Peter A. B. Widener was born in 1834 and raised in Philadelphia. He was of humble origins but he had a brilliant business mind. While still a young man in his twenties, he met and became a business partner with William L. Elkins. In 1858 he married Hannah Dunton and they had three children. Through various small business endeavors at first he slowly began to build his personal wealth. By the 1880s, he was in control of Philadelphia’s streetcar (known as traction, by term) system and working with Elkins was able to expanded this transportation system which eventually adopted electric power. His wealth grew as he became involved with the steel and tobacco industries in America, and joined the executive boards of various companies.
Widener had a mansion built in Philadelphia in in the late 1890s, but he decided he needed a larger home for his family and his expanding art collection. William Elkins had commissioned Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer to design a new mansion for him, and it was through Elkins that Widener met Trumbauer. Discussions between the architect and Widener resulted in a neoclassical residence having over 100 rooms and several galleries for Windner’s art collection. Completed in 1900, it was named Lynnewood Hall and was situated on 300 acres. The estate grounds were designed by famed lancscape architect Jacques Greber and work on the design of the gardens and surround acreage continued for several years after completion of the mansion.
Widener’s wife Hannah had died in 1896, but his son George Dunton and his wife Eleanor (the daughter of William Elkins) and the couple’s three children moved into Lynnewood Hall. Trumbauer had designed a superb residence for the Wideners. It boosted the architect’s stature among Philadelphia’s wealthy and would draw more attention to him for commissions in other parts of the country. Less than two decades later, Trumbauer would design an even larger mansion and estate for Drexel & Co. financier Edward T. Stotesbury and his wife Eva. This was Whitemarsh Hall located in Wyndmoor, roughly five miles away from Lynnewood Hall.
George D. Widener was called on by his father to handle more and more of the Widener financial holdings, but tragedy struck in April 1912. George Widener, his son Harry and their valet had booked a return trip to American on the Titanic. The three men perished in the sinking of the liner. P.A.B. Widener’s other son Joseph Early inherited the estate of his father upon the elder Widener’s death in 1915. Even then, Forbes magazine kept a list of the wealthiest men in the United States, and the magazine estimated Joseph E. Widener’s wealth at $60 million, or over half a billion dollars in today’s currency.
Lynnewood Hall would remain central to the Widener family’s activities over the next several decades, and the estate remained in the family even during the Great Depression. Joseph Widener began breeding and racing horses, and this became an active endeavor of the family at the other Widener estates in America. Most of P. A. B. Widener’s excellent art collection was eventually donated to the National Gallery of Art by the early 1940s. Joseph E. Widener passed away at Lynnewood Hall on October 26, 1943. His son George D. Widener remained active in the family businesses, including horse breeding and racing. As a result, the Wideners and their relatives spent less and less time at Lynnewood Hall.
In 1944, the Widener estate contents, but not the mansion and grounds, was put up for auction. For the first time, Lynnewood Hall became vacant, although a caretaker was hired to keep watch over the mansion and grounds. That same year, a Philadelphia developer, Harry Robinson, purchased the 220 acre farm of the original Lynnewood Hall estate for just under $660,000 in order to build housing. This housing community was named Lynnewood Gardens. Still no buyers were found for the mansion, and none of the members of the Widener or Elkins families wanted it. In 1948 Robinson purchased Lynnewood Hall at a sheriff’s auction. According to local papers, the mansion and the remaining 34 acres surrounding it sold for a mere $130,000.
Robinson endeavored over the next four years to interest a buyer in the historic mansion, and convert it to some appropriate use. Finally, a fundamentalist pastor by the name of Dr. Carl McIntire expressed interest in Lynnewood Hall in 1952 and a new saga would unfold surrounding the mansion.
Sources: Whitmire, David. “The Wideners: An American Family.” January 2008. Note: much of the history and genealogy of the Widener, Elkins and related families is recorded in a book commissioned by George D. Widener, researched and written by Thomas Bateman and published in 1958, titled Widener-Dunton-Elkins-Broomall & Allied Families, which provided much of the information for Whitmire’s history. Also: Rubin, Daniel, “A Palace Languishes After the Glory Days.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 1990.