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A place of life

Restoration and replanting at Wyndmoor's Keystone House, a grand 1867 mansion and now a hospice, provide the peace of beauty to the dying.

Rauhala was the name of the estate that's now home to Keystone House hospice; this photograph is from 1905. Built in 1867 of Wissahickon schist, it was designed as a summer home in the country, with wide porches, ample ventilation and woodsy vistas.
Rauhala was the name of the estate that's now home to Keystone House hospice; this photograph is from 1905. Built in 1867 of Wissahickon schist, it was designed as a summer home in the country, with wide porches, ample ventilation and woodsy vistas.Read more

A whole lot of caring's going on at Keystone House - for the residents, who are terminally ill; for the mansion, which is being restored; and for the gardens, which are being planted once more.

The 19-bed residential hospice opened in 1998 in a historically certified Victorian home in Wyndmoor. Like so many of its era, this elegant 25-room estate on Stenton Avenue had gone from glory to degradation in a few short generations.

Over the last nine years, it's been inching back. In 2010, when an $11.5 million restoration and expansion is completed, beauty and dignity will infuse a place that, in its latest incarnation, aspires to bestow those gifts upon the people who live within it.

"People leave legacies, and this house has a legacy, too. We want to make sure it has another 75 or 100 years," says David Traupman, once a garden volunteer at the nonprofit hospice, now its vice president. His own grandmother, Anna Pfeifer, who had cancer, spent her last days here in 1998.

Phase 1 of the project, which is wrapping up now, cost $1.5 million. It includes a new Vermont gray slate roof with insulation and copper flashing, downspouts and gutters; 97 new windows with screens, shutters and balustrades; and an emergency biodiesel generator.

During this restoration phase, volunteers also are replanting the 1/4-acre grounds, which once had a greenhouse, cutting and vegetable gardens, cows, chickens, and - in the interest of historically accurate reporting - a three-seater outhouse.

Last Saturday, a handful of volunteers, most of them members of Traupman's family, spent the day planting pots, hanging baskets, window boxes, and flower beds.

"I've always told my kids and grandkids that it's very important to give back," said Susan Traupman of Palm, Berks County, David's mother, as she filled baskets with soil.

Granddaughter Kylie Matsinger, 14, of Sellersville, has taken her grandmother's lesson to heart. "I like the idea that people can look out the window and see all these flowers," she said.

Giving time is important. But so is money.

Phase 2 of the project, the expansion, is scheduled to start in 2009. It's the biggie: a $10 million wing that will add bedrooms, a chapel, an open kitchen, an outdoor terrace and greenhouse, and more program space.

"This place isn't just about dying. It's about living, and that is the miracle of this house," says Gail Inderwies, head of Keystone Hospice, which includes Keystone House, a home hospice service, and an HIV/AIDS program.

Known as Rauhala, which is Finnish for serenity, this house was a grand old place in 1867. Made of Wissahickon schist, it was designed as a summer home in the country, with wide porches, ample ventilation, and woodsy vistas.

It may have lacked a distinct architectural style, but it had the pleasant gabled roofs, simple lines, and character of the "country cottages" favored by Philadelphia's gentry at the time.

Early occupants included John Welsh, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's, and Albert Kelsey, an industrial economist who, with his wife, Nettie, raised nine children.

Once a place that bustled with croquet matches outside and fancy dinners inside, Rauhala later became private apartments, a drug and alcohol rehab, and a psychiatric personal-care home.

Then, for six months, it was abandoned.

By the time Keystone moved in, "it was deplorable," Inderwies says. It took 400 volunteers eight months just to get the place clean and safe enough to open.

"The ceilings were collapsing. Patient records were all over the building, and you could cut the grease with a blowtorch in the kitchen," she says.

So it went outside, too. Wild grape and trumpet vines had gobbled up the gardens, and dense spruce trees vied with knee-high grass in the "lawn."

A graceful pink magnolia, seen in early photographs, flourishes still. Albert Kelsey, in a 1918 letter to his wife, described it as "the admiration of all who pass this way."

One who continues to pass this way - to his amazement - is Jay Chestnut, who entered Keystone in June 2005 fully expecting to die of HIV/AIDS within a week.

"I was very accepting of my situation," Chestnut says. "I had even chosen my spot in the garden where my ashes would go."

The average Keystone stay is 45 days. But with a new drug cocktail, the salutary effects of the gardens, and a loving staff, Chestnut improved enough to go home to West Philadelphia - 15 months later.

"I don't understand the chemistry, but I think these flowers and plants had as much to do with my healing as anything else," says the 67-year-old professional dancer, who is working again. "I blossomed just like the magnolia."

Clearly, the gardens are central to the mission of the hospice, which accepts patients with any terminal illness, no matter what their finances.

"It's about life," Inderwies says. "Some of our patients have never seen such beauty."

Even the windows are freighted with meaning. If they're small and sealed shut, "you begin to feel choked, as if it's time for you to die," Inderwies says.

The new windows are tall and wide. On every floor, they open easily to blue sky, warm air, and spring scents, many emanating from the newly planted, life-affirming gardens below.

Virginia A. Smith blogs about garden design at