Inside The Empty, Gilded Halls Of Elkins Estate

To describe the Gilded Age interiors of the Elkins Estate in Cheltenham as anything short of incredible would be a crime against neoclassical architecture. The rolling, 42-acre property and its pairing of Italian High Renaissance-and Elizabethan-revival mansions, designed by architect Horace Trumbauer, come into frame at the front gate with the distinguished nobility of an English country manor. The estate at 1750 Ashbourne Road speaks to a time when Philadelphia’s utility magnates treated themselves like royalty and articulated their accomplishments in the grandeur of their manors. Today, like Trumbauer’s other residential masterpiece nearby, Lynnewood Hall, the mansions of the Elkins Estate are vacant and without a capable steward willing to reactivate the properties with a financially sustainable reuse plan, while attending to upkeep and preservation. For now, the future of this resplendent white elephant remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Elstowe Manor, the crown jewel of the estate, was built in 1898 by William L. Elkins, the prominent Philadelphia businessman who, along with Peter A.B. Widener, built the Philadelphia Railroad Company and the streetcar monopoly, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, through acquisitions of smaller lines and political opportunism. The interior of the mansion, designed by esteemed French interior designers Allard et Fils, is an architectural treasure chest filled with heavenly frescoed ceilings, carved mahogany panels, stately marble columns, and an eye watering display of crystal chandeliers, gold leafing, and regal, gilded molding.

The estate’s other mansion, Chelten House, was commissioned in 1896 for Elkin’s son, George. The façade of the house is fortified in Wissihickon schist and dark timber. Its upper floors are covered in cream-colored panels of prickly pebbledash. The interior walls are suited in Tudor-style wood paneling, and a lavish web of Gothic tracery weaves geometric texture into the ceiling. Both mansions contain large, industrial kitchens where, in the tradition of the French manor, the simplicity of worn, rustic wood and abraded, stainless steel contrasts with the overwhelming splendor of every other room in the estate.

After Elkins died in 1903 the estate was passed down to his offspring. By the 1950s, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci had acquired most of the property–they purchased Elstowe Manor from William L. Elkins’ grandson, William L. Elkins, and Chelten House from Stephen X. Stephano of Stephano Bros., Philadelphia manufacturers of Rameses cigarettes, in 1948. The Dominican Sisters used the two mansions as a religious retreat for women for over 75 years, while taking care of the properties and their original interior features through dedicated conservation. (It’s worth noting that in the same period another religious organization, the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, similarly preserved Willis G. Hale’s Lorraine Hotel along with several other buildings of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age.)

Due to the financial pressures of building maintenance expenses and dwindling retreat attendance, the Dominican Sisters closed the Dominican Retreat House in 2006 and sold the entire estate to the New Age nonprofit Land Conservancy of Elkins Park in 2009, which planned to use the property for a large-scale spiritual wellness center and special events venue. By 2010, the conversancy had so far executed a scattershot business plan pitted with small yoga retreats, wedding receptions, performance space for White Pines Productions, and a three-week photo shoot for Victoria’s Secret and was in mortgage default after missing nearly a year’s worth of payments. Possession of the estate was relinquished to the Dominican Sisters in January 2013 following a heated, three-year legal battle over $6.9 million in defaulted mortgage payments and the conservancy’s refusal to vacate the premises.

A feasibility assessment of the estate for preservation and business modeling was conducted in 2012 by CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia for White Pines Productions and the Wyncote Foundation. However, finding a capable operator based on the report’s advisement was met with a tepid response by the Dominican Sisters and the Township.

In 2014 the Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners approved three zoning amendments to clear the way for luxury hotelier Apeiron to purchase the estate and convert Elstowe Manor into a boutique hotel with full-service luxury apartments. The project included using a portion of the 42-acre property for a public arts and cultural destination. To date, Apeiron’s plan has not moved beyond the proposal stage and no other projects for the estate are on the table. 

Text by Michael Bixler

Inside the mansions of Elkins Estate. Photographs by Kris Catherine.

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