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Squeezed by development, grand Chester County mansion goes on the block

Before the Sheraton moved in across the road, before Home Depot set up shop next door, Loch Aerie was the bewitching summer estate of a gentleman farmer who amassed a great fortune manufacturing paper shirt collars and then lost it.

Dating to 1868, Loch Aerie is a 6,522-square-foot marvel of peaked roofs, arched windows.
Dating to 1868, Loch Aerie is a 6,522-square-foot marvel of peaked roofs, arched windows.Read moreAARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer

Before the Sheraton moved in across the road, before Home Depot set up shop next door, Loch Aerie was the bewitching summer estate of a gentleman farmer who amassed a great fortune manufacturing paper shirt collars and then lost it.

William Lockwood's 1868 Swiss-Gothic manor, a 6,522-square-foot marvel of peaked roofs, arched windows, and Addams Family charm, is now a misfit in the madding suburban landscape.

At 1 p.m. April 21, the East Whiteland Township property, on a narrow hillock along Route 30 near Route 202, goes to auction. The minimum bid is $250,000 - a small price for a sizable piece of Chester County history that includes both the design pedigree of 19th-century architect Addison Hutton and the notoriety of a 1970s motorcycle-gang shootout.

Loch Aerie's admirers worry for its future.

"What tends to happen with sites like these is that because they are outside the city, they are viewed as only locally significant, when that's not true," said Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. "This house is regionally significant, and we are losing the interesting big suburban houses of that period."

La Ronda, a Bryn Mawr mansion by renowned resort architect Addison Mizner, was razed in 2009. Old Main in West Chester was demolished in 1971; a Hutton-designed building of 1870 vintage, it was built as the West Chester State Normal School, later to become West Chester University.

The Shipley School's Beechwood House in Lower Merion (also designed by Hutton), Wayne Tavern (later called Linden Hall) in East Whiteland, and the open space of the former Joshua Hartshorne estate in West Chester were spared after preservationists battled to save them.

Loch Aerie will be razed over "my dead body," vowed Timothy Caban, chairman of the East Whiteland Township Historical Commission. The auction, he said, is a "great opportunity" for Loch Aerie, listed as one of the township's 10 most historically significant buildings, to find new life.

Nearly 100 people toured it during two preview days for the auction, which is being handled by the Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co., of Clinton, N.J. Another preview is planned for noon Wednesday.

The two-acre property is owned by the family of Daniel Tabas, who bought it in 1967. With his brother, Charles, Tabas amassed a business and real estate empire that included Mickey Rooney's Tabas Hotel in Downingtown, Twelve Caesars banquet hall on City Avenue, and the Riverfront Restaurant & Dinner Theater in Philadelphia. He died in 2003.

The family attempted to auction off Loch Aerie several years ago, and turned down an offer of more than $600,000, said Bob Dann, the auction house's chief operating officer. This time the family will accept the minimum bid, he said.

Daniel Tabas' son, Robert, of Bryn Mawr, said he didn't recall the details of that earlier auction but called the current sale a chance for someone with "ideas and vision to enhance" Loch Aerie.

"We haven't done anything with it for many years," he said.

The house, with an expansive porch, is made of blue limestone and marble. The inside is anchored by a central grand staircase flanked by rooms on three levels, most of them with fireplaces. The basement is a chilly, cavernous space of nooks and crannies. The peak is a cupola reached via a thin spiral of steps.

Chester County historian Eugene DiOrio contends that Loch Aerie would easily qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. "It's a classic example of the period," said DiOrio, historical adviser at the National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville.

Chris Kantrowitz, an East Whiteland resident, called Loch Aerie a piece of authenticity in a "beige, beige, beige, beige world" of strip malls.

In 1865, businessman Lockwood retained Hutton to build the house on what was originally an 836-acre parcel that included three farms, tenant houses, and four stations on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He added such exciting innovations as a burglar alarm and a telephone.

Lockwood called the estate Glenloch, Scottish for "Lake of the Glen," but angrily changed it to Loch Aerie after the railroad used the name Glenloch for one of the stations.

That was just the start of the trouble. He had given the railroad permission to pump water from the estate's springs to power its steam engines. When the trains drained virtually all the water from the house, Lockwood sued. The ensuing legal battles drained his fortune.

Lockwood's daughters, Edith and Ella, lived in the house after his death in 1911. (A son, William Jr., died in 1949.) They stayed there until 1967, when Tabas acquired the house.

The mansion then was rented to tenants, but in the early 1970s, it became a hangout for the Warlocks motorcycle gang. During the group's months-long stay, a fire erupted in a wing, as did gunfire between the bikers and the rival Pagans.

In 1980, architectural curator Anthony Alden moved into a Loch Aerie with boarded-up windows and no heat. He sank thousands into its restoration, hoping to buy it from the Tabases. Alden called it an "undertaking of love" but was unable to reach an agreement with the Tabas family. He moved out in the mid-2000s.

Before he left, Alden joined with a group of residents, environmentalists, and historical commission members who fought to keep Home Depot at bay when it bought land next door to build a store in the mid-1990s. The historical commission negotiated to minimize the impact to the house, Caban said. But its gas works were removed, and the pond and much of its grounds were paved over.

Apart from the caretaker who lives there, Loch Aerie has been vacant in recent years, said Robert Tabas.

At a commission meeting Wednesday, members suggested a bed-and-breakfast or office complex as a new use for the property. DiOrio's idea: a house museum.

Any proposal must be vetted by the historical commission. The township supervisors will make the final decision.

"Developers who come in and want to bulldoze down our history - we can't stop them," commission member Jeff Dore said. "But we can be an important roadblock, and we can get people to think differently."