Cosby’s Neighbor Is a Crumbling 110-Room Palace Pillaged by One of the Nuttiest Preachers in Evangelical History
It was a temple to excess brimming with priceless art. But the Titanic crushed its builder, and the once world-famous Philly palace Lynnewood Hall was left to a terrible fate.
Ankle-jewelry-wearing-comedian Bill Cosby himself awaits sexual assault sentencing in his stately mansion while under house arrest. Meanwhile, just five minutes away another monument to a bygone era awaits it fate.
Cosby’s hundreds of millions of dollars didn’t allow the “Father of America” to escape justice in an ever-evolving society more aware sex crimes. But many folks around the icon of nouveau riche excess at Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, hope that some big money will swoop in from somewhere and save this behemoth from Father Time.
The 110-room Lynnewood Hall is the main building on a property currently owned by the First Korean Church of New York, which is headed by Dr. Rev. Richard S. Yoon. The building is about 120 years old and looks it. The property, totalling a few dozen acres, sits in the center of a bustling, diverse, affluent neighborhood just outside of Philly. Stuck in constant court battles over First and 14th Amendment rights regarding taxes and zoning (Yoon’s church basically tried to say it was a place of worship and exempt from taxes. The courts said, “Nah.”), for the last five years or so the property has been up for sale. It started off at $20 million. It can be had for a cool $15.5 million now.
Preservationists worry that without a sale, we’ll lose one of the great examples of an important time in the nation’s history. Neighbors take issue with unkempt portions of the property. The owner at this point just wants to keep his head above water until he can sell the place.
A cease-fire was agreed to last September but hints are the battle may begin again.
But this pad wasn’t all school taxes, mixed-uses variances and million-dollar price cuts back in the day. At the turn of the century some of the fastest race horses and finest artwork in the world called it home. It’s owners were walking, talking, profligately spending manifestations of conspicuous consumption, and when they threw a party newspapers from all over sent reporters to cover it.
As the mighty Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean so did the hopes and dreams of one of America’s wealthiest men.
Gilded Age industrialist Peter A.B. Widener’s son and grandson went down with the ship. In some ways his palatial estate and Titanic-sized home in suburban Philadelphia slowly began sinking at that moment too, though his remaining son kept it going until the early 1940s.
The focal point of the property about 10 miles north of central Philadelphia was a big-ass 110-room neoclassical monstrosity designed in the late 1890s by Horace Trumbauer. Like a good Europhile working for new money, he based the design on a Georgian Mansion in the English town of Bath. At least 100 servants were employed by the Widener family at the property.
P.A.B. Widener’s grandson wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote that about the art collection at Lynnewood was the “last of the American Versailles.”
Trumbauer was one of the go-to architects for that era, and was best known for the over-the-top palaces paid for by men who made their money between the Civil War and the Great War (cough, cough) aka Robber barons.
Widener already had an extravagant house in Philly at Broad Street and Girard Avenue. But he was so wealthy he didn’t even sell it. He donated it to the city while he was still alive to be used as a library. (Of course, with Philly politicians being Philly politicians, it eventually got screwed up. The library was relocated in the 1960s and the old Widener house burnt down in 1980. It’s a KFC now.)
While Lynnewood Hall possessed eye-catching grandeur from the outside, the inside was even more legendary. After Trumbauer finished his weapon of mass construction, Widener set off to Europe to pimp his palace out with the finest paintings U.S. dollars could buy. He picked up on Manet and Renoir before all the rich kids in America did. His family’s collection of 2,000 pieces of art, including two Vermeer’s, would go on to make up a significant chunk of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Of course if you’re gonna drop some major coin on Raphaels and Donatellos you may as well cover up those plain plaster walls with bodacious royal swag.
“He collected in the princely tradition; antique furniture, tapestries, and decorative arts created a palatial setting for his Old Master paintings and sculpture,” according to his brief National Gallery of Art bio.
Even before the untimely death of his eldest son, George, Peter Widener’s youngest son, Joseph, routinely served as his wingman in Picasso procurement.
Oh, and that “Princely Tradition” in his bio is an understatement. In order to complete the “Rembrandt Room” at their home, the Wideners sought two paintings from a Russian prince. Prince Youssoupoff refused to sell though. But Joseph Widener kept at it. World War I slowed down the art trade but it also slowed down Russian royalty. Joe caught up with Yousoupoff’s son Felix, who had killed Rasputin in the interim (for real), and made him an offer he couldn’t afford to refuse.
Or as Joe’s son, Arnell, put it in his book about his family: “It took a world war, the fall of an empire and the misfortune of an exiled prince to bring the coveted Rembrandt’s to Lynnewood,” he wrote.
Youssoupoff blew all of his money while in exile but was smart enough to keep those paintings around in case he needed cash. In this case he got about $500,000 from Widener, which held him over until he could sue people who made movies about him killing Rasputin. He didn’t sue about the murder part being incorrect. He sued when the stories insinuated his wife was unfaithful. Cool dude.
The displaced prince sued Widener too saying he didn’t “sell” the Rembrandts but rather used them as security for a loan. Widener Joe scoffed at the idea of Lynnewood Hall being a pawn shop for plutocrats, called Youssoupoff a “buffoon,” and won the lawsuit.
The Russian nobles weren’t the only rich folks on the ropes however. Much of Europe’s old money aristocrats were hurting economically. The Wideners were just one American family that pounced.
Art critic Robert Hughes surmised it this way: “It [was] my cash for your past.”
The most prominent Rembrandt in the collection was The Mill. The purchase of The Mill is considered by many art historians as “one of the most controversial in the history of the art trade,” according to a 2002 article by Esmée Quodbach in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. Peter basically outbid Britain’s National Gallery for it in 1911. The seller was a trustee of the gallery and it was expected that he’d give the home team a discount. Before it was shipped off to Philly under protest, it was put on display for two days at the National Gallery. More than 22,000 people swung by to get one last peek.
P.A.B. Widener admitted he overpaid for The Mill but explained to friends that it was an investment and the acquisition for that price instantly increased the value of the rest of his Rembrandts.
Sometimes a robber baron just has to build an addition to the palace in order to house his art. So the Wideners built an art gallery for the mansion, which had a Rembrandt Room, a Raphael Room, and so on.
There was also a dedicated Van Dyck room of course. But what if the Van Dyck you want is in Italy and the government says it can’t leave? That’s when you do the art smuggler version of the “banana in the tailpipe trick.” It became known as the “Exhaust Pipe Plot.”
Joseph Widener gave the low down on what he wanted to the right French art dealer. The dealer called his “guy” in Italy. The “guy” grabbed the longest car he could find, rolled up the painting and stashed under the car so it looked like a car part. He drove to the border and the customs guards were none the wiser. The Van Dyck got to Paris and on to Philly.
The walls the art hung on and the floors visitors stood on were given the first class treatment as well. The walls were covered with red velvet and the floor sported a 17th century carpet from Isfahan. For the ceiling of his library, he bought a ceiling from an Italian palace painted by Tiepolo.
In 1931 the Italian Foreign Minister stopped by for a visit before heading off to Washington D.C. Signor Dino Grandi popped in Lynnewood Hall with a police escort and remarked that he “Viewed one of the best collections of Italian Art in the World.”
Joseph Widener bragged that he got his bust of St. John out of Italy before Mussolini came to power. Grandi responded that Mussolini would have let it out if he knew how beautifully Widener planned on displaying it. Now that’s a smart cabinet member of a dictator.
Other notables that made house calls to Lynnewood include Beatriz, Infanta of Spain and Alonzo, the King of Spain’s bro. The Crown Prince of Sweden and the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia. That’s “Grand” Duchess. Eat your heart out, Meghan Markle.
But plenty of people besides the filthy, stinking, rich got the see all of that art too. Because what good is it to have a cornucopia of coveted canvas unless you bring in your local commoner peeps to see it? It’s real good when you bring in 5,000 of them.
When Peter A.B. Widener and his sons threw a party The New York Times covered it. One particular gala in 1911 included several two-and-a-half mile steeplechase horse races outside, and viewings of those Rembrandt paintings inside. Yes, the Wideners had a horse racing track on their front yard. Oh, and polo of course. Can’t forget the polo.
The finest of fine East Coast socialites attended. And some of them got runover by horses. When a socialite gets run over by a horse you know the party is for real. I mean for real for real.
The horse, named Meltonere, threw his jockey during a fall over a fence and then bolted into the crowd, “Seriously injuring a lady around the scalp,” according to a magazine from the day. She lived. Good. The jockey died from his injuries. That’s terrible.
Joseph Widener built the Hialeah Park Race Track in Miami and he was the head of New York’s Belmont Park. He kept stables at Lynnewood Hall, in New York and in Churchill Downs. Yes, where the Kentucky Derby is run.
Speaking of the Kentucky Derby. The “Derby” part of the race name comes from an aristocratic English family’s name. They visited Lynnewood Hall too. In 1930 the Earl of Derby hung out with Joseph Widener for a few weeks before heading down to Kentucky to see the 56th running of the race named after his clan.
In his will P.A.B. directed Joseph to donate the art collection at some point to Philadelphia, New York, or Washington, D.C. He even allowed for an extra $10 million if he chose New York to accommodate perceived expenses. Philly naturally thought they had the upper hand as the hometown favorite and with the Philadelphia Art Museum in place. But Joseph Widener preferred D.C. because he felt it was more accessible than Philly or NYC for the masses.
The first step toward such unbridled excess took place four decades earlier, when P.A.B. got his break supplying mutton to the Union troops during the Civil War.
Widener was born in Philadelphia in 1834. Educated in public schools, he got to work before finishing high school. His dad was a brickmaker, but P.A.B didn’t see that as having much potential. He became a butcher and was apparently noted for his cutting ability.
He took a loan to start his own shop and then began expanding.
It was while in his butcher shop that he saw the need for a grid of public transportation service to get customers to businesses. He invested his mutton money heavily in trolleys and real estate. He also realized to pull this off he’d have to become politically involved in Philadelphia. Naturally, he became the city’s treasurer.
He also became friends with William Elkins. Yes, that’s where the name Elkins Park came from. It was this partnership that enabled both men to prosper. With Elkins money and Widener’s political clout they built a trolley empire, branched out to other cities, then reinvested in oil.
P.A.B.’s son George married Elkins daughter Eleanor.
Oil is not all they invested in.
The Wideners invested some of their fortune in the White Star Line, which built the Titanic. In fact P.A.B. Widener’s eldest son George, on the board the the inaugural trip, was on the board of the bank that owned International Mercantile Marine (IMM), the owners of the ship.
Naturally he and his family hopped on for the maiden voyage. The night the ship hit the iceberg Captain Edward Smith enjoyed a dinner given in his honor by the Wideners. It was their last meal.
George Dutton Widener and his son, Harry Elkins Widener, went down with the ship.
P.A.B. Widener struggled to accept the loss of his son and grandson. Despite reports saying there was no indication they could have survived, Widener left Lynnewood Hall for New York to personally oversee the search for his kin. The last quote from the Widener clan as they left their home was from Joseph saying, “There was still a chance.”
It was not to be. The only family survivor was Eleanor Elkins Widener, P.A.B.’s daughter-in-law. She was prominent enough to be one of 13 survivors pictured on the front of the April 17 New York Times cover. She dedicated her life to philanthropy after the disaster. She commissioned building the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University in honor of her son (Trumbauer got the gig). A condition of that donation stipulated, “that each graduate of Harvard pass a swimming test.” Oof.
After their death the events at Lynnewood Hall were subdued. Two months after the disaster a the daughter of George and Eleanor got married but a “simple ceremony was performed... in place of the elaborate wedding which had been planned.”
P.A.B. Widener died three years later. Doctors attributed his death in part to, “deep sorrow caused by the loss of his son and grandson in the Titanic disaster.”
Today the property is trimmed down from the 200 plus acres to 30-something acres. The area with the racetrack was sold off long ago, but the track is still clearly visible from above because the developer utilized it as a road.
Lynnewood Hall slowly began to decay after P.A.B.’s son Joseph Widener’s death in 1943. In the 1940s a developer purchased the bulk of the land (the racetrack area and more) for a little less than $660,000. That area is a housing development called Lynnewood Gardens today. The mansion, however, didn’t sell after years on the market. None of the Wideners wanted it. The same developer purchased it for $130,000 in 1948. He didn’t find a buyer until 1952.
The Reverend Carl McIntire plunked down $190,000 for the title and kicked in another $150,000 to update the electrical system and repair some vandalism damage, all according to McIntire’s biographers. They also say he saved a few bucks buying surplus paint from the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Hence many of the walls were painted battleship gray.
McIntire, considered to be conservative even by evangelical Christian standards, used Lynnewood Hall as a theological school. He was so conservative he actually called Oral Roberts a “Fraud and a fake.” In 1935 he got the boot from the Presbyterian Church. He had called their missionaries “too liberal.” He was found guilty of “sowing dissension within the church” by an ecclesiastical court. It. He formed his own Presbyterian Church.
A big proponent of McCarthyism in the early 1950s, McIntire remained a fierce opponent of communism well beyond that time. He even led a March of 14,000 to Washington in 1971 to protest Nixon’s “pingpong diplomacy,” which referred to a series of table tennis matches between American and Chinese team. So basically this dude would have hated Forrest Gump.
McIntire made his money through contributions from followers, most of which listened to his 30-minute radio show each week. The show was blasted out of a suburban Philly radio station to more than 600 stations.
The FCC shut him down for violation of the “fairness doctrine,” which required radio stations to give equal time to anyone attacked on the air. Religious and civic groups complained about C-Mac. According to one clergyman, McIntire was just using the show to spout his, “highly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Roman Catholic” views to the world.
Not to be deterred, McIntire, who said the FCC would have taken Jesus Christ of the air, decided to start a pirate radio broadcast. He picked up an boat, a decommissioned navy minesweeper, and set out for international waters of the coast of Cape May, New Jersey. The Coast Guard put a quick stop to it.
A two year legal battle between McIntire and the FCC ensued. He lost and hundreds of radio stations bailed on him, separating him from the people who donated close to $4 million annually. The empire began to crumble.
John Lupoli taught and lived in the mansion during McIntire’s ownership. Luploi was Head of Bible Development for one of McIntire’s schools.
“It was a full-fledged seminary” Luploi said, adding that there 200 to 300 folks attending at a time.
“The building was great… there was a huge vestibule in there,” he said. Lupoli described the place as being full of murals, tapestries, fine carpets and a, “Tiffany ceiling,” saying it was, “Undeniably beautiful.”
But it didn’t last.
The way Lupoli describes it, McIntire was surrounded by people who just wanted the money.
“They just started selling things off,” Lupoli said.
They auctioned off fountains, “a giant eagle [sculpture],” and many of the fine furnishings.
“[They] stole the money and ran,” Lupoli said of the people around McIntire.
The slate roof eventually collapsed. There was major water damage. The costs to repair were high. McIntire only utilized a small section of the building so the damaged area was basically sealed off.
“I got out of it,” Lupoli explained, despite wanting and trying to take over the property himself. “It was totally stripped.”
The sell-off didn’t get McIntire out of the red however. He got in more trouble through a series of loans he took on, including one from a student named Richard Yoon. When all of the court BS dust settled Richard Yoon took over the property in late 1996.
Yoon was the head of the First Korean Church of New York. He spent a lot of time fighting with local authorities over taxes and zoning. Whatever his vision of the property had been it was never realized. Calls to him and the Church have gone unreturned.
The buildings and property fell into disrepair. The facades look a bit weathered. The black iron gate around the property looks strong, perhaps needing a coat of paint. The landscaping has been neglected. The occasional dead tree topples during heavy storms. But it is the interior and the structural integrity that are the serious questions for preservationists. In 2013, a photographer was allowed to shoot the interior, and the stunning photos of unparalleled ruin porn went viral.
Last September Cheltenham township and Yoon entered into an agreement. Yoon would spruce up the property and get engineering reports on the buildings.
“Obviously the township wants to see the buildings, uhh, not fall down,” said Township Manager Bryan Havir, adding that they’ve been listed as “not habitable."
The first building inspected, not Lynnewood Hall but a smaller building nearby, resulted in unfavorable situation for Yoon.
The costs associated with the repair, “caused some pause [for Yoon]” Havis explained. Yoon told them it may need to be demolished. The township advised him to get other estimates, which could be much lower. Yoon has refused to have Lynnewood Hall inspected as yet.
Havir called Yoon’s hesitation a, “self-imposed obstacle.”
The township would like to see Yoon get a certified appraisal of the property. Numbers he has put out there have it at $50 million but developers who’ve taken a look give estimates “that don’t jibe with that,” said Havir.
Havir doesn’t know what Yoon wants to do with the property and says he doesn’t think Yoon knows what he wants to do with the property either.
The township’s preference is for preservation but at this point would accept a “revenue generating” situation. Last year they altered the zoning to allow many more potential uses.
In the meantime he’s paying about $150,000 in property-related taxes a year.
Frank Johnson is Yoon’s realtor.
“It’s a national treasure in my opinion,” Johnson told The Daily Beast.
But he’s taking and making all calls no matter what the buyer’s plan for the property. When he heard about Amazon’s HQ2 plans he called them saying it would be “ideal.” They did not respond.
Johnson says thanks to the new zoning the property and buildings could be used as a “hospital, estate home, golf course, mixed use [development], town houses… possibly a hotel.”
Johnson also sees potential for a movie production company.
“I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t picked up on it,” he said, citing successful period-pieces like Downton Abbey.
Johnson said he’s fielded calls from, “The Netherlands, Austria, New York, California, and Texas, along with local developers.”
The property is on the market for $15.5 million. A few years ago it was up for $20 million.
Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, agrees with the significance of the property.
He said buildings like Lynnewood Hall, “Tell the story of the New Rich, self-made industrialists. These are elites [who came from] modest or humble beginnings.”
The property has generated, “A flurry of activity in the past few years,” Grossi explained.
“I get a call about once a month,” he said. “Usually from folks outside the region.”
Grossi isn’t as worried about the structural integrity as Havir and Lupoli though.
“You’d be surprised at what kind of life a building like that has,” he said, adding “This is a monster.”
Grossi pointed out though that securing the interior from water and other elements is of the utmost importance. If a buyer is able to conform to national standards there could be tax credits from the feds and the state.
Water damage and how much it would take to restore the home to its original splendor is what scared former head of Bible Development John Lupoli away.
For Lupoli the ship has sailed.
“You’d have to spend a gazillion dollars to get it back to where it was,” he said. Adding he was disappointed that his efforts to acquire the property way back when went for naught.
“I tried to resurrect something,” he said.
But the sorry state of the mansion begs the question: Where is the Widener money now?
Well it’s a tricky question. There were several marriages with other wealthy families so it got messy. One such intermarriage with clear Widener lines goes straight to owning the Philadelphia 76ers. Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr is son of that first marriage at Lynnewood Hall after the Titanic sunk. He inherited Widener money through his mother Eleanor as well as his childless uncle. He invested in all of the Philly sports teams, the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, even the box lacrosse Wings. But his five-year ownership of the Sixers was notable in that he brought in Dr.J. Dixon also bought the famous Love sculpture, which still sits in the famous center city park named after the sculpture.
A more fun line to trace is one that ended with James W. Ray, and brings the family history full circle. That’s W for Widener of course.
Ray spent his childhood traveling the world and then getting a $1 million annual allowance when he turned 21 in 1973. He went on a crazy spending spree, dropped out of community college, and partied it up. He got into drugs and was also diagnosed as bipolar. He was hospitalized countless times.
By all accounts Ray’s life eventually turned around.
When he died in 2006 he left everything, about $80 million, to his nonprofit, The Raynier Institute and Foundation. The focus is on homelessness, addiction, and the arts.
They celebrate Ray’s unorthodox nature. They’ve given grants to music festivals, monasteries, and a UFO museum.
One grant, a $2 million one to Project HOME in Philly, turned a foreclosed apartment complex into 53-units for mostly former homeless people. The location of the project is 21st and Venango streets in North Philly, a mere 10 minutes from where P.A.B. Widener built his first mansion at Broad Street and Girard Avenue.