In 1897, architect Horace Trumbauer commenced construction of a 70,000 square foot home consisting of 55 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms at 920 Spring Avenue, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. The 110-room Neoclassical Revival Lynnewood Hall was completed in 1900. The owner, Peter Arrell Brown Widener (known as P.A.B. Widener), had known grief even before moving in.
P.A.B. Widener grew up poor. He trained as a butcher and saved his earnings. During the Civil War, Peter was able to secure a government grant to supply mutton to Union troops. Peter turned the $50,000 in 1860 dollars and co-founded the Philadelphia Traction Company. In 1858, he married Hannah Josephine Dunton, known as Josephine. Together they built one of the wealthiest family empires in America.
The couple’s hard work paid off. They amassed a fortune beyond belief, all the while remaining true to their Episcopalian beliefs. However, like all families, they suffered their share of heartbreak. Their firstborn child, Harry Kern Widener, died of typhoid fever when he was about 11 years old in 1871.
As P.A.B. began to wind down his business dealings, he purchased a yacht, christened Josephine after his beloved wife. The large vessel was fully staffed and prepped for a 2-year cruise around the world in 1896. Peter and Josephine were joined onboard with the remaining sons, Joseph E. and George Dunton, and their families. The vessel was heading to Bar Harbor, Maine before heading off on the worldwide voyage. Josephine was not well leading up to the trip and was eager to set sail for warmer climates to heal. However, on the evening of July 31, 1896, the physician was called twice to attend to Josephine. Believing she was resting comfortably for the night, the doctor returned the following morning to find her dead from heart disease. The Philadelphia newspapers were bereft in the sudden death of the beloved citizen. Mrs. Widener’s corpse was returned via the Reading Railroad for her final resting place in the family mausoleum. In 1898, Harry would be reinterred beside his mother.
Although P.A.B. did find a small amount of pleasure sailing aboard the Josephine, he turned his attention elsewhere: Building a large home to house his growing family and his huge art collection.
Lynnewood Hall “dripp[ed]” in luxurious items. Nothing was spared in the décor. By now, P.A.B. decided to invest in the International Mercantile Marine company with J.P. Morgan. Int’l Merc owned the White Star Line, and their infamous ship the RMS Titanic. Peter’s third son George, his wife Eleanor, and adult son Harry Elkins boarded the ship on her maiden voyage to return from Europe. Although Eleanor and one servant survived by boarding one of the lifeboats reserved for 1st Class passengers, George, Harry, and the other servant were not so lucky. They drowned when the ship sank in 1912. This added more heartbreak to Peter, who by now was residing in Lynnewood Hall.
On November 6, 1915, Peter was found dead in his bed at the sprawling estate.
Third son Joseph, who was living on the grounds with his family, ran the estate up until 1942. During that time, Joseph would open the vast—and expensive—art gallery to the public in June and October. Joseph donated over 2,000 pieces of art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. P.A.B. may have begun collecting art as a novice, but he along with Joseph built one of the largest and best private collections in the world. The pieces were on display throughout the house and grounds earning Lynnewood Hall the description: The House that Art Built. The collection was valued at nearly $50 million dollars in 1924.
Joseph died in 1943, and none of the heirs showed interest in maintaining a mansion of this scale. It sold for $130,000 in 1948 and again in 1952 for $192,000 to the Faith Theological Seminary, run by Carl McIntire. It has essentially been abandoned since 1952. However, another religious organization, First Korean Church of New York, is the current owner. When the church was denied a property tax exemption on the 33-acre property, the church decided to sell. The mansion initially listed at $20 million dollars. The last time it was online for sale, it was priced at $11 million. That listing has been deactivated.
The house may be salvageable. At least for now. If I had the connections, I would form a company to purchase the building and land and set about rezoning for multiple housing, whereby people can purchase expansive condos in the subdivided building and create a subdivision honoring the past while providing the necessities of today. There once was an electricity plant on the original property. I would get it back up and running.
My dream may not be too far off the mark. I’ve read of one developer seeking to create a high-end B&B model for the uber wealthy. I’m unsure that is the demographic who would love the opportunity to explore. Personally, I think the cash cow option is paranormal investigations to see if the “ghost” stories of three gentlemen haunting the estate are true.