New feature: Preservation Row

Elstowe Manor

Oct. 24

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

The banking and credit crisis has cast its shadow over one of the grand manors of the Philadelphia region, Elstowe, the Elkins Park summer estate of oil and streetcar magnate William Lukens Elkins.

Elstowe Manor, completed in 1902, and the neighboring Widener mansion, Lynnewood Hall, were designed by renowned Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. While Lynnewood has been vacant for years and sits in disrepair, Elstowe retains its glory, inside and out, thanks to its longtime inhabitants, the Dominican Sisters.

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But the order, which had used the 42-acre, beautifully landscaped property on Ashbourne Road as a haven and retreat since 1932, found the cost of maintaining the structure and grounds had increased beyond their means, and put the property on the market in 2006. Potential developers considered converting the site into a nursing home or dividing it up.

“There was a previous plan to hack it up for McMansions,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Those deals all fell through.

An agreement of sale was reached, however, with Food for All, Inc., which describes itself as a non-profit that manages personal care facilities, home services for the elderly, retirement communities, family residences, restaurants and office buildings.

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Food for All has had trouble securing the financing it needs to complete the purchase, Gallery said. He and the non-profit are hoping someone will offer help to seal the deal.

While the Dominican Sisters took excellent care of Elstowe, a bad winter could do great damage to the vacant mansion.

David Dobson, executive director of Food for All, said the organization has already spent a million dollars purchasing the contents of the manor after the Dominican Sisters placed the furnishings up for auction. The property is valued at $8.5 million, and the non-profit is “a few hundred thousand short at this point,” Dobson said.

“We kept getting banks to agree [to finance the purchase], and then they’d back out. We had Wachovia at the table, and then our contact there was fired. And his president was fired.”

Dobson said Food for All intends to preserve the site and continue to use it as a retreat. “We will make it non-denominational, with a focus on yoga and wellness.” It will also provide public access for educational programs, seminars and conferences.

Maintenance of the property will not be expensive, he said, mainly because of the care given by the Dominican Sisters. “Inside, you can eat off the floors. It’s immaculate. And everything works.”

Trumbauer originally designed a complex of five mansions and subsidiary buildings, including a polo grounds, for the Elkins and Widener families. Elstowe was built in the Italian Renaissance style, and it was decorated with marble pillars, exquisite woods and gold-leafed walls. The 45-room manor includes a grand hall, breakfast and dining rooms, nine bedrooms and three dressing rooms, billiard room, den, library, and art gallery – a well-preserved remnant of the Gilded Age.

Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.

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