The Fate of an American “Treasure House”

LynneW_Misfortune of Knowing
“The days of America’s privately-owned treasure houses are over. They are gone with the wind as inevitably as the great southern plantations of before the Civil War.”

P. A. B. Widener II wrote these words in his autobiography, Without Drums, published in 1940.* In 1942, the large private art collection once housed at Lynnewood Hall, his family’s 110-room residence in suburban Philadelphia, went on public display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1944, the Wideners sold Lynnewood Hall and auctioned off the rest of the estate.

Today, the 115-year-old mansion still stands on about 34 acres of property, but it’s little more than a ruin in need of a $50 million renovation. It was last sold in 1996 to a church, which has been looking for a new owner in recent years.

The original owner of the property, P. A. B. Widener I, died exactly 100 years ago today, November 6th.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Widener was a “capitalist and philanthropist, art collector and lover of children” who died at Lynnewood Hall at the age of 80, having been in poor health exacerbated by the loss of his son and grandson in the Titanic a few years prior. The obituary describes Widener’s vast art collection, stating: “Apart from the art galleries, Mr. Widener’s marble mansion at Elkins Park is full of art treasures. The ceiling of the library is a painting by Tiepolo, from an Italian palace.”

His Lynnewood Hall — and its slow decline — was one of the inspirations for the unimaginatively named Woodlynne Hall, the home of the wealthy Elkins family in Amelia Elkins Elkins (my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion).**

In Amelia Elkins Elkins, the owners of Woodlynne Hall — much like the owners of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion — face financial trouble after the loss of the prudent matriarch. With the silly patriarch in charge, the Elkins family home has fallen into disrepair:

Walter Refused To Fix The Rusted-Open Gate

Amelia Elkins, a modern Anne Elliot, hopes to save her family’s home from the fate of the real-life “Treasure House” on which it is partially based.

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*Quoted in Esmée Quodbach, “The Last of the American Versailles”: The Widener Collection at Lynnewood Hall, 29 Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 42 (2002).

**The Wideners were affiliated with a real-life Elkins family. They lived across the street from Lynnewood Hall.

***The top picture, taken last week, is Lynnewood Hall.

****To follow-up on my last Amelia post, the ginkgo leaves in my backyard have finally turned yellow!

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12 thoughts on “The Fate of an American “Treasure House”

  1. Pingback: Five Variations of Jane Austen’s Persuasion – The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: Do You Want Your Diaries Published? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Joe Adventure

    I heard Lynnewood Hall was recently sold to a New York businessman, who plans to fix this treasure up to its original glory. does anyone know if this is true?

  4. Always so sad to see any previously-loved home fall into disrepair. The saving grace is that the building still retains something of the past and its inhabitants for the writer to absorb and explore.

    1. The loss of craftsmanship is sad. I love older homes. I grew up in a stone colonial home built in 1926, which is old for my area. My current home is a mid-century modern from 1959, which feels so “new” to me!

  5. Lynnewood Hall looks wonderful in the photo above — it’s a shame that the house has fallen into disrepair.

    In the UK, we have a rich history of stately homes and country houses (as I’m sure you know, being an Austen fan. :)) Many of them are still privately-owned, and the ones that aren’t in private hands are cared for by the National Trust. Most of the big houses are open to the public — entry fees keep them afloat!

    One of my favourite things to do is visiting different country houses. In 2007, I spent a week in Derbyshire visiting places that feature in period dramas. I think Chatsworth House was surely the inspiration for Pemberley — the description of Pemberley in P&P matches Chatsworth so well.

    This post made me wonder whether the U.S. has a similar organisation to the UK’s National Trust. Are there many American “treasure houses” and privately-owned country homes that are open to the public?

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that historical homes are able to stay afloat in that way. I’m reading Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, in which there is a manor house that is open to the public. I wish Lynnewood Hall were open to the public, but I doubt it’s in a condition suitable for tours. In the US, we have two levels of historical designation: federal and local. Our architectural history isn’t nearly as old as yours, and so a home doesn’t have to be very old to get the designation as long as it has some type of historical significance. Still, many historically significant structures are demolished.*

      Thanks for stopping by!

      *I tried looking for Lynnewood Hall on the register (https://www.dot7.state.pa.us/CRGIS), but it wasn’t working for me. I’ll have to try again later.

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