The Elkins Estate

The image above is the reason why I haven’t been able to write here much lately. That’s William Elkins‘ summer home. He’s the guy my neighborhood is named after – Elkins Park.

Elkins was a self-made man in the grandiose style of turn-of-the century railroad barons. He preceded the turn of the century a bit, making his fortune in oil refining and the railroads in last twenty five years of the 19th century. He died in 1903. But in the latter portion of his life he was rich in the way few people are rich anymore: flamboyantly. At the time he was alive, one did not disguise wealth in the habit of the common man. One flaunted it, as if to announce, here, look at me, I am a titan among men. It was surely in this frame of mind that he built the palace you see above, his summer home located about ten miles from Center City Philadelphia. At the time it was built, it was in the country. Now it is in the inner ring of Philadelphia suburbs.

The estate is situated on the same parcel of land William had set aside for his son George. It is George’s Elizabethan mansion which was the first building on the property, but William liked the spot so much, he decided he wanted his own summer home there,

and enlisted his friend Horace Trumbauer to design him a marble palace in the style of the High Italian Renaissance. Trumbauer had also designed the Georgian mansion Lynwood Hall across the street from Elkins’ property for Elkins’ friend, Peter Widener. Later, Trumbauer’s firm designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1932, Elkins grandson sold the estate to the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine de’Ricci. The grandson had lost everything in the Depression and the church was the only organization that could afford it. For seventy five years, the good Sisters ran the estate as a retreat, first for Catholic women from the area, then gradually opening their mission to include other people and other faiths until, towards the end, they were hosting large retreats focused on meditation practices of various kinds, yoga and wellness.

But the bills became too steep for them too, and their numbers were dwindling, so around 2007 they began to look for another buyer. Of the Sisters’ many virtues, one of them surely was the care with which they maintained the idyll William Elkins built. But in 2007, very few people were interested in idylls. Most were interested in money, which meant tearing the old buildings down and putting up the kind of modern “Towne Homes” which have spread like a yuppie plague across many once-grand landscapes. Most were interested in real estate development, ironically a business which contributed to Elkins’ wealth.

And so it was in 2008 that one Dave Dobson was driving through the neighborhood he grew up in, past the grand mansions he has spent a childhood wondering about, when he spotted the sign announcing a Sheriff’s sale in what had come to be called the Dominican Retreat – Elkins’ old palace. He pulled in, walked through the grand front portico and was alarmed to see many men with laptops swarming over the treasures of the Estate, many items with small price tags hanging sadly off their corners. In a story told many times now,

Dave saw them begin to pull a gorgeous tapestry off the wall between the main stair well and the the room which had been Elkins private art gallery, where he had collected Dutch masterpieces, before donating them all to the newly constructed museum of art. “Get the hell away from that!” Dave is said to have yelled, before pulling out his check book and buying the tapestry on the spot.

Soon, Dobson was on a mission to acquire the estate himself, with the Catholic sisters as his staunch allies. They were overjoyed to find there someone who was as committed to the preservation of this place as they were. As director of a non-profit called Food for Life, PA Dave brought some experience and resources to the table. Luckily for him, the economic disaster of 2008 made it nearly impossible for the real estate developers to get bank financing for the Elkins Estate. Dobson worked feverishly on his own financing, and was able to put down a sizable down-payment. But he still had to convince the neighbors. This is where I come in.

I moved to Elkins Park with my family in 2008, and, sensing the groovy, artsy vibe of the community, began asking around about “starting a theater.” This is an idea I have danced with for years, and the dance continues. Simply put, I have never landed on a “hook” for a theater that I felt was viable, or that excited me. I am quite aware of the pressure faced by Artistic Directors.

Some of my best friends are Artistic Directors. I haven’t been willing to throw myself into that journey yet. I have enough headaches. And yet, I am at the time of my life when the notion of having a place to work that I can in some way call my own; a place I can invite my friends to make art in; a place I can make the ground-rules for; a place which expands my vision for theater and theater education – this is an enticing notion. So I called the Township Office, and a Selectman said, “I know who you should talk to – Dave Dobson.”

I emailed Dave. Then we spoke on the phone. He described his vision for the Estate to me: continuing the Sisters’ mission of a retreat center devoted to spiritual and physical well-being, but expanding that vision a bit, to include offerings in the arts, and rentals for high-end weddings and corporate retreats. Then he took me to see the place and what happened to me is what I have seen happen to scores of people I have taken there: my jaw dropped. I

was hooked. Dreams of Shakespeare on the manicured lawns danced in my head. I saw week-long retreats for any number of my fabulous theatre/performance friends in Philadelphia. I saw summer programs for kids from Cheltenham Township and the under-served communities of Olney and West Oak Lane. I saw site-specific theatre in and around the grand rooms of the Estate. Something very dangerous was happening to me. I was having a vision.

Dave asked me for a favor in the months before he knew whether or not he could acquire the Estate: would I be willing to show up at Township Meetings as Commissioners debated whether or not to grant Dave a zoning “continuance”? This means he would be granted the right to buy the Estate to do essentially what the Sisters had been doing there for years: offering classes and retreats. This is opposed to a “variance” in which someone is asking to do something different with a piece of property. I agreed, wanting to support this effort, and wanting to find myself in Dave’s favor.

These hearings were a lesson in the workings of small town politics and basic democracy. I was astonished at the resistance Dave received from the people who lived around the Estate. This resistance came from two basic constituencies: one worried that Dave was going to turn the Estate into a grand homeless shelter, expanding the mission of Food for Life by transporting families in transition to the ornate bedrooms of the Elkins’ mansion. Dave was successful in pointing out that, by any measure, that would be a recipe for financial disaster. The other resistance came from people who feared Food for Life’s historic connection to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. They worried Dave was going to bring hoards of saffron-robed Hare Krishnas to Elkins Park.

I have done some research on this connection. Food for Life Global, the “parent organization” of the non-profit Dave directs, makes it clear that their mission was inspired by the man who founded the Hare Krishna movement. What is also clear is that they have done a remarkable job fighting hunger all over the world by providing vegetarian meals at disasters from Chechnya to Pakistan to Louisiana. They seem like an organization which has nothing to hide, doing remarkably good work and being plain about who they are. So I became convinced that what I was witnessing in these committee hearings was NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) of the worst kind, white suburbanites worried that (horrors) Black People might visit this beautiful place. Mixed in with that was garden variety xenophobia: the irrational fear of people who are different.

Dave spoke clearly about his personal connection to the Krishna movement, about how it had nothing to do with his desire to preserve and promote the Estate, about how he was approaching this as a businessman and that it was the principles of capital investment that were guiding him, not Krisha Consciousness. I spoke clearly in support of his application, as a neighbor, artist and an educator excited about the opportunity to expand the cultural life of the Township. Others too spoke in support. Ultimately, the Township approved his application. Dave formed a land conservancy (The Land Conservancy of Elkins Park) to administer the property now officially called The Elkins Estate.

Flash forward to 2010. Dave and I have stayed in touch, and the time is right for me to begin to carefully move closer to the visions I had when I first saw the Estate. He has invited me to create a summer of classes and performances at the Estate, and I have taken to saying “yes” wherever the Estate is concerned. Gathering a bunch of fabulous artists and teachers around me, I am “curating” a summer of classes in Comic Acting, Mask Making, Physical Theatre and yes, Shakespeare. And we are offering a series of new play readings and a couple of work-in-progress presentations. I try to resist this thought, but I cannot: how amazing would it be if this place, this magnificent place, became the artistic home I have been pining for?

Recently, Dave has begun to investigate acquiring the recently abandoned Tyler School of Art, a small campus on the original Elkins property founded by Elkins’ granddaughter Stella Elkins Tyler. For years, it was Temple University’s Arts School, until Temple moved it to their grand new Tyler building on their main campus.

“Ben, can you put together a five year plan for a theatre training program at the old Tyler Arts School?” Dave asked me recently.

Yes. Yes, Dave, I can.

The Elkins Estate Friday, originally published June 18, 2010