The 110-room mansion known as Lynnewood Hall was once among the most spectacular homes in the United States, with extravagant riches and art. But after the Titanic sank, that all came crashing down — and hard. Now, more than a century later, the creepy home sits abandoned and crumbling behind closed doors. But we’re taking a chilling peek inside to see what’s left of this mansion forsaken.
A Historic Mansion
How can a mansion that once was one of the most famous and largest in the United States now sit completely abandoned and unwanted? How can walls that once held one of the most important and extensive private art collections now sit barren, their paint peeling away? For Lynnewood Hall just outside of Philadelphia, its tragic end was a long time coming.
Lynnewood Hall once sat on 480 acres of land. Today, it is considered to be one of the largest surviving Gilded Age mansions in the Philadelphia area. The abandoned mansion is off limits to the public, but now is the chance to step inside this crumbling relic of history.
The Man Behind The Mansion
To call Lynnewood Hall a mansion is an understatement. Dubbed “The Last American Versailles”, the colossal, 110-room home was built between 1897 and 1900, commissioned specifically by one of the 50 wealthiest Americans in history. Peter A.B. Widener was a street car magnate, and known to be one of the most prolific collectors of art at the time in the United States.
While the size of the home is truly jawdropping, it was what was once housed inside that was even more impressive. The halls of this sprawling estate were once filled with a massive private collection of artwork, comprised of the works of European masters, and one of the most significant of its time. But behind the scenes, the home bore a dark history.
A Home Built On Tragedy
While Lynnewood Hall might look like a dream, it was built based on a nightmare. Just a year before Widener ordered its construction, he was forced to confront an unthinkable tragedy. His wife, Hannah, had died unexpectedly while on her family’s yacht off the coast of Maine.
When Widener heard the news, he entered a long period of mourning and depression. The walls in his townhouse on Broad Street in the city of Philadelphia felt like they were closing in on him. He wanted to leave the city and start over anew. Widener began to think of his own mortality, and wanted to leave something grand behind. But that would not ultimately be the case.
The Inspiration Behind The Mega-Million Dollar Home
When Widener commissioned his home, he wanted it to represent the wealth of his family. The widower knew that meant hiring the best team for its construction. He quickly brought on architect Horace Trumbauer, a man known for designing residential homes for the super wealthy during the Gilded Age, including the entire Duke University campus.
For this massive project, one of Trumbauer’s largest, he based the design off of two famous mansions and architectural wonders: Prior Park in Bath, England; and Ballingarry, an estate in New Jersey. Widener wanted grand, statement-making rooms, detailed column work, and, of course, a place to house his famous art collection. What he got was far beyond what he had ever expected.
A Sizable Estate
After three years of construction, the gigantic manor was complete. At the time, Widener reportedly had paid just about $8 million to have the mansion built exactly to his liking. And judging by what was built, Widener had expensive taste.
Building the intricate walls of Lynnewood Hall involved the use of 70,000 square feet of limestone. In the end, the home hosted over 100 separate rooms, including 55 private bedrooms and 20 full bathrooms. Widener was basking in the glory of his new home, but that glory would be short lived. His dream home would soon be left to crumble.
Maintaining A Mansion
It takes a lot of hard work to maintain over 400 acres of property, and even more work to keep a 110-room home looking pristine. And in a home that included a pool as well as extensive, lush gardens, a private art gallery, a public art gallery, and a ballroom that could fit over 1,000 guests, there was a lot to be done.
Just to manage his household, Widener had to hire a staff of over 90 people. In total, 37 permanent staff members were in charge of running the inside of the house, while an additional 60 people were tasked with maintaining only the gardens. And once exploring the grounds, there’s no question why all that help was necessary.
Stepping Inside The Grand Entryway
Widener wanted his home to make a statement, and that started with the very first steps that anyone took inside. When friends or other guests would come visit Widener on his estate, the first thing they would see inside was the grand entryway. And in this case, the word “grand” was not used lightly.
Stepping into the grand entryway required guests to first push through two sets of front doors. The first set was covered in bronze, while the second was covered in gold. Once they got through, guests would be greeted by tall ceilings, intricately cut columns, and signature black-and-white patterned tile work. And this grandiose entrance was but a taste of what was to come.
As Luxury As One Could Get
To decorate his home, Widener had hired famous interior designer William Baumgarten, and the French firm Jules Allard et Fils. Both designers wanted the estate to be a depiction of Widener’s vast wealth, highlighting his love for the finer things in life.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the inside of Lynnewood Hall was “dripping with silk, velvet, and gilded mouldings, the rooms furnished with chairs from Louis XV’s palace, Persian rugs, and Chinese pottery, the halls crammed with art by Raphael, Rembrandt, and Donatello”. In this home, Widener spared no expense — and each room seemed to be more elaborate than the next.
Walking The Halls
From the grand entryway, Widener’s extravagant home became even more elaborate. The staircase and hallway that connected the grand entrance to the rest of the home were lined with limestone columns and some of the most sought-after art in the entire world at that time.
The known art collector left nearly none of the walls in his home bare. In one hallway hung a painting of Widener himself, painted by none other than John Singer Sargent, one of the most esteemed portrait painters not just of his era, but of all time. There was so much wealth packed into almost every single corner of this home that its quick demise was an utter shock to all.
A Famous Ballroom
With such a large mansion, it really would have been selfish for Widener to keep all 110 rooms for himself. Rather, he was known to be prolific entertainer. When building the home, Widener specifically asked for a ballroom, and the grand ballroom that was created could fit about 1,000 guests. But that was not even the most impressive part.
The 2,550-square-foot ballroom was flanked on either side by pure wooden walls made of walnut, along with wooden columns covered in real gold leaf. And up on the ceiling, an ornate floral motif was painted in between moldings of solid gold. It was here that Widener would host all of his parties, which usually included a live band situated in the front of the room. And the fortunes his home contained carried a mindboggling price.
A Private Art Collection Just For Him
In 1998, it was estimated that Widener’s wealth would have been equivalent to a net worth between $23 billion and $25 billion. And for someone with all of that money and a passion for art, Widener spent much of his life collecting artwork alongside his son, Joseph, another avid collector in his own right.
At the time, the Widener family art collection was considered the most important private collection of late 19th century European masterpieces in the world. And while guests would get to look inside of the Widener family’s public-facing art collection, they were also known to have their own private collection, reserved for their favorite and most expensive works. The masters whose creations were inside rivaled any modern museum.
The Famous Widener Art Collection
One of the most massive rooms in Widener’s home was his very own, private art museum. And his collection was even more impressive than what could be found in museums at the time. His collection included works by the Old Masters, including Vermeer, Rembrandt, and El Greco, as well as French late 19th century masters such as Renoir, Degas, Corot, and more.
From floor to ceiling, the walls in the art gallery were completely covered in breathtaking artwork. More than 300 works were inside just this one room. Beyond the Old Masters, the works found inside ranged from French impressionist paintings to porcelain sculptures to stained glass windows by Giovanni di Domenico to pieces of metal work to priceless items of furniture. But even all of that wealth was not about to save the Wideners from what was about to come.
Exploring The Garden
The inside of Widener’s home was so spectacular, he knew that the outside had to be just as elaborate and luxurious. Beyond the 60 staff members that worked to keep the gardens pristine, French landscape architect Jacques Gréber was brought onto the grounds to design the perfect garden for the estate.
In the front of Lynnewood Hall, Gréber designed a long driveway that wound through the front yard in order to give visitors a more lavish welcome. In the back, Gréber created a rose garden, along with a formal garden and multiple ornate fountains. Lush green grass was surrounded by trees that were trimmed so often, there was never even a leaf out of place. Beyond the public areas, the spaces more likely to be used on an everyday basis were no less jawdropping.
An Elaborate Dinner Party Pad
The dining room was a focal point of Widener’s home, and Baumgarten constructed it in a way that would have the biggest possible impact. The pure walnut table was located in the center of the room, surrounded by immaculate walnut wood walls and panels of green and white marble.
If the home was largely focused on art, the dining room was no exception. Even here, the expensive artwork that Widener was known for collecting hung on almost every open space, including two famous Gobelin tapestries and a world-famous bust sculpture of Prince Louis II de Bourbon from the 1600s. But beyond all of the serious wealth in the home, Widener also knew how to have a little bit of fun.
All Of The Other Outlandish Amenities
From marble-lined dining rooms to gilded ballrooms, Lynnewood Hall had just about everything. But perhaps the most interesting parts of this home had more to do with the outlandish amenities. The home itself was so large that it had its own reservoir — and the water from that reservoir was used to fill Widener’s private indoor swimming pool!
When it was built, the pool area was surrounded by both a private changing room, a changing room for guests, and Widener’s very own squash court. The house even once had its own electricity plant, which was able to supply power for every single room and all parts of the property. But Widener would only be able to enjoy all these amenities for a few years before tragedy struck.
The Death Of An American Dream
As soon as the home was built and furnished, Widener had moved in immediately. But he would only spend a total of 15 years living in his mega-mansion. After suffering from constant bouts of poor health, Widener passed away in his glamorous home at age 80.
But this was not the only tragedy that that Widener family faced. Around that same time, just three years prior, another catastrophic event had taken place, and news of it made international headlines. The RMS Titanic had sunk in the North Atlantic, killed over one and a half thousand people after striking an iceberg. Far across the waves, its impact would be felt even in this palace’s hallowed halls.
The Heir To The Estate
When Widener died, his eldest son, George Duncan Widener Sr., was expected to take on the family estate and inherit the property. George was used to taking over for his father, considering he had a long history of working for his father’s streetcar company. But George wanted to expand beyond his father’s shadow.
George was looking into getting into the hotel business. In 1912, he had traveled with his wife, socialite Eleanor Elkins, and their son Harry, to Paris in search of a chef for his new hotel in Philadelphia (which would eventually become the Philadelphia Ritz Carlton). For his return trip, George wanted his family to go back to the United States in style. So he booked three tickets on the RMS Titanic.
Tragedy On The Titanic
It turned out that George himself had been one of the original investors in the Titanic. At the time, a ship that was so grand and “unsinkable” seemed like a worthy investment. And George and his family were not about to miss out on the opportunity to cash in on its maiden voyage.
Because of his family’s much-discussed wealth, George was one of the most iconic passengers on the Titanic. He was said to be well-known and well-liked by other members of first class, and even hosted a luxurious dinner party aboard the ship. According to rumors, the captain of the Titanic, E.J. Smith, attended the dinner party, only to leave early due to iceberg warnings.
The Beginning Of The End
Woefully unequipped with lifeboats, the story of what happened next on the Titanic is one of the most well-known disasters in history. In the hours that followed, over 1,500 people died in the freezing Atlantic Ocean. Among those that died that night were two members of the Widener family.
Both George and his son Harry lost their lives on the Titanic. George was last seen making sure that his wife had made it safely onto a lifeboat. His remains were never found or identified among the bodies that were recovered. And years later, back at home, the mansion that he was meant to inherit was left with an uncertain future.
Keeping It In The Family
Since George had passed, inheritance of Lynnewood Hall had passed on to his brother, Joseph. Once the estate was his, Joseph wanted to open up his family’s art collection to the public. From 1915 until 1940, Lynnewood Hall’s gallery was open for viewing by appointment only. And then, in 1943, Joseph suddenly passed away.
The massive home was a huge responsibility for anyone to take on, and none of Joseph’s children wanted the task of maintaining the colossal home. Once again, the future of Lynnewood Hall was left in limbo. And this time, the house would end up falling into the wrong hands.
Selling The Home
Just before Joseph had died, he donated his family’s art collection, all 2,000 pieces, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. At the time, the collection was priced at a cool $19 million. But it was another sale that would eventually turn the estate into the chilling, abandoned home it is today.
In 1948, after years of the Widener family trying to get the estate off of their hands, Lynnewood Hall was finally sold to a developer for an astoundingly low price of $130,000. But then the developer sold the famous property once again to a local seminary. And from there, the mansion fell into disrepair.
Getting Rid Of All Its Splendor
From the time that the Faith Theological Seminary bought Lynnewood Hall in 1952, there was no turning back. The process of stripping the mansion of its grandeur had begun. The group sold off over 350 acres of the manor’s land, leaving the once massive estate to occupy a total of just 33 acres. But then it got worse.
To offset the costs of buying such a large property, the seminary sold all of the silks, velvets, and other lavish furnishings that were left in the home. The walnut and gold panels were torn from the walls, the marble was stripped away, and the rare landscape ornaments were sold at auctions. All that was left were the creepy, empty interiors that were slowly chipping away.
After just a few years, the Faith Theological Seminary was no longer able to afford Lynnewood Hall. Everyone who had been staying in the building quickly packed up their things and moved out, leaving the home that was once one of the most glamorous in the country now completely abandoned.
The gardens had been left unmanicured and overgrown. Paint was chipping from the walls, and animals had even begun to take up residence in the mansion. The property was closed off to visitors, but some curious photographers were able to sneak inside to see what remains. And while Lynnewood Hall has been largely forgotten over time, there’s still hope of bringing it back to its former glory.
Waiting For A New Owner
In 2014, Lynnewood Hall was listed for sale at $20 million, but there were no takers. Years later, the price was reduced to $17.5 million. And in 2017, the largest privately-owned home from the Gilded Age was finally sold for a measly $11 million.
But there is one mystery: no one knows who bought the old Widener estate. The only thing that anyone knows about the property’s new owner is that he or she estimated that they would need $50 million to restore the property back to what it once was. Until those renovations take place, Lynnewood Hall has been left to sit and wait. But it’s not waiting in vain.
Saving Lynnewood Hall
In 2003, Philadelphia officials declared that Lynnewood Hall would be protected under the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a distinction given only to the most endangered historic properties. A century after the home was first built, it is still considered to be the 12th largest historic home in the entire United States.
In the future, after some much needed TLC, the public might be able to see the inside of “The Last American Versailles”. But until then, Widener’s legacy sits abandoned as a relic of America’s past, showing how far its former owner rose in wealth and status, and how quickly it all came crumbling down.
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