The Deserted Mansion Whose Heir Perished on the Titanic

Macie Deleon History /
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The Gilded Age was a time of great wealth for some Americans. Lynnewood Hall, a 110-room mansion, is one of the remnants of this glamorous era. But the estate was abandoned and left to fall apart after the sinking of the RMS Titanic...

The Mansion

Welcome to Lynnewood Hall, a 110-room mansion built between 1897 and 1900. Looking at the gorgeous shot below, it's hard to imagine the future that lay ahead for the sprawling home: one of tragedy and neglect.

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The decorative mansion sits on about 500 acres of land in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Designed by architect Horace Trumbauer, Lynnewood Hall is a remnant of the Gilded Age, a time of rapid economic growth for many. But much has happened since its 20th-century completion...

The Wealthy Owner

Considering Lynnewood Hall's massive size, it was built quite swiftly in only three years. The T-shaped mansion measures 325 feet (99 meters) by 215 feet (66 meters) and contains 110 rooms, 55 of which served as bedrooms when the home was inhabited. So who, exactly, was the lucky resident?

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The Gilded Age beauty was built by architect Horace Trumbauer for Peter Arrell Browne Widener, a wealthy industrialist with businesses and investments in the steel, tobacco, and oil industries. Peter is considered to be one of the wealthiest people in U.S. history and had a lifestyle to show for it.

An Opulent Lifestyle

Historians estimate that Widener had a net worth of roughly $23 to $25 billion. Peter was part of a fortunate group of American entrepreneurs who made it big time during the Gilded Age. And like the others, he enjoyed the lifestyle financial success brought him.

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It's hardly surprising that Peter spent his billions on more than building a massive home. The Widener clan enjoyed the life of the rich and the famous - 1900s style. From luxurious vacations to exuberant parties, Peter and his loved ones lived the good life.

His Florida Mansion

The Widener family didn't restrict their affluent lifestyle to the northeastern United States. When things got too chilly during the winter season, Peter and the rest of the clan made their way south to Palm Beach, Florida, where another mansion awaited them.

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This second property, named Il Palmetto, saw the Widener family enjoying the southern sun and Florida beaches. Peter lived the Gilded Age life. That is until a tragic turn of events changed the billionaire entrepreneur's life forever. Nothing would ever be the same.

A Tragic Loss

Things actually took a turn for the worst before Lynnewood Hall was completed. In 1858, Peter married the love of his life, Hannah Josephine Dunton. The couple had three beautiful sons together, but their lives were turned upside down when Hannah unexpectedly passed away.

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Hannah was on a boating trip off the coast of Maine when she lost her life. Peter might've had billions in the bank, but he now had a void in his heart. The businessman tried to fill the hole with a multi-million dollar property called Lynnewood Hall.

The Project

At the time of Hannah's passing, the family lived in a townhouse located in Philadelphia's bustling center. But the familiar walls constantly brought memories of his late wife, and Peter couldn't live there much longer. And so, he embarked on a big real estate project.

Peter Widener, Lynnewood HallPeter Widener, Lynnewood Hall
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Widener hired renowned architect Horace Trumbauer for his over-the-top project. Peter envisioned a grand home free of sadness that would become a representation of the Widener legacy. Sadly, fate had other plans, and things would eventually take a turn once more.

An $8 Million Home

Still reeling from the loss of his wife, Peter got to work planning what would become Lynnewood Hall. He and Horace Trumbauer looked to the likes of Prior Park in the United Kingdom and Ballingarry Estate in New Jersey as inspirations for the glamorous mansion.

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Using Indiana limestone, Horace Trumbauer created the 110-room, 55-bedroom mansion. According to documentation from that time, the whole project cost about $8 million. Little did Peter know, he wouldn't be enjoying the fruits of his labor much longer.

Not the Only One

But Lynnewood Hall was hardly the only one of its kind in the northeastern state. Pennsylvania was home to quite a few sprawling estates thanks to the booming economy of the Gilded Age. One of these properties was the breathtaking Whitemarsh Hall, captured in the photo below.

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Whitemarsh Hall belonged to Edward and Eva Stotesbury. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was also designed by architect Horace Trumbauer. Unfortunately, the mansion was demolished in 1980. Unlike Whitemarsh, Lynnewood Hall still stands today. But its residents were met with a tragic ending.

A High Maintenance Home

Today, Lynnewood Hall sits empty on its Pennsylvania grounds. But back when the Widener family lived there, the manor was filled with decor that matched the luxury oozed by its exterior. With plenty of ornate furniture and art all over the house, there was a lot to maintain.

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Mr. Widener reportedly had a staff of about 100 people to complete the daily chores needed to keep the mansion in good condition. Nearly 40 employees worked as full-time housekeepers for the interior, while about sixty groundskeepers maintained the surrounding grounds.

The Grand Entrance

If Peter wanted Lynnewood Hall to become a symbol of the family's unprecedented wealth, it's safe to say he succeeded. Starting from the estate's grand entrance pictured below, everything in the home represented the glamour and riches of the Gilded Age.

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The beautiful foyer seen above sat behind two separate sets of doors, one bronze, and one gold. But that seems like a minor detail once inside, as the Wideners were surrounded by Greek-style columns, intricate molding on the walls and ceiling, and stately tiled floor.

The Bedrooms

Horace Trumbauer designed a breathtaking property fit for royalty. But the interior decor was handled by William Baumgarten and Jules Allard et Fils, a French firm. Along with Peter, the team made sure that each room in Lynnewood Hall showed off the Widener family's riches.

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According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the completed home was "dripping with silk, velvet, and gilded mouldings, the rooms furnished with chairs from Louis XV's palace, Persian rugs, and Chinese pottery, the halls crammed with art by Raphael, Rembrandt, and Donatello."

Elegance Throughout

The mansion exuded wealth and elegance throughout. From the ornate columns of the massive entrance to the lavishly decorated bedrooms, no detail went unnoticed by the designers and decorators. And the halls between the different rooms were no different.

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Take, for example, the carpeted stairwell leading to the estate's first floor. Before the estate was deserted, these stairs were home to a magnificent collection of art. Among the pieces was a portrait of Peter, created by one of the most celebrated portrait painters of that age, John Singer Sargent.

The Ballroom

But what was the point of owning such expensive treasures from renowned artists and palaces abroad if others didn't get to experience it? Showing off his wealth and Lynnewood Hall meant Peter had to have a place to host guests, and Horace Trumbauer made sure to make it as luxurious as possible.

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Following the owner's instructions, Trumbeaur designed an exquisite ballroom big enough for around 1,000 guests. The 2,550-square-foot space was decorated with walnut paneling and accents of gold. At nights, the room came alive with music and wealthy visitors.

Peter's Bedroom

Of course, the opulence wasn't restricted to those parts of the mansion frequented by guests. Even the most private spaces, like Mr. Widener's bedroom, became the epitome of Gilded Age wealth once the mansion was completed. A quick glance below leaves no doubt as to Peter's status.

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While the decor in the owner's sleeping quarters might seem a bit more modest, rest assured that the bedroom was once filled with priceless items. From the crystal chandelier to the ornate door frames and ceiling, no stone was left unturned in making the property as luxurious as possible.

The In-House Gallery

The grand stairwell wasn't the only place in the house that once held many pieces of original art. Those close to the Wideners would hardly find this surprising, as Peter was known for being not only a successful businessman and entrepreneur but an avid art collector, too.

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The image above captured the billionaire's private art gallery, where he housed many of his most prized pieces. Now an empty shell, this part of the estate once held stunning European classics from the 1800s. But one room wasn't big enough to hold all of Peter's riches...

Priceless Collections

Some of the European classics owned by Peter took up a large amount of wall space. Plus, the wealthy entrepreneur seemed to have an endless amount of paintings. So the works were eventually split into two separate rooms: a private gallery and a public one.

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The private gallery previously mentioned likely held some of Peter's favorite pieces. But the public gallery, pictured above, also held many celebrated works and was open to visitors by appointment. Widener's collection proved so valuable that it was eventually donated to the National Gallery of Art.

The Exterior

Of course, the grand display of affluence began long before anyone stepped through the bronze and gold doors of Lynnewood Hall and entered its grand ballroom, lavishly decorated bedrooms, or priceless art galleries. The luxury started in the mansion's exterior.

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If the photo above feels reminiscent of the Gardens of Versailles, it's no coincidence. Peter hired French landscaper Jacques Greber to bring life to the sprawling property. Jacques brought the wealth outdoors by installing huge fountains, various gardens, and outdoor dining areas.

More Parties

While the gardens were home to beautiful dining spaces in the great outdoors, Peter's favorite place to dine with guests was likely the gorgeous room seen below. According to archives, this room was meant to be one of the central parts of the mansion.

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That might explain all of the money that went into making this space as lavish as can be. At its prime, the Lynnewood Hall dining room contained two Gobelin tapestries and a sculpture from the 1600s of Prince Louis II de Bourbon, among other expensive items.

Plenty of Amenities

Needless to say, Peter succeeded in creating a home that put on display all of his riches and treasures. With the help of famous designers of the time, Lynnewood Hall became a symbol of Gilded Age success with its many statues, original paintings, and ornate rooms.

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But a beautiful aesthetic wasn't the only thing the mansion had to offer. It also had plenty of fun amenities, including an indoor swimming pool and a squash court. The estate even had its own private electricity plant! But none of that mattered much when the family faced another crisis.

Tragedy Struck, Again

After years of construction, the completed mansion was everything Peter had imagined it to be and more. The exquisite home meant a new page for the family after the passing of Mrs. Widener. But it wouldn't be long before Lynnewood Hall, too, became a reminder of a tragedy.

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Fifteen years after moving into Lynnewood Hall, Peter passed away from poor health. While the billionaire lived to be 80 years old, one of his family members wasn't as fortunate. The famous RMS Titanic sunk a mere three years before Widener's passing, taking someone close to Peter with it...

Peter's Successor

As previously mentioned, Peter had three sons with Hannah before her passing: Harry, George Dunton, and Joseph Early. It should come as no surprise that Peter dreamed of passing down his businesses and Lynnewood Hall to at least one of his children, and George was the strongest candidate.

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Peter and George were close when it came to their father-son relationship and their professional partnership. Even before the patriarch's passing, his middle son began ventures of his own. A business trip to Paris ultimately led to his demise aboard one of the most famous ships in history.

The RMS Titanic

George was in Paris with his wife, Eleanor Elkins, and their son, Harry. The trio traveled there because George was planning to open a hotel in Philadelphia and wanted a Parisian chef to embark on the new endeavor. The family of three had special plans for their return trip to the U.S.

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George treated his wife and son to tickets on the RMS Titanic. Although, as one of the investors of the famous ship, we imagined he didn't pay a regular price. That's right: George was one of the people who funded the legendary Titanic. The trip started out pleasant enough...

The Fateful Day

As one of the investors of the RMS Titanic, George reportedly lived the good life while on the ship. He, Eleanor, and Harry were treated like royalty as one of the wealthiest families on board. And rumor has it, George even hosted a grand dinner attended by the captain of the ship.

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But everything changed that fateful day on April 15th, 1912: the RMS Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sunk, with 1,500 passengers passing away because there weren't enough lifeboats. Among those 1,5000 people were George and his young son Harry. The heir to Lynnewood Hall was gone.

Peter's Second Choice

Peter was devastated by his son and grandson's passing. The Widener family had experienced so much unexpected loss, and this one hurt in a whole new way. The billionaire entrepreneur felt that he lost not only a child but the future of his business empire.

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So following Peter's passing three years after the Titanic sunk, his son Joseph inherited Lynnewood Hall. But the youngest of the Widener brothers passed away less than three decades later. And this time, no one stepped up to take care of Lynnewood Hall.

For Sale

Maintaining the mansion was no simple task. Tons of staff were needed to keep the place running and looking good, which also meant a lot of money. Whatever the reason, none of Joseph's children wanted to inherit Lynnewood Hall after their father's untimely passing.

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And so the mansion, once filled with parties and luxury, was put up for sale. But in a changing economy and a post-war world, it was worth far from the millions Peter spent on it. Lynnewood Hall was purchased for $130,000 in 1948 and later bought by a Philadelphia seminary. Its glamour was soon nothing but a distant memory.

What Remains

In a quest to put his wealth and success on display, Peter spent a whopping $8 million on Lynnewood Hall. But Pennsylvania's Faith Theological Seminary, which reportedly purchased the property in 1952 for nearly $200,000, had other plans for the sprawling estate.

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It was then that the mansion truly began to fall apart. The religious seminary spent more than they could manage on the purchase, so they sold much of the home's contents to make up for it. They removed everything from mantels and walnut paneling to exterior fountains and sold it all.

Now Abandoned

But even after selling the valuables that remained at Lynnewood Hall and putting a whopping 350 acres of the property on the market, the Faith Theological Seminary was still unable to maintain the mansion. So the religious group moved to a more affordable property.

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Lynnewood Hall became something far different from the vision Peter had for his family's real estate legacy. The mansion that once required around 100 staff to maintain it was left sitting alone to fall apart. From the interior to the gardens, the manor was dilapidated.

Back on the Market

With Lynnewood Hall left to rot, the estate eventually made it onto the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia's 2003 list for most endangered historic properties. Finally, in 2014, the once-glamorous mansion was put back on the market. Would anyone buy it?

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Peter Widener's former manor was on sale for a whopping $20 million. But it seemed to be overpriced, as no one showed interest in the old property. The real estate agents reduced the price but again, there seemed to be no buyers willing to splurge on the dilapidated property.

Finally Sold

Finally, in 2017, Lynnewood Hall was bought for $11 million, nearly half of its original asking price. However, the identity of the buyer remains unknown. And while repairs will reportedly add up to around $50 million, work has yet to start on restoring the estate.

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For now, Lynnewood Hall continues to sit empty and in disarray. But Peter Widener's former home is far from alone: around the U.S., there are hundreds of historic buildings falling apart due to the high cost of restoration. Some, like the Lyndhurst Mansion above, have secured funding for maintenance.

What Will Happen to Lynnewood?

But even the likes of Lyndhurst Mansion have uncertain futures, with no way of knowing when funding for upkeeping will stop. However, that doesn't stop enthusiastic history lovers from fighting for their preservation, and Lynnewood Hall is no exception.

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Endless social media users have taken to posting under the hashtag #savelynnewoodhall. Advocates write about their admiration for the deteriorated mansion and why its maintenance is important to U.S. history. After all, it was home to one of the richest Americans ever.