Residential Designs by the Horace Trumbauer Architectural Firm
During his illustrious, half-century career, architect Horace Trumbauer planned hundreds of residences, from modest suburban houses to sprawling country estates. In the quarter-century leading up to World War I, he cemented his reputation as one of the premier Gilded Age architects, designing dozens of the country's most exquisite and extravagant mansions for captains of industry and finance. After the war, he built fewer residences, large and small, as his practice shifted to commercial and institutional commissions.
Trumbauer opened his architectural office in 1890. According to noted Trumbauer historian Frederick Platt, Mrs. A. M. Walker was the first to commission a design from the young architect. In the spring of 1890, she employed him to plan a modest house for a suburban neighborhood near Narberth, Pennsylvania. When the job was complete, Trumbauer charged $171.75 for his services plus $7.00 for travel.
Following the inaugural commission for Mrs. Walker, Trumbauer planned numerous suburban homes for middle-class clients during the 1890s. Among these, he designed several houses for developers Wendell & Smith for their Philadelphia-area planned communities in Germantown, Wayne, St. Davids, and Overbrook. Typical of his work of this period are two designs for the Overbrook Farms development, one for an eclectic style house with Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Norman influences and the other for a house in the style of contemporary British architect C. F. A. Voysey. These designs were published in the American Architect and Building News in 1893. Although ornamented with details from various historical periods, the designs were nonetheless modern.
Trumbauer combined simple geometric forms in a quiet harmony, eschewing the cluttered, almost frenetic assemblages common to the Victorian era. As he matured as an architect and designed larger and larger homes, Trumbauer continued to develop a noble, classical architecture that was predicated on his discerning sense of form and proportion.
Trumbauer's big break came in 1893, while only 24 years of age, when he designed his first great country estate, a mansion for sugar baron William W. Harrison. Two years earlier he had renovated a house for Harrison in Glenside, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill neighborhood. After the renovated house burned in January 1893, the sugar producer commissioned Trumbauer to design Grey Towers, a much larger house for the same site. Drawing on his experiences in the mid-1880s while working on the design of Drum Moir, a castle-like mansion for Henry Howard Houston, Trumbauer produced a design for a crenelated mansion based on an English castle. Unlike most of his later works, which were orderly and balanced, Grey Towers is a jagged, asymmetrical pile based on medieval precedents. With 40 rooms, many of which were decorated in various French historical styles by the renowned Parisian firm Allard et Fils, Grey Towers was one of the largest residences in the United States. The noteworthy mansion, which was purchased by Beaver College (recently renamed Arcadia University) in 1929, catapulted Trumbauer to fame.
Capitalizing on the notoriety of Grey Towers, Trumbauer designed the first of a complex of mansions for the intertwined Widener and Elkins families in Elkins Park, directly north of the Philadelphia border at the end of Broad Street. The patriarchs of the two families, Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins were business partners, in-laws, trustees, and great supporters of the Free Library of Philadelphia. When completed, the complex of five mansions and numerous subsidiary buildings, including a polo grounds, would form the most exquisite neighborhood in the entire Delaware Valley.
Trumbauer erected Chelten House, a half-timber Elizabethan mansion, in 1896 for George W. Elkins, the son of the family patriarch. Chelten House burned in 1908 and Trumbauer rebuilt it the following year. For George W. Elkins's daughter Stella and her husband George F. Tyler, Trumbauer erected Georgian Terrace, a mansion south of Chelten House, in 1905. Georgian Terrace now serves as the main building of Temple University's Tyler School of Fine Arts.
For the patriarch William L. Elkins, in 1898 Trumbauer designed Elstowe Manor, an Italian Renaissance style palace as grand as any home in the United States. Parisian interior designers Allard et Fils decorated Elstowe Manor's 45 rooms in elegant French styles with exquisite woods, marbles, and other luxurious materials. Together, Chelten House and Elstowe Manor now form a Dominican retreat.
Adjacent to the Elkins family mansions, Trumbauer built a vast complex of buildings on the Widener family's 300-acre estate. For Peter A. B. Widener, the family patriarch, Trumbauer designed and erected Lynnewood Hall between 1897 and 1900. At the same time, the architect converted Widener's former mansion at the corner of Broad and Girard Streets in North Philadelphia into the Josephine H. Widener Memorial Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Several years later, Widener presided over Trumbauer's selection as the architect of the central library building.
Lynnewood Hall was one of the most imposing, magnificent residences in America when completed in 1900. Based on Prior Park, a mid eighteenth-century Palladian Revival palace in Bath, England designed by John Wood the Elder, the 110-room mansion provided a dignified setting for Widener's famous art collection, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Surrounded by an iron fence one mile in length, the mansion and its formal French garden, which was landscaped by Jacques Gréber between 1914 and 1916, was an incredible accomplishment for an architect who was not 30 years of age when the planning began. For decades after the completion of Lynnewood Hall, Trumbauer added myriad out buildings to the estate including barns, stables, and cottages.
The most important of these was Ronaele Manor, a Tudor Revival mansion. Between 1923 and 1926, Trumbauer designed and constructed the mansion with 60 rooms and 28 chimneys for Widener's granddaughter Eleanor Widener and her husband Fitz Eugene Dixon. Much of the southern section of the Widener estate, which was known as Lynnewood Farm, was developed as an apartment complex in the 1950s. Sadly, today Lynnewood Hall lies in ruins and is threatened with demolition.
The wealthy Widener and Elkins families recommended Trumbauer's burgeoning architecture firm to their friends and associates. Several commissioned the favored architect. For example, coal millionaire Edward J. Berwind, who had collaborated with Widener on the financing of the New York City subway system, commissioned Trumbauer to design The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island at the turn of the century. Based on the mid eighteenth-century French Château d'Asnières outside Paris, The Elms was one of the most exquisite vacation villas in Newport, a gathering place for the country's rich and powerful. Purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1962 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, The Elms is one of only a few Trumbauer residences open to the public.
During the teens, Trumbauer designed Miramar, a grand French classical vacation villa in Newport, for Eleanor Elkins Widener. Widener summered at Miramar with her second husband Alexander Hamilton Rice, the son of a former Massachusetts governor. She met Rice in 1915 at the dedication of Harvard University's Widener Library, which she had commissioned from Trumbauer to memorialize her son, Harry Elkins Widener, who died on the Titanic in 1912. Like several other great Trumbauer houses, Miramar was set in formal French gardens designed by famous landscape architect Jacques Gréber. A renowned planner, Gréber not only prepared the final plans for Philadelphia's Fairmount or Ben Franklin Parkway, but also collaborated with architect Paul Cret on the Rodin Museum, which sits on the Parkway west of the Central Library building.
Throughout his long career, Trumbauer built numerous other stately suburban and seaside homes including a residence for C. J. Matthews (1910) in Langhorne, Pennsylvania and Androssan, meaning "high promontory," a residence for Robert L. Montgomery (1913) in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
In addition to these mansions and villas, Trumbauer also erected several lavish urban townhouses including one on New York City's Fifth Avenue for Miramar-owner Eleanor Elkins Widener (1922). The Edward C. Knight House at 1629 Locust Street in Philadelphia is an excellent example of Trumbauer's townhouse designs. Erected in 1902, Knight's French-inspired home reveals the architect's ability to bestow dignity and grandeur on a smaller scale and in an urban setting. Trumbauer also designed a grand summer residence for Knight in Newport.
In 1909, Trumbauer, with the help of his gifted assistant Julian Abele, designed one of his greatest urban townhouses, a residence for James B. Duke, also on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The wealthy Duke was an associate of Peter A. B. Widener, the founder of American Tobacco Company, and the benefactor of Duke University. Like many of Trumbauer's most impressive commissions, the Duke mansion was conceived in a mid eighteenth-century French classical style. According to Trumbauer scholar Frederick Platt, it is based on architect Etiene Laclotte's Hôtel Labottière, constructed in Bordeaux in 1773. Dignified, noble, and grand, the Duke mansion, which is now occupied by New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, is closely related stylistically to the Central Library building. Notably, Trumbauer commissioned famed architectural illustrator Jules Guerin to execute perspective renderings of the two related buildings, the Duke mansion and the central library building. Guerin's beautiful watercolor of the library building now hangs in the Central Library's Executive Offices.
During the twenty years after World War I, Trumbauer shifted his practice, building fewer and fewer grand residences, which had been the mainstay of his firm, and more and more commercial and institutional buildings. Whereas, for example, in 1902 Trumbauer's firm erected eight residences and one church. In 1925 the firm was at work on not only one home but four office buildings, a hotel, and the campus for Duke University. Between 1916 and 1921, during the transition away from residential design, Trumbauer planned and constructed Whitemarsh Hall, his greatest but one of his last palatial estates.
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