Holleran: In which I, too, was a sad, old house

Grace Holleran

Grace HolleranLynnewood Hall is historically important, but you’d never know it.

On July 7, the mansion quietly snuck onto the real estate market via Zillow.com for the hefty price of $20 million.

The mansion, which is the largest still-standing Gilded Age building in the Philadelphia area, is located about six miles from Main Campus in Elkins Park, Pa. Currently, it belongs to the First Korean Church of New York.

Between 1897 and 1900, Horace Trumbauer, the prolific architect behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, designed the mansion for Peter A. B. Widener. Widener died on the property in 1915, predeceased by his elder son and grandson, both of whom sank with the Titanic in 1912.

In the interim of its first and last owners, Lynnewood has fallen into a state of general unkempt and disrepair–which is why nobody knows that it exists.

Because the property is included on Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s list of most endangered historic properties, the First Korean Church was denied the zoning variance that would have allowed it to convert the mansion into a tax-exempt chapel. So, although Dr. Richard S. Yoon still technically owns the property, he has given up. In an interview with the Inquirer in 2012, Yoon said, “We don’t want to fight anymore.”

The first time I found myself at Lynnewood was about two years ago, and because of its tumultuous history, the mansion looked understated but somehow entirely intimidating. It still had its original iron-wrought gates and the grounds were fully lit, as if the house were inviting us in.

“Posted: No Trespassers” signs adorned the gates, chipped red letters against yellowing paper. They were enough to deter us from entering, because although our patterned reckless behavior had earned us a bit of a reputation amongst our other friends, Lynnewood could see right through us. It knew we were too chicken to hop that fence.

Like a parent, Lynnewood admonished us, its sternness a dark mask of bravado to cover its shaky foundation and even more insecure interior. It said, “Don’t try to break in. You have better things to do with your time.” We strongly identified with this.

So instead, we sat on the lawn of the post office across the street for hours and simply stared, completely in awe.

Without a spoken agreement, my friends and I returned to Lynnewood regularly, oddly comforted by our endless slew of questions about it. Soon, we learned that although the building still stands, it may not for much longer. It looks sturdy, but when Carl McIntire and the Faith Theological Seminary purchased the property in 1943, they stripped most of the valuable interior and sold it.

It’s served as a venue for the vast art collection of Widener and his younger son and a training facility for military dogs during World War II.

A caretaker and his family live on the property, but they don’t let anyone in. During our sole encounter with him, which was after 9 p.m. on a wintry weekday night, he approached our car and asked us what we were doing there.

“We’re art history students at Temple,” we stammered, almost forgetting our prepared lie. “We want to do our project on Lynnewood. Is there any way we can look inside?”

The man grunted and scrawled a number on a scrap of paper. “Call him,” he said. So of course, we did, only to be berated by an unidentified voice in an unidentified language.

Undeterred, we continued to haunt Lynnewood’s grounds, littering the area with tears, rough drafts and once, by accident, Taco Bell wrappers. We met the guard dog that lives on the property, whose blinding white fur left us entirely unconvinced that he was not a ghost.

There were never any other visitors when we stopped by. After all, there is nothing terribly exciting about 33.85 closed-off acres of land. When we made this realization, we began to yell our secrets to Lynnewood Hall, and we are sure it listened.

After a while, we were convinced we could feel it breathing, and we treated it like a friend. We would stop by, drive the surrounding streets. When we were brave, we stood on our tiptoes, grabbed the rusted, ornate fence and called out to Ghost Dog.

When times got darker for me, Lynnewood was regrettably one of the first friends I abandoned. But when I learned that Yoon and the First Korean Church could not do anything with it, I feared that it might actually collapse.

Panicking, my friends and I devised a master plan to buy Lynnewood and turn it into a music conservatory, and then we learned that the estimated cost to repair the mansion, not including the cost to purchase it, is $12 million.

We rushed to check in on Lynnewood. It was late at night and we needed to see it, a brightly lit beacon on Ashbourne Road, to assure us that it and we were okay.

The lights were off and now I’m afraid I’m falling apart on the insides, too.

Grace Holleran can be reached at holleran@temple.edu or on Twitter @coupsdegrace.

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