Last Minute Reprieve – The Elkins Estate
The Elkins Estate, the stately home at
the heart of Elkins Park, was given another chance.
When asked why he invested a vast amount of time and energy into saving a house he had admired only in passing for 15 years, David Dobson chuckles and answers, “Insanity.”
He had a sign. It was a tiny one, advertising an auction the next day; perhaps he could pick up furniture or other antiques. He stopped in to preview the offerings.
Curiosity turned to horror when he walked into the magnificent, marbled entry hall to find the auction company digitally documenting the forthcoming destruction while physically slashing tapestries off the walls going up the double staircases. “I flipped out,” said Dobson. “Bought them for $15,000 on the spot. I was angry when I walked in and saw them stripping the place.”
He was determined not to let the Elkins Estate experience the horror that had befallen the Widener mansion nearby. This once-glorious home is now a ghost on a hill, its insides plundered of all ornament and architectural integrity.
The next day he attended the auction. $800,000 later, he had saved 95 percent of the offerings, including the house’s original dining room table and a massive grandfather clock in the foyer. This piece, a gift to the Elkins, regally anchors the massive entry, with rich, dark wood revealing luxurious carvings.
The next step was to purchase the property itself.
It took Dobson a full year to journey through the paperwork jungle, with loan applications to numerous banks and endless township meetings to resolve zoning requirements and tax issues. The property finally settled in February of 2009.
“I presented that you could create tax revenue, consciously develop, save buildings, and preserve agricultural land. It’s a win-win for all,” said Dobson. He is the president of the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park, an organization he established to preserve history and nurture the refuge of open space in the town.
A Gentile Retreat
William L. Elkins, a prominent Philadelphia industrialist, established his estate late in the 19th century. The Elkins lived in the city, building a house in the countryside as a summer retreat. His son, George, added the Tudor-style Chelten House to the estate in 1896. Two years later Elstowe Manor was unveiled.
The famed Horace Trumbauer built the mansion in the Italian High Renaissance style. He was a popular designer for the Gilded Age mansions of the rich and powerful families of Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. He is a Philadelphia legend, building many landmarks in the area: the Philadelphia Art Museum and Free Library, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, amongst others.
From Elegance to Contemplation
Trumbauer’s ornate, wrought iron entry gates are a fitting approach, with Elstowe on gently rising hill. Steps lead through an imposing arch, after which is an expansive foyer. Above is a fresco, softly illuminated by elaborate chandeliers.
Further on, gracefully curving stairs direct the visitor to the family gallery. Here is a detour through another phase in the history of this treasure.
William Elkins died in 1903. His wife, Marie Louise, chose to stay with her son George at Chelten House. During the Great Depression, the family sold the mansion to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci and for 75 years the Sisters lived reflectively, sharing the house with secular women as a retreat center. They maintained the integrity of the estate, making only such alterations as needed to accommodate their lifestyle.
One change happened at the threshold of the art gallery. In 1932 they transformed the room into a chapel for themselves and the community. An early project was to consolidate the chapel and gallery into a breathtaking room of one level while maintaining the spirit of both eras.
The craftsmanship throughout the house is astounding. The public rooms have intricate decoration on the walls, ceilings and floors: detailed woodwork, pocket shutters on each window, and massive, perfectly balanced interior doors that move with a gentle touch. Private hallways have eloquent plaster moldings. The family areas are less opulent yet remain quietly elegant. Lovely alabaster sinks and wrought soap dishes grace the bathrooms, and bedrooms are open, airy and inviting.
The breakfast room is exquisite. Sunlight streams in the windows in the morning, reflecting off gilded designs in the wood paneling. Frescos heighten the feeling of freshness, welcoming the family to a new summer day.
Philanthropic Deeds Rewarded
William Elkins made his fortune in the fledgling oil industry in the late 1800s, and increased it with railroad ownership and other business ventures. The family has a history of public generosity. William helped the young Philadelphia Art Museum with a gift of 103 paintings. He established an endowment for a school for orphaned girls. George founded Abington Hospital.
This altruism returned to the property in the form of Food For All, a nonprofit dedicated to self-sufficiency and independent living. The organization provided funding and support for the acquisition of goods from the auction and subsequent purchase of the house. Without their sponsorship the property would have been developed into high-density housing. With their mission to nourish minds, bodies and spirits, the Elkins Estate has smoothly transitioned into 21st century.
Amy Ragsdale is truly an ambassador for the estate. Her eyes light up as she exhibits the many splendors of Elstowe while detailing its history.
“It’s a fine balance of sustaining and maintaining the property. We don’t want to destroy what David worked so hard to save,” said Ragsdale. “The object is to allow the right amount of activity to preserve the property without doing any damage.”
The Elkins Estate maintains traditions from the first two chapters of its diary. A retreat program started in 2009, and the mansion has already become a popular venue for weddings, seminars and other events.
Ragsdale is as excited about the future of estate as she is about its past. The wellness retreat program is already in full bloom, offering yoga, mediation, tai chi, massage, dance, qigong, nutritional counseling, and cooking classes. She envisions integration with the community through art shows, speaking events, and musical performances. There is a sunny field that would work perfectly as a community garden.
The past has been preserved, and there is much work ahead. The Land Conservancy of Elkins Park is searching for a director of development to spearhead fundraising efforts to continue renovations, plan for conscientious use of the property, and develop a volunteer program. It’s as if the estate has spent its first century in quiet reflection, and is now ready to present its gifts to the world.
Dobson has given much to the preservation of the Elkins legacy, and has gained personally as well. He said, “It was a gift to discover William Elkins. It inspired me, but it saddened me as well. It took us a long time to find information about this man who did so much for Philadelphia – hardly anyone knew anything about him.” With the efforts of Dobson, Ragsdale, and many other individuals in the community, William Elkins will regain his prominence as a humble supporter in the growth of Philadelphia.
For more information on holding an event at the house or volunteering, visit www.elkinsestate.org or call 215-635-1714.
Story by Catia Whitmore