In the late nineteenth century, newly wealthy industrialists began building fabulous country homes just over the Philadelphia border in Cheltenham–separate from the old-money enclaves of the Main Line. Cyrus H. K. Curtis, the publishing magnate, built Lyndon here in Elkins Park in 1898, with grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
At Curtis’s death in 1933, he controlled one of the five largest fortunes in the country. The estate house, sadly, was demolished, and the 45-acre property was gifted to Cheltenham as an arboretum and park by his daughter. The only building that remains is the music conservatory, now known as Curtis Hall. The arboretum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With the house itself entirely removed from the property, much of the historic feeling of the estate exists as void. Curtis Hall is a small stone structure that sits on a high point in a corner of the property, and while it is occasionally open for special events, it is generally locked up and shuttered. Instead of an active presence in the landscape, it functions as an passive outlook from which to view the rest of the estate. From there, a visitor can look down across lovely stone patios, steps, and a colonnaded pergola that remain in what was once a formal garden connecting the house to the music room. A circular drive is the only clue to the former location of the estate house.
The sweeping panoramic from those stone steps is classic Olmsted. The property forms half of a gentle bowl, its sides formed by rolling pastoral lawns scattered with specimen trees, pulling the eye downward toward a wooded swath hiding a small arm of Rock Creek and two ponds. More densely planted woods disguise views of neighboring houses and roads. The waterways are crossed by idyllic little stone footbridges. A powerful titan of industry who reportedly sought out a healthful and active lifestyle surrounded by music and natural beauty, Curtis would have found his estate appropriately restorative and charming. Overall, the effect is of refined and idealized countryside–one might expect to see sheep grazing among the copses, despite the encroaching suburban growth all around. By the 1920s, middle class housing was the primary development, and the grand estates were surrounded. The outpost of Gilded Age wealth became a fully built out first-ring suburb, served by trolleys and rail. The wealth was lost or moved on, though some of the estates survive, or hang on, hidden behind iron fences and vine-draped trees.
Olmsted’s pastoral view