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With a $1M anonymous donation, a shuttered historic mansion in Villanova will come back to life

It's a development story — with a twist of serendipity.

Tish Long (left), the president of the Willows Park Preserve, and Sara Pilling, the granddaughter of Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen, who designed the Willows mansion more than a century ago, stand for a photo at the staircase in the Willows mansion in Villanova, Pa., on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.
Tish Long (left), the president of the Willows Park Preserve, and Sara Pilling, the granddaughter of Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen, who designed the Willows mansion more than a century ago, stand for a photo at the staircase in the Willows mansion in Villanova, Pa., on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.Read moreKatie Park

The Willows Mansion, a century-old property owned by Radnor Township that has fallen into disrepair, will be preserved, renovated, and kept as a public space after the township and a newly created private preservation organization recently signed a 10-year lease.

The agreement, signed last week by Radnor officials and the nonprofit Willows Park Preserve, gives the organization permission — for the first time — to oversee the Willows mansion, a 10,000-square-foot house built in 1910. The lease doesn't include the 45-plus acres that surrounds the mansion. That expanse of land will continue to be maintained by the town's Public Works Department.

A $1 million donation, from an anonymous benefactor, helped give the Willows mansion new life after the township had done nothing with the property while rejecting other proposed uses for it.

"We recognized the need to do something, because there was no will in the township to really let this wonderful asset go," said Tish Long, president of the Willows Park Preserve. "So we decided the best thing to do was to give it back to the people."

It's a big change for Radnor Township, which has owned the Willows mansion — and the Willows Park, home to the rolling 47.5 acres the mansion is built on — since 1972. After years of using the mansion as a community meeting place, Radnor closed the once-opulent dwelling in 2012, when the cost of maintaining it grew beyond what the town could afford.

"Coming out of the recession, expenses were tight," said Sara Pilling, granddaughter of Charles Barton Keen, the Philadelphia architect who designed the Willows mansion. "This was not a high priority."

For about seven years, the mansion was dormant as Radnor officials shot down one development proposal after another. The township rejected a plan to use the home as a commercial catering space. The township also said no to a nursery school that wanted to move in.

"It's trying to find a good balance," said Lisa Borowski, president of Radnor's Board of Commissioners. "And the goal was to keep public land for public use. We're fortunate that we have a group of residents who have banded together to turn this building into something that fits within that whole philosophy."

Now, the Willows Park Preserve and Radnor Township have contributed a total of $2.8 million toward what they call a "revitalization project" for the The Willows mansion.

A deal like this probably couldn't have been forged with the township if a certain moment of serendipity hadn't happened, said Long, a longtime Radnor resident. One person — who wants to remain anonymous, she said — hoped the Willows mansion would be preserved, and to that end, gave the Willows Park Preserve $1 million last August. (Long said the donor didn't know the Willows Park Preserve was meeting at the mansion last summer, and had simply wandered into the wood-paneled room where the meeting was taking place.)

With $1 million in hand, Long said, Willows Park Preserve members then believed that they could confidently present to Radnor officials a proposal to renovate the mansion and use the property for various purposes.

"We could then go to the township and ask for the $1.8 million, and that's what we have received," she said. "So we are going to be partnering with the township, but this is a nonprofit we've established, and our goal is public land for public use."

Long said the goal of the Willows Park Preserve was to remodel parts of the mansion and continue to allow the public to explore the house and park. The mansion will host up to 25 private events a year to bring in income and accept money from major donors and corporate sponsors, she said. That money will fund upkeep for the mansion and bypass the need to rely on the township for money, she said.

Renovations are scheduled to begin on the Willows mansion sometime in 2019 and finish in about 18 months. Meanwhile, the public can continue to walk around The Willows Park.

The Willows Park Preserve — which will have 11 members by the end of the year — is seeking to add the mansion onto the National Registry of Historic Places, Long said.

But the mansion has a long way to go with renovations.

Lights need to be fixed, and members of the Willows Park Preserve want the metal banister to be replaced with a wooden one, like the house originally had. The kitchen cabinets need to be replaced, Long said, as do fixtures in the library, porch, kitchen and rooms on the second floor.

On the first floor, the solarium will be demolished to make way for a garden that will pay homage to what Thomas Sears, an American landscape architect, originally designed at The Willows mansion around the time it was built, Long said.

The south wing of the mansion will become an indoor-outdoor space that will hold tables and seats that overlook acres of greenery, Long said, and dated architecture will be mixed with modern technology in the form of a retractable glass wall that closes at just the push of a button.

In the next two years, Long said, the Willows Park Preserve and Radnor Township plan to raise $5 million to pay for upgrades in the mansion's outdoor spaces: the fountain wall, a courtyard with a wrought-iron wishing well, a patio, and an annex.

"Our goal was to really make it the people's house," Long said.