John Wannamaker's Lindenhurst Mansion
During a fifty year period spanning the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Cheltenham established itself as one of Philadelphia's most prominent suburbs. It is during this time span that some of Philadelphia's most influential high society members constructed large estates in the Township. The palatial estates not only afforded their owners the opportunity to escape the overcrowded city, but also provided them a place in which to entertain their contemporaries and showcase their wealth. Many large mansions dotted the landscape by the early twentieth century as wealthy estate owners tried to outdo each other.
John W. Wanamaker was another famous Philadelphia businessman who constructed his estate in Cheltenham. Lindenhurst, complete with its own railroad station, was built on a seventy-seven acre parcel bordered by Township Line Road, Old York Road and Washington Lane. The first Lindenhurst was destroyed by fire in 1907 and the second Lindenhurst was demolished in 1944. Henry W. Breyer, Jr., of ice cream fame, purchased the abandoned property in 1929. Breyer donated the former Wanamaker land to the Boy Scouts of America for use as a wildlife preserve.
Henry Breyer Never Slept in the Woods
Isaac Mather was the first resident. He built his farmhouse in 1769. His house and mill were still standing 100 years later when John Wanamaker purchased 77 acres of the Mather family holdings east of Washington Lane bounded on the north by the one stretch Township Line which existed then. The southern boundary was the newly constructed railroad. The other boundaries were Old York Rd. (called "old" even at that time) and the land of Joseph Bosler. Bosler's ground extended all the way to the Wall house. The north end of of his tract is now occupied by the Briar house. The Mather land west of Washington Lane was purchased sometime later by Rodman Wanamaker.
Construction of John Wanamaker's 60-room mansion began in 1880 and was completed in 1883. It should come as no surprise to any of us that the house was constructed of stone quarried on the site. It was named Lindenhurst for its abundant Linden trees. Wanamaker adorned his house with cupolas, patios, and a red-tile roof. While most of the wooded setting was retained, he added an artificial lake, elaborate gardens, and a tennis court screened by arbors and shrubbery with stone benches for spectators.
The abandoned Mather mill became the power house for the mansion and there was a flag-stop railroad station, Chelten Hills station, at the bottom of the hill where Washington Lane crossed the railroad at grade level. The station was torn down in 1926.
As is the custom of today's residents, Wanamaker entertained lavishly (parking was no problem then). His guests included many local friends as well as national figures. President Harrison was a guest and later appointed Wanamaker to be his Postmaster General. Wanamaker had further political ambition but was defeated in an attempt to win election to the senate in 1886.
Wanamaker purchased hundreds of paintings and statues from Paris salons so that over a period of time Lindenhurst housed over a million dollars (late 19th century dollars) in art works.
On February 16, 1907 the Jenkintown Chronicle reported"
"...'Lindenhurst', the country estate of John Wanamaker is in ruins after being struck by a fire which started in the linen closet when a maid left an electric iron on the table to do another errand. The fire started at 6 p. m. but firemen from the two Jenkintown companies did not arrive on the scene until over an hour later, due to the snow filled streets. The 60-room mansion was competently destroyed along with innumerable works of art that are not replaceable. Many art treasures were saved by persons who braved the intense heat. These were placed in a stable remote from the scene of the fire...".
Several months later a fire in the stable destroyed those art works which had been saved from the first fire.
Rodman Wanamaker directed the rebuilding of Lindenhurst in a French Renaissance style which was not as ornate as the original house. Lindenhurst was neglected after John Wanamaker's death in 1922 and was demolished in 1944 to save taxes.
In 1915, Henry W. Breyer, Jr. had erected his more modest house (now the Township Building) on Bosler's ground to the southeast of Lindenhurst on Old York Road early in 1929.
Breyer acquired the deserted Wanamaker estate for a reported one million dollars and in 1944 made it possible for the Philadelphia Council of the Boy Scouts of America to purchase the property for use as a training area and a wild-life preserve. In the 1970's they found a need to sell the property to obtain operating funds. In 1981 the property was transferred to developers and an attempt was made to obtain zoning for a shopping center to be anchored by Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue but the township's residents would have no parts of that idea. Later they did approve the present usage and the rest is our own history.
Atlases of Montgomery County, 1871, 1877, 1893.
"A Chronology from the Chronicle", the first 75 years of the Jenkintown Chronicle.
"The Wanamaker Gardens" by Mira Edson, House Beautiful, 1907.