The 110-room mansion has sat empty on Spring Avenue in Elkins Park for almost 25 years, encircled by wrought-iron gates and overgrown grounds. It’s guarded by loud dogs that might be vicious, for all observers can tell. And as for the state of its once-opulent interior, who can say? Perhaps only the caretaker.
That’s the seemingly unchanging narrative of Lynnewood Hall, the former estate of Peter A.B. Widener and family, two of whom died on the Titanic.
It would cost a fortune to buy, of course, and a second fortune to rehab. Almost a decade ago, Chadds Ford architect Mary DeNadai, who specializes in historic restoration and had toured the inside, estimated that it would require $10 million for basic repairs and upkeep, and $50 million to restore its former glory. She also told The Inquirer in 2012 that “if it continues to be neglected as it is, it will be beyond salvage” within five to 10 years.
Meanwhile, its listing agent, Berkshire Hathaway’s Frank Johnson, estimated in 2017 that it could be fixed up for as little as $3 million to $7 million.
With the condition of the house long shrouded in secrecy by its current owner, New York urologist and First Korean Church pastor Richard S. Yoon, it would seem almost anyone’s guess as to how far the Gilded Age estate has fallen.
Except for the YouTubers.
Pull up YouTube and punch in “Lynnewood Hall,” and you’ll find that, although historians and preservationists have been kept out, many foxy photographers and videographers have found a way in.
Videos range from amateur to polished, and they’re peppered with grainy historical stills, shaky-cam shots, doleful drone footage, and Ken Burns’ effects aplenty. Soundtracks include Polish death metal, a keyboard version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and Mac Miller’s screeching rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Some shooters respect the boundaries, merely narrating to their cameras from beyond the gates and/or floating a drone overhead. Others show the equivalent of a stakeout, assiduously avoiding the guard dogs. All of them capture the fading grandeur and creeping decay — peeling paint, water-damaged ceilings, hunks of marble accumulating in the indoor pool, walls stripped down to the brick.
And in the last six months, two amateur photographers were permitted inside on separate occasions, completely by chance.
Colin Patterson, a resident of Richboro, Bucks County, visited Lynnewood Hall in early March at the encouragement of his friend Kyle McGran, whose own 2017 video of Lynnewood Hall has 4.9 million views on YouTube. Patterson went early on a Sunday morning with his high-powered lens, with plans to shoot from beyond the fence.
“I had no, no, no expectation of getting in,” he said, maintaining that he and McGran — frequent explorers of abandoned properties — are respectful of the “No Trespassing” signs they come across. “We don’t break into places.”
But about two minutes into the video, he announces, “we actually just got permission” from the groundskeeper. (He declined to go on record about the specifics of how it happened.) He proceeds to jump the fence in full view of a cop car pulled over on Ashbourne Road. In later shots, the groundskeeper can be seen putting away a dog, and a walkie-talkie can be heard in the background.
Patterson proceeds to take a 45-minute tour of the mansion and its grounds — compressed to 21 minutes on YouTube. He spins around under the coffered ceiling in the great hall, pans across pews in the gilded library-turned-ballroom-turned-worship space, and fumbles around the sprawling basement guided by the light of his phone.
With no expectation of getting in, Patterson admits that he was unprepared, lacking a wide-angle lens, a flashlight, and a deep background of the house’s history beyond the basics. He misidentifies the servants’ quarters on the third floor as guest rooms, and he zooms in on dusty books left from Lynnewood’s years as a seminary as if they had a greater historical significance.
Commenters responded with quibbles, naturally, but many thanked Patterson and asked how he managed to get permission to go inside. “He was lucky and turned up at the right time,” one person replied. “Other explorers have been refused.”
Liam O’Mara, a Lansdale native and senior at Loyola University Maryland, had a similar stroke of luck when he went to Lynnewood Hall in mid-July. He knew of its reputation from a California friend and urban-exploration enthusiast who had told him, “It’s the hardest spot for any explorer.”
He and a friend from out of town drove to Elkins Park on a lark one afternoon. They visited another abandoned property nearby and came over to shoot photos of Lynnewood’s hulking exterior from the fence. As they walked, they were joined by a passing group of kids and another young woman who had also come to take faraway photos.
O’Mara saw a car pull up and suspected it was the groundskeeper. He approached and asked if there was any chance they could come in. Eventually the groundskeeper, who doesn’t speak much English, signaled for him to go to the gate, where the group went and waited for a while, hoping the caretaker would return. A Cheltenham Police car pulled up in the meantime.
“We were talking to the police for like 20 minutes,” O’Mara said. “And in the video, I cropped it on purpose, the cop goes, ‘[The groundskeeper]’s not going to let you in.’ And then I skip to the next clip of him letting us in.”
O’Mara and company cajoled the groundskeeper to give them a short, guided look inside for 20 minutes. The groundskeeper said no photos were allowed, so the footage O’Mara took amounts to just 3½ minutes. He was compelled to take a video, he said. “It’s just something I probably would regret forever if I didn’t.”
The hurried shots of the house’s interior show first and second floors much better preserved than the third floor, where water damage has slowly chewed through the ceilings, exposing their beams and joists.
But part of O’Mara’s takeaway from his incomplete tour was how well-preserved Lynnewood is compared with other urban-explorer hot spots, which tend to be totally abandoned.
“There’s, like, no broken windows in there, which kind of amazes me. ... And another thing is graffiti. This is definitely the only place I’ve been that has zero graffiti,” O’Mara said. “It looks like everyone in here that has gotten in understood the significance of it.”
Cheltenham Police Department spokesperson Lt. Andy Snyder said the police receive calls about Lynnewood Hall a handful of times a year. “That’s just spitballing,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t call it any kind of hot location for us.”
Officers tend to use a shortcut between the station and Cheltenham Mall that takes them by the area about once an hour, he said, explaining why it so happened that both men had encountered police on their visits.
“There’s lots of reasons that there’s an aura about the Wideners and an aura about that house,” said David Rowland, president of the board of directors at the Old York Road Historical Society. There’s the seemingly bottomless wealth and the tragic history, but another part of the appeal is that it’s forbidden, he said.
When might there be a day an average person could hope to see inside without Patterson and O’Mara’s luck? Rowland doesn’t think it’s likely to be anytime soon, given Yoon’s reluctance to lower the price significantly.
And, in fact, fresh glimpses inside Lynnewood Hall may become even more rare, even on YouTube. Rowland hears that the groundskeeper is retiring.