21 Aug 2014
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Wynnewood's Maybrook Mansion Hangs On, in Limbo

Maybrook, a castle with a rich past and an uncertain future, is a last vestige of the old Main Line. Behind the Wynnewood train station, it patiently awaits its fate. The first of a two-part series.

Wynnewood's Maybrook Mansion Hangs On, in Limbo Wynnewood's Maybrook Mansion Hangs On, in Limbo Wynnewood's Maybrook Mansion Hangs On, in Limbo Wynnewood's Maybrook Mansion Hangs On, in Limbo

Editor’s note: This is the first of a planned two-part series on Maybrook, also known as the Merriam Estate. It is an incredible, historic property in our midst, yet very few local residents know a thing about it aside from legal sniping over the past decade. We invite you to share your wisdom and anecdotes about Maybrook with us by dropping the author a note via email, or sharing in the comment box below.

IF YOU GOOGLE the name,  “The Reserve at Maybrook,” you will be directed to several illustrations of a very elaborate development designed by Toll Brothers. The E-shaped apartment complex, which could also be condominiums, is replete with spires, fountains and lush garden walkways. The planned two-bedroom units would be luxurious, and within mere strides of the Wynnewood train station.

The focal point—perhaps the community center—of the complex would be a castle. And not some Disneyesque mock-up, but a bona fide piece of Main Line history, because the new Reserve at Maybrook would be designed around the old Maybrook, a mansion built in 1881 with close to 40 rooms. High-end living, convenience, and history: where does one sign up?

But the project is only on paper, and has been for quite some time now, the dormant victim of quarreling township and borough officials, frozen credit markets for developers and the worst housing crisis in modern American history. To say the property is in limbo would be an understatement. 

When you drive by 331 Penn Road, officially known for decades now as the Merriam Estate, it’s difficult to see the Gothic castle that Henry C. Gibson built there. Gibson made his fortune through booze (a Gibson gin and tonic, anyone?) and real estate development.

But peaking through the trees, you can catch glimpses of it. According to Lower Merion Township records, the original property was a 67-acre summer home, not uncommon in the 19th century, according to Ted Goldsborough, a local historian and member of the Lower Merion Historical Society. At the time, the Lower Main Line was evolving from a farming community into one of the nation’s largest enclaves for the rich, in growing communities clustered around new railroad tracks that transformed the country into an industrial powerhouse.

A Bygone Era of American Barony

“ONCE THE PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD was built through the Main Line in 1857, access to Philadelphia was easy,” said Goldsborough. “The rolling land, streams, several roads leading to Philadelphia, including today’s Lancaster and Montgomery Avenues,” were natural attractions for big-name architects in Philadelphia, such as Furness and Evans, and William L. Price.

“The builders also had access to relatively cheap craftsmen, which meant building mansions such as Woodmont (by Alan Wood) and  Penshurst (by Percival Roberts) was commonplace,” Goldsborough said. “It was as if the rich competed with one another in building more and more impressive homes. The wealthy men who built these estates had vast sums of money. This was before income taxes. The rich were rich—with many servants to run their estates. Some of the servants lived in twin or row houses in Ardmore, Bryn Mawr or Narberth.”

Gibson hired the Hewitt brothers to design Maybrook. George Watson Hewitt and William D. Hewitt are credited with some of Philadelphia’s signature structures, such as The Bourse, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, and Druim Moir in Chestnut Hill.

Gibson’s Maybrook, Gothic in style with Elizabethan flourishes, was built in part by English stonemasons, imported to ensure the work was done properly. Upon its completion, the mansion had cost $200,000. In post-Civil War dollars, that’s a figure in Rockefeller territory.

In later years, Gibson added a two-story ballroom with ornately carved stone pillars, arched windows, and a vaulted, cathedral ceiling. The room was said to have been used for an opera performance or two. Along with a library, the additions cost him another $126,000.

Though medieval and grandly traditional in its outside appearance, Maybrook's interior was considered very modern for the time, with several hot-air furnaces and hot running water. A cloistered court was attached to the ballroom, featuring stained glass windows by  Violet Oakley, the first woman artist to receive a large commission for her work at the ornate capital building in Harrisburg.

The landscaping of the mansion was as lavish as the building was opulent. Fountains and gardens added to the classically romantic atmosphere. Gibson, with a healthy interest in horticulture, planted majestic oak trees and rhododendrons to seclude the property from the public. 

The Competition

TO GET A BETTER IDEA of “Main Line Gothic,” there are still several properties that reflect the time and style. The Woodmont estate in Gladwyne, considered “a French Gothic chateau,” was built on perhaps the highest point along the river in Lower Merion Township, and today it is a National Historic Landmark maintained by a local religious group.

Prior to becoming the central building on Rosemont College’s campus, the manor then called  Rathalla was built by John Sinnott, another Philadelphia distiller. Rathalla, built in the French baronial style, was also developed by Gibson and his company. The 32-room mansion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Maybrook’s story is similar to many of the mansions built at the turn of the 20th century, each of them meant to exhibit power, wealth, and a sense of grandeur. There was no upper class in those days—just the rich and the super-rich. The concept of the middle class, much less the idea of suburban power struggles among municipalities, developers and neighborhood civic associations, would be as foreign an idea to Gibson and his cohorts as an iPhone.

Waiting For The Thaw?

WHILE CASTLES AND MANSIONS increasingly dotted the landscape outside Philadelphia during the industrial revolution, Maybrook is one of the few to survive intact. Rarer still is that the place exists today much as it did when it was new.

The house and grounds were purchased from Gibson’s daughter in the 1950s by John Merriam, a philanthropist and developer who built the Thomas Wynne Apartments on part of the land. Upon Merriam’s death in 1994, the title passed to his second wife. Four months prior to her death in 2000, she signed it over to her son Robert Lockyer and his company, Merloc Partners—the current owner.

Not long after, Merloc Partners proposed building hundreds of apartments among five buildings, with more than 500 parking spots, a fitness center and other alterations to the property. The developers said they would leave the castle standing, though it, too, would undergo a transformation.

It was not to be. Not yet, anyway. Neighbors were appalled at the plan, and other complications arose immediately, followed by an economic downturn that would halt commercial real estate development virtually dead in its tracks, with lenders freezing out builders and homebuyers alike.

A Decade Later...

AT THE TURN of the 20th century, Maybrook was a spectacle to behold. At the turn of the 21st century, Maybrook and the Merriam Estate became the focus of an entirely new, modern, and litigious story. The battle between Lower Merion Township and the borough of Narberth had been joined.

Currently, the future of this symbol of the old Main Line remains cloaked in legalese, unanswered questions, and warnings: to neighbors who are told to keep out, and to the curious who are admonished to mind one’s own business.

In the meantime, Maybrook still sits regally, undisturbed, among 130-year-old oaks and a chilly silence.

The modern world swirls around it.

Coming in Part 2: The spat between Lower Merion and Narberth, concerns about the mansion’s upkeep, and the possibilities going forward.

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