And now for something completely different…
The Elkins Estate is located in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The estate contains seven buildings, the most notable being Elstowe Manor and Chelten House, mansions designed by Horace Trumbauer.
Elstowe Manor was built in 1898 at the location where “Needles”, the former family summer home of William L. Elkins, had stood. Elkins, a Philadelphia businessman, was integral in the formation of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, the forerunner of SEPTA.
This 45-room manor House was built in the style of Italian High Renaissance. The unique interior features, such as the ornate carved wood and gilded molding, marble columns and accents, frescoed ceilings, gargoyles and the like, were crafted in Europe and shipped to the United States, where they were assembled on site. The interior was designed by renowned French interior decor experts Allard et Fils, which accounts for the distinctly French feel in some of the rooms. The home is anchored on either side by a large library and drawing room. Between these are two wings, one containing a breakfast room and dining room and the other a billiard room and den, with a separate wing leading to a large gallery. These wings all lead to a grand staircase in the center of the house. The second floor has nine bedrooms, three dressing rooms, and seven baths. The third floor and raised basement are servant quarters. With the mansion, Trumbauer also designed the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the estate along with a small gatehouse, a powerhouse, and an eight-car garage.
In 1932, William H. Elkins, grandson of William L. Elkins, sold the Elstowe manor property to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci. Chelten House was owned by Philadelphia cigarette manufacturer Stephen X. Stephano. After the death of his wife, Penelope, he sold Chelten House to the Dominican Sisters in 1948.
The Dominican Sisters operated both buildings (known as the Dominican Retreat House) as a women’s religious retreat and preserved the grounds and historical integrity of the buildings. Thousands of women and men attended retreats, days of prayer, and other spiritual programs for 75 years. Women would come to pray, meditate and find a place of refuge and reflection. At its peak, as many as 14,000 women and men came to the Dominican Retreat House in one year. The dedication of the sisters to preservation of the historic mansions on the estate was extraordinary and today, in 2013, the original features and architectural details remain intact. It was described as the most significant example of Gilded Age architecture in the region by John Gallery of the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance.
Over time, the needs of people coming on retreat changed, and the economic challenges of operating the buildings became unsustainable for the Dominican Sisters. The Dominican Retreat House was at the time of its closing in 2006 the oldest retreat house for women in the United States.
In February 2009, the Dominican Sisters sold the 42-acre property to the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park, PA, who intended to use the facility for group spiritual, health and wellness education retreats, and also as a venue for elegant special events. The property was reopened in September 2009 as Elkins Estate and has hosted a number of wedding receptions and events. But the conservancy could not keep up payments to the sisters who held the mortgage. In November 2010, because of numerous missed payments, including a $250,000 payment on the principal, the Dominican congregation foreclosed on the property, and the conservancy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The property was in bankruptcy reorganization until October 2012, when the case was dismissed.