The Story of the Abandoned Mansion's Heir Who Perished Aboard the Titanic
| LAST UPDATE 05/16/2023
Lynnewood Hall was recognized as one of the most extravagant homes in the United States. With 110 rooms, every corner was a work of art. Tragically, after the Titanic sank, the beautiful mansion came crumbling down, leaving nothing but a shell of once was...
A Relic of History
When Lynnewood Hall was built at the turn of the 20th century, few could have ever predicted the grim fate that lay ahead. At its prime, the mansion was the peak of class. However, today, it stands in disarray.
The nearly 500-acre piece of property lies on Philidelphia's outskirts and is a testament to the city's riches during the Gilded Age, which saw a boom of industrial wealth in the 1870s. But today? The building is a shell of what once was. However, to understand what happened, let's go back to the beginning.
The Millionaire and His Mansion
Lynnewood Hall came to be after a three-year construction period, which lasted between 1897 to 1900. It boasted an extraordinary 110 rooms, in addition to occupying a huge accompanying property. However, what is a castle without its king? And Lynnewood Hall had quite the inhabitor.
The enormous mansion was the home of Peter A.B. Widener. A Philidelphia native himself, Peter claimed his fortune as a serial entrepreneur, with empires in the automotive and steel industry. With all his conquests, he came one of the 50 wealthiest people in American history.
A Life of Luxury
And with millions to his name, the catchphrase "work hard, play hard," couldn't have been more apt for Peter and his family. Thanks to the hard work of the Widener patriarch, the family enjoyed a life of glitz and glam. And Peter, too, enjoyed the finer things in life.
Like so many works from the Gilded Age depict, this era of American history was known for booming industry and excessive wealth for a number of American business owners. And as one of them, Peter used his funds to build a world of luxury with which to surround himself.
Part of His Empire
And that extended beyond the city limits of Philidelphia, Pennsylvania. Pictured below was the Widener's Palm Beach residence, known as Il Palmetto. Peter and his family were known to regularly spend their winters on this Floridian estate to escape the cold northern winter months.
And they certainly knew how to vacation in style. The estate basted the same extravagant grandeur as its Philadelphian counterpart, with the added benefit of a beachfront location. However, as lush as Peter's life was, no amount of money could soften the devastating blow that came his way.
A Mansion of Sadness
As idealistic as the estate appeared, Peter's life was full of sadness. His passion for living disappeared before his very eyes one fateful day. His wife, Hannah, perished suddenly whilst boating with her family off the shores of Maine. Widowed a year before construction began, Peter was left a broken man.
The news of Hannah's death spun Peter into a state of deep sadness, and he fought hard to escape it. His former home, a townhouse located in the city's center on Broad Street, reminded him of his late wife. He set out to build something that would live on centuries after he passed. Unfortunately, his wish wouldn't come true.
Peter's Multi-Million Vision
Still reeling from the loss of his wife, Peter threw himself into the project of building a timeless testament of his and his family's abundant wealth. And he knew just the man to call who could make it happen. Widener enlisted the help of Horace Trumbauer, one of the leading luxury designers of his time.
Lynnewood mansion was one of Trumauer's largest projects. And to ensure luxury oozed from every corner, the legendary designer leaned on other outrageous builds from near and far. Some of his many influences included Prior Park in Bath, U.K., and Ballingarry estate in New Jersey. But this project was a whole new level.
At the end of three years of building, Peter's dream - with the help of Trumauer's skillfully design - was completed. According to archival documentation, Lynnewood Hall cost the automotive entrepreneur an estimated $8 million to build from start to finish. It was Peter's dream display of wealth.
But the construction was no small feat. It was estimated that Peter's home required 70,000 square feet of limestone to form the 100-plus rooms on the grounds. From 20 bathrooms to 33 lavish bedrooms, the mansion checked all of Peter's boxes. However, he wouldn't be able to enjoy it for long.
One of Many
And while Peter and his mansion had many unique characteristics, it was not the only one of its kind in Pennslyvania. Pictured below was another one of the State's relics from the Gilded Age: the Whitemarsh Hall. This estate was the former home of Edward and Eva Stotesbury.
This grand property occupied nearly four times the space than the White House in Washington and displayed all the showings of the Gilded Age and its millionaires. But with all the jaw-dropping size came daunting responsibilities. And Peter, like many other estate owners, learned that owning a mansion was no walk in the park.
The Daily Upkeep
As the archival footage shows, Peter's Lynnewood Hall was no simple cottage - and it definitely wasn't accessorized with simple decor. The 400-acre estate consisted of 110 unique rooms. And with a private and public art collection, swimming pool, and grounds to manage, there was seldom a lack of work to be done.
On a regular day, Peter required a competent staff of nearly 100 workers. For the indoors, 37 full-time cleaners managed the interior, while the grounds had a rotating directory of 60 gardeners and groundskeepers. But one glance through the building explained the reasoning behind the staffing.
But despite the taxing upkeep, the over-the-top design was precisely what Peter wanted when he set out to build his home. He wanted his hard-earned wealth to be on display from the moment someone entered the building, thus resulting in his lavish grand foyer.
Just to get inside the building required pushing two heavy sets of doors - one covered in bronze and the second covered in gold. But that was just the beginning. Upon entry, guests were greeted with towering columns and intricate tile work. It was the epitome of class.
Extravagence in Every Room
While Trumbauer handled the building's exterior, Widener turned to famous interior designers to handle the mansion's decor. He enlisted the help of William Baumgarten and Jules Allard et Fils, a design firm from France. Together, they set out to display Peter's wealth on a new level.
And they clearly met their brief. As the Philidelphia Inquirer put it, the mansion 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."
Wandering Through the Mansion
So while the checkered floors of the grand foyer made quite the impression, they were just a taste of what was to come. The steps leading to the first floor of the mansion promised a world of class as they displayed some of the most exquisite pieces of art known to man at the time.
But for those familiar with Widener, this decor came as no surprise. He was a prolific art lover and had collected quite the catalogue over the years. That included a portrait of himself, painted by famed John Singer Sargent, known as "leading portrait painter of his generation." It felt as though every corner oozed with wealth.
Entertaining the Thousands
Like many extravagant millionaires of his time, Peter Widener got no greater thrill than hosting hoards of friends at his mansion. After all, the house was meant to be a display of all his achievements - so what better way to show it off than host grand parties and soirées? Luckily, he had just the space for it.
Peter insisted upon a 2,550-square-foot ballroom space that could fit 1,000 guests! It boasted all the finishes of a million-dollar mansion including expensive walnut paneling and gold decals running along throughout the room. Peter frequently used the space to host parties with live bands that would play into the night.
His Own Personal Touch
But while Peter's parties eventually came to an end, the sheer extravagance of his home did not. Widener made sure that every room - no matter how big or small - had a level of luxury that was to die for. And that included his own private sleeping quarters.
The Widener patriarch's bedroom represented all the fine things in life that the businessman cherished. From hand-designed ceiling stenciling to a crystal chandelier, the Philadelphian mogul spared no expense in creating his dream home. And he ensured it displayed his most cherished possessions.
His Private Gallery
As a lover of all things one-of-a-kind and expensive, Peter had spent the majority of his life collecting some of the most unique pieces of art. And while the majority of his house was used to display his riches to the world, he also reserved a modest part of the house just for himself.
This room was Peter's private art gallery. His collection of 19th-century European classics was at one point thought of as one of the best in the world. But one private gallery wasn't enough, so Peter had to take his collection down the hall to another jaw-dropping room...
His Wealth on Display
Peter had more fine art than anyone he knew of. And he was so proud of his collection that he created a second gallery space, which was open to the public. It was the perfect way to display his riches, which in 1998 was equivalent to a net worth of roughly $25 billion.
The walls of his home gave public galleries a run for their money and included great pieces by some of the leading artists of the 19th-century, in addition to the Old Masters. From Rembrandt to Renoir and Degas, Widener had it all and much, much more.
His Sprawling Property
And the decadence wasn't just confined to the many rooms of Peter's mansion, either. The surrounding property of Lynnewood Hall also put Widener's wealth on display. But rather than paintings and fur carpets, it was exquisite landscaping maintained by roughly 60 staff members.
The garden was designed by French landscaper Jacques Gréber, who brought to life a pristine Versailles-like vision with multiple gardens, enormous fountains, and public visiting spaces. From the moment guests stepped on the driveway, Peter wanted them to experience his endless wealth, which lead to some pretty lavish parties...
Endless Dinner Parties
Widener frequently opted to occupy himself with regular dinner parties in his epic dining room. In fact, during the planning stages of Lynnewood Hall, this extravagant room was designed to be one of the main focal points of the house. And from the gold trimmings to the expensive walnut tables, it definitely delivered.
Baumgarten fitted the room with marble panelings and some of the most sought-after art of the time, including two Gobelin tapestries. Peter's dining room also featured a sculpture from the 1600s of the great Prince Louis II de Bourbon. But amidst all the high-class decor were some amusing aspects as well...
Private Pools and More
Behind every door at Lynnewood Hall was a world of luxury and wealth, each grander than the last. But beyond the multi-million-dollar galleries and the marble statues, Peter's mansion had even more tricks up its sleeve. The property was so sprawling that it housed a reservoir of its own!
And with all that water at his disposal, Widener splurged on an indoor swimming pool just for himself in addition to other lush amenities such as a private electricity plant and squash court. The man knew no bounds when it came to the nicer things in life. But the status of Lynnewood Hall would soon come crashing down.
A Sudden Disaster
After three long years of construction, Widener was eager to relocate to the mansion of his dreams. But it wouldn't be his home for long. Just 15 years after moving into his not-so-humble abode, Widener passed away at the age of 80 after years of troublesome health.
The death of the Widener patriarch destroyed an already-mourning family. For only three years before Peter's death, the tragedy of the RMS Titanic had resulted in the tragic death of over 1,500 people. And for the Wideners, the incident hit close to home...
The Successor of the Widener Empire
Throughout Peter's successful life, he'd always imagined that his hard-earned wealth, including his beloved Lynnewood Hall, would be passed down to his first-born son, George Duncan Widener Sr. The two had a strong relationship personal and business relationship, and George dreamt of taking the Widener name to new heights.
The budding entrepreneur planned on expanding into the world of hotels and was scouting the streets of Paris in hopes of recruiting a chef for his latest endeavor, which would become the Philadelphia Ritz Carlton. And to treat his wife, Eleanor Elkins, and their son, Harry, George splurged on tickets on the RMS Titanic.
A Perilous Trip
The RMS Titanic had been the talk of the town as its maiden voyage approached. The enormous ship was the definition of class and George had even funded the project himself. And on his way back from France, he was eager to see his investment come to fruition.
And upon boarding, George and his family experienced the special treatment that came from being a Widener. According to witnesses, the heir to the Lynnewood mansion was one of the ship's most famous passengers and was believed to have hosted a magnificent dinner party on the ship that was attended by the captain himself!
April 15th, 1912
And unfortunately, most of the world knows what happened next. The luxurious ship, which was tragically understocked with lifeboats, crashed into an iceberg in the freezing Atlantic waters and 1,500 passengers drowned to their death. And two of the unfortunate victims were part of the Widener clan.
Peter Widener's son and grandson, George and Harry, were two of the 1,500 who perished in the icy waters that night, having sacrificed his final moments making sure his wife secured a spot on a lifeboat. And as for George? His remains were never found. Peter's wishes for the future of Lynnewood Hall perished with his son.
The Next in Line
With Peter's first choice as inheritor having passed away, the mansion was placed in the hands of George's younger brother, Joseph. The Widener brother opted to open his late father's glorious art collection to the public. From 1915 to 1940, the mansion's gallery was available via appointment, but all that changed in 1943.
Joseph shockingly passed away, leaving the grand Lynnewood Hall once again in a position of great uncertainty. But none of Joseph's kin were up to the enormous undertaking of having the mansion in their name. For the second time, a death in the Widener family threatened the future of Lynnewood Hall.
On the Market
However, in the lead up to Joseph's sudden passing, he had managed to bestow his father's jaw-dropping 2,000-piece collection of paintings to the National Gallery of Art, located in the nation's capital. And even back in the 1940s, the impressive body of works were appraised at $19 million.
But unlike Peter's paintings, the mansion didn't fall into the care of a passionate buyer. It was sold in 1948 for a measly $130,000 only to be sold once again to one of Philadelphia's seminaries. But it didn't take long for the once opulent home to spiral into a state of disarray.
A Shell of What Once Was
In 1952, Peter's dream property fell into the hands of Philadelphia's Fath Theological Seminary, which used the estate as their campus. But unlike those in the Widener family, the seminary wasn't interested in preserving the splendor of the mansion. It didn't take long for the mansion to start suffering under their ownership.
For starters, the group aimed to recoup some of the money they'd spent on the property. They sold off over 350 acres of the land, in addition to stripping the mansion of all its gold, marble, fur, and velvets for auctioning. Lynnewood Hall was a shell of what it once was.
The Building Left Deserted
However, even after reducing Lynnewood Hall to nothing but its skeleton, the Faith Theological Seminary still couldn't manage to pay the fees required to stay in the building. So just a few years after moving in, they packed up and moved on to a more affordable campus. But what about Lynnewood?
After being stripped of all its glory, the former Widener home was left barren and decrepit. The interior was deteriorating, in addition to the garden being neglected. While it was officially closed to the public, some adventurous photographers snuck in to document the mansion's current state.
Up for Sale Again
Flash forward a few decades, and the state of Lynnewood Hall has only worsened. In 2014, the decaying manor was put on the market once more for $20 million, however, it garnered no interest. A second attempt with a reduction in price also failed and finally the home sold for $11 million in 2017.
However, a huge question remains: who bought the Gilded Age home? According to reports, the only information on the recent purchase is that repairs were estimated at a jaw-dropping $50 million. But until the cash flow comes in, the home of one of the richest Americans of all time sits in complete and utter disarray.
One of Many
But Lynnewood Hall is just one of the hundreds of manors and historic buildings that are scattered across the United States. All around the country, historical organizations fight for these buildings to preserve the rich history that lines the walls. However, with restorations costs mounting, it's proven to be a difficult fight.
Take the Lyndhurst Mansion for example. This building, situated in the Hudson Valley, has been fighting for its survival. It was built in 1938 by AJ Davis, a famous American architect, and Gothic Revival enthusiast. And while this building has managed to get National Trust status, its future is precarious at best.
An Uncertain Future
After multiple changes in ownership and over 100 years of existence, Lynnewood Hall has managed to stand the test of time, despite having taken some serious beatings over the years. However, while the state of the property is dire, a committed group of preservationists are fighting for Lynnewood's survival.
Under the hashtag, #savelynnewoodhall, countless supporters have shared their stories and pictures of the once famed mansion. And while its status has diminished greatly over time, the building is still a living monument of the Gilded Age and one of the wealthiest Americans of all time.