
Lynnewood Hall
A closer look at the walls reveals the rose petal pink paint that originally graced the room during the Widener era.
Lynnewood Hall
Next to her bedchambers, this room was once Eleanor Elkins Widener’s boudoir.
Lynnewood Hall
This bathroom is attached to the bedroom once occupied by Peter Widener’s eldest son, George Dunton Widener.
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The second floor linen closets, above the Tea Room.
Lynnewood Hall
A hallway leading down the North Wing on the second floor
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The servants quarters on the second floor of the North Wing.
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A bedroom on the North Wing, most of the furnishings date back to the seminary era.
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Lynnewood Hall
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Lynnewood Hall
P. A. B. Widener had an entire wing constructed at Lynnewood Hall to display his art collection. When Lynnewood Hall was originally built, the main art gallery in the North Wing was one long continuous room. In 1910-1914 when renovations took place, the main gallery was divided into two sections. The house was then extended off the tip of the North Wing to add on the Bellini and Van Dyke galleries. The walls the art hung on and the floors visitors stood on were given the first class treatment as well. The walls were covered with red velvet and the floor was covered in a 17th century carpet from Isfahan. The red velvet wall coverings and marble wainscoting has been removed. However, the gold skylight, ornate wood trim, doors, and bookcases are still there. The bookcases were put in by the Faith Theological Seminary.
Lynnewood Hall
An oval-shaped space designed to highlight Bellini’s Feast of the Gods was in this space, connecting the main gallery to the new Van Dyck gallery. Hidden in the room’s smooth ashlar walls were white velvet-lined cases filled with intricately wrought jewels by the Italian master goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. The room was crowned by a magnificent frescoed ceiling.
Lynnewood Hall
In 1908, Peter A.B. Widener purchased an important collection of paintings by 17th-century artist Anthony Van Dyck, thus necessitating the construction of an additional gallery to house them. The room when completed boasted molded wood wainscoting below richly carved Corinthian pilasters and velvet-covered walls, all under an intricately coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling. Hanging above the tall Renaissance style stone fireplace was a John Singer Sargent portrait of the senior Widener.

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Lynnewood Hall
A basement hallway leading to more rooms used by McIntire and his seminary.

Lynnewood Hall

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A bookcase of old books in a basement room dating back to the seminary era.
Lynnewood Hall
In the basement, a tunnel system leads to a flooded room under the fountain, the carriage house, and the gate house.

Lynnewood Hall

Since these photos were taken, an advanced security system has been installed at Lynnewood Hall. Anyone attempting to access the property will be arrested. A caretaker lives on the property. No tours are available to the public at this time. For more historic photos, stories, and updates regarding Lynnewood Hall, check out this unofficial Instagram page dedicated to the estate.

Thank you for reading. Please share the blog with your friends. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. For more of my work, check out my books that are available through Amazon.

7 comments

    1. It’s beautiful I love it if I had a lot of money I would try to have it restored. I bet she was simply gorgeous in her day the craftsmanship alone is stunning. Something about her just drawls you in.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Stunning building and great write up on the history. Such a pleasure to see it hasnt been trashed by mindless vandals!

    Like

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