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.
Jay Cooke was one of the first notable figures to build an estate in Cheltenham. Cooke established himself as a railroad tycoon and was known as the “financier of the Civil War” because he successfully negotiated a federal loan for the war by selling treasury notes to the masses. He was also involved in the abolitionist movement and provided stops along the Underground Railroad. He was involved in the community and contributed to the construction of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where his mausoleum is now housed. His stately “Ogontz” mansion was located on a 200 acre estate bordered by Ashbourne Road, Washington Lane and Church Road. In 1883 it was converted to the Ogontz School for Girls. This finishing school operated on the site until 1917 when it moved to Abington. Joseph Widener purchased the property and the house was demolished. A few years later Ronaele Manor was constructed on this site.
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.
Abraham Barker was half of the financing team of Barker Brothers. His estate, Lyndon, was located south of Church Road between Greenwood Avenue and Washington Lane. His son, Wharton is the only Cheltenham resident to run for president. He was the Fusion Populist candidate in 1890 but lost to incumbent William McKinley. After the Barker Brothers suffered financial failure Cyrus W. Curtis purchased the estate. Curtis had acquired his wealth in the newspaper business publishing magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal. Curtis established an impressive arboretum on the property and after his death Lyndon was demolished while the potting shed and pergola were retained and the property donated to the Township. George Horace Lorimer, editor of Curtis’ Saturday Evening Post, built his home, Belgrame, a half mile west of Lyndon.
William Welsh Harrison commissioned Horace Trumbauer in 1893 to design the gothic castle that now stands as the administration building for Arcadia University. Trumbauer’s design of Grey Towers established him as Cheltenham’s premier architect. Many of his designs were patterned on castles and palaces in Europe. An example of this is Lynnewood Hall, which was designed for transportation magnate P.A.B. Widener. This striking building was patterned after Prior Park in Bath, England and the gardens were designed in the formal French style. Trumbauer was originally sought out by the wealthy elite to design large estate buildings, but he also designed many of the smaller area residences. William L. Elkins commissioned Trumbauer to build numerous buildings that still remain in the Township. Elstowe Manor was completed in 1902 and is now the Dominican Retreat House, Prouille. In 1896, Trumbauer designed Chelten House, which was the home of Elkins’ son, George. Another stately mansion designed by Trumbauer was given by Elkins as a wedding present to his daughter, Stella, upon her marriage to George Tyler. In 1932, upon Mrs. Tyler’s donation, the building became the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art of Temple University.
Another Cheltenham resident of note is John B. Stetson, maker of the infamous “ten-gallon hat.” His residence, Idro, was located on Old York Road near Juniper Avenue. Several literary notables resided in Cheltenham. John Luther Long, who penned the story that would become Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, lived on Ashbourne Road. Ezra Pound, the noted American poet, was raised in Wyncote and attended the Cheltenham Military Academy.