Lynnewood Hall was once called “the last American Versailles.” And from far away at least, this grand Pennsylvania estate definitely seems to live up to such a lofty nickname. Step inside, however, and you quickly see that the former family home has fallen into a heartbreaking state of disrepair. It’s a sad end for a magnificent building that once belonged to an investor in the blighted RMS Titanic.
Even the estate itself has apparently shrunk. While Lynnewood Hall once took in over 350 acres of picturesque Pennsylvania, now it is only surrounded by a mere 33 acres. But that’s still enough green space to keep the mansion out of public view and enshrouded in mystery.
Still, the folks who are fascinated by Lynnewood Hall will know a bit about its past. And the story of its owners is undoubtedly a tragic one. Peter Arrell Brown Widener had the home extended to house his sons and their families after his wife had perished in a yachting accident. He would experience even more heartache after investing in an ill-fated venture that resulted in further lives lost at sea. We’re talking, of course, about the Titanic.
Before that catastrophe, Widener had built himself a huge T-shaped mansion that measured in at 70,000 square feet. The Philadelphian needed ample space for his extensive art collection, you see, and some apparently called his home “the house that art built” for this very reason. But it wasn’t just the masterpieces by El Greco, Rembrandt and Raphael that made the place special.
As Lynnewood Hall was reportedly built to mimic age-old French architecture, much of the interior was velvet-covered, gilded, silk-draped or otherwise ornate. Back in the day, it was quite the sight. But now, the place has been in disuse for decades. And the once-stunning property has fallen into an eerie state of disrepair.
The story of Lynnewood Hall, its philanthropic owner, the ties to the Titanic and the building’s beauty could be what eventually saves it, as increasing numbers of people are making calls to restore the place to its former glory. The clock’s ticking, however, if someone wants to keep the mansion from its own tragic end.
Rescuing Lynnewood Hall may also preserve a little of what we know about Widener himself. He originally came into the world in 1834 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Raised by poor parents, Widener started off his working life as a butcher, but he soon displayed a flair for entrepreneurialism by founding what would become a chain of meat stores.
Widener got involved in Philadelphia’s political scene, too. He ascended to the role of city treasurer in 1873 – making contacts along the way that would bolster his career down the line. And perhaps his crowning achievement after this was his work with the city’s street railway system.
Along with associate William L. Elkins, Widener worked to make Philadelphia’s street railway more modern and simplistic. The pair went on to put money into Chicago and New York’s transit systems as well as in utilities across the country. And this would eventually make Widener and Elkins very important indeed. At one point, the two oversaw a portfolio said to be worth a staggering $1.5 billion.
Widener naturally had some money in his pocket, then, and in the 1880s he had enough to purchase a summer home in his hometown of Elkins Park. The place was called Linwood Hall, and it was set against a picturesque backdrop – complete with a babbling brook and rolling hills.
But the house itself didn’t quite meet Widener’s needs. In particular, it was no match for the businessman’s extensive art collection. So, he brought in architect Angus S. Wade to expand the Elkins Park property. That way, Widener would be able to suitably show off his haul of expensive and important works.
But a family tragedy inspired Widener to make even more changes to the property that would come to be known as Lynnewood Hall. Heartbreakingly, the entrepreneur’s wife, Hannah, died unexpectedly while yachting off Maine’s coast in 1896. In tribute, he decided to donate the townhouse he had in the city to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
This meant Lynnewood Hall would become Widener’s primary residence. And the businessman decided that the property would need yet another facelift, as he wished for his sons and their families to live there, too. More gallery space was also needed for his art, which was already overflowing from the Philadelphia abode.
So, Widener employed Horace Trumbauer to helm the mansion’s new round of renovations. Today, Trumbauer is known as a master of the American Beaux-Arts style of architecture, which flourished from the 1830s until the turn of the 20th century and incorporates features of Gothic, neoclassical and Renaissance buildings.
In the case of Lynnewood Hall, Trumbauer looked to two stately abodes to inspire his work. One, called Prior Park, was a mansion across the pond in Bath, England. Closer to home was Ballingarry – a New Jersey property that drew its design inspiration from the White House.
The legacy of Lynnewood Hall isn’t just its ornate architectural style, though. Nor did its famous resident come to define it. No, most people look at the property as a relic of a family marred by tragedy. And the Wideners didn’t just suffer the death of their matriarch, either.
We mentioned earlier that Widener counted a major historical vessel as one of his business investments. Yes, he put money into the luxury passenger liner the RMS Titanic. And in 1912 that unfortunate ship carried a few of the Philadelphian’s family members on its maiden voyage.
Specifically, Widener’s son George, his wife Eleanor and their son Harry boarded the Titanic to return home after a European vacation. George even hosted an on-board party to highlight the ship’s grandeur and his father’s hand in making it a reality. The vessel’s captain, E.J. Smith, apparently attended the soiree.
But the Widener family’s prestige wouldn’t save them from the tragedy looming for the Titanic. As you may well know, the ship struck an iceberg and ultimately sank into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean – bringing down more than half of the 2,224 people traveling. Sadly, among the dead were George and Harry.
So, Lynnewood Hall became known for its dark connection to the Titanic – an event that undoubtedly haunted Widener until his death in 1915. Then, when he passed away, his son Joseph inherited the behemoth property. And this wasn’t just any old estate. Reportedly, it required a staff of 37 indoors and 60 more to tend to the garden.
Joseph stepped up to the plate and took care of Lynnewood Hall – just as his father had envisioned. It didn’t hurt that he shared Widener’s love of art, and he continued to curate the property’s stunning gallery. Members of the public were welcomed in from 1915 to 1940 so that they could enjoy the collection, too.
Towards the end of his life, however, Joseph began to donate much of Lynnewood Hall’s famous artworks. It’s said, for instance, that in 1940 he handed over in excess of 2,000 precious items to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Incredibly, the paintings, sculptures and porcelain pieces were appraised at the time at $19 million.
Joseph sadly died three years later, leaving his two children to decide the fate of Lynnewood Hall. But, unfortunately, neither of them wanted the job of tending to the sprawling grounds and mansion. So, they deserted the property, leaving it to eventually fall into a heartbreaking state of ruin.
This naturally depreciated Lynnewood Hall’s value. Widener’s upgrades alone had reportedly cost $8 million, but that’s not surprising. The mansion included 55 bedrooms, after all, as well as 20 bathrooms, an art gallery and a ballroom big enough for 1,000 revelers. By contrast, when Joseph’s children sold Lynnewood Hall in 1948, it was only deemed to be worth a six-figure sum.
Then the Faith Theological Seminary purchased Lynnewood Hall in 1952, forking out just under $200,000 for the stunning property. But while you may assume that the building would have been restored after that, this was not the case. For one thing, the group sold off over 350 acres of Widener’s land.
Perhaps even worse was the fact that the Faith Theological Seminary offloaded many of the home’s intricate details and assets. Apparently, its members sold the walnut paneling and the mantels as well as some rare lawn ornaments. And this gives a hint as to how Lynnewood Hall looks today. Needless to say, it’s a shell of its former self.
Let’s start in the gallery room, which was once covered in the artwork that Widener had so meticulously collected throughout his life. Nowadays, the walls stand empty, as all of the former owner’s masterpieces were donated and sold. You can get an idea of the space’s one-time grandeur, though, if you look up at the intricate glazed ceiling.
Lynnewood Hall also housed a jaw-dropping ballroom that’s said to have once sprawled across 2,550 square feet. Inside, it glittered with the gold leaf that dotted the walnut walls and the floral-embellished ceiling. The massive space apparently also featured fluted columns, rich tapestries and arched windows.
Perhaps it was under the ownership of the Faith Theological Seminary that the ballroom had pews added. That changes the look of the grand space, as does the decay after years of disuse. Still, the gilded ceiling sparkles overhead – providing a glimpse at how magnificent the place used to be.
Lynnewood Hall also once encompassed an indoor swimming pool complete with changing rooms. A squash court was situated nearby, too. But this part of the property is no longer relaxing or motivating. Instead, the pool’s underground cutout is filled with debris.
And perhaps because many of its most eye-catching features have since disappeared, the entry hall has lost some of its luster. According to Lynnewood Hall’s official Instagram page, a quartet of Edward F. Caldwell chandeliers were originally found here, but these were ultimately all sold. The home also no longer possesses the wrought iron doors that ushered in guests.
You can still appreciate the main hall without its finest accents, though. Even stripping the place down and selling the remnants didn’t remove the impressive molding and archways on the walls and ceilings. The upstairs balconies retain their ironwork, too, and this mimics the swirls that once covered the entryway.
Other spaces look equally as rundown after decades of neglect. The relatively austere breakfast room – if you don’t take into account the lofted ceilings and detailed molding throughout – seems to have a layer of gray dust on everything. But it’s easy to imagine what it once looked like when its upkeep was a priority.
The reception room provides a few clues, as its original splendor is more intact. Here, gold accents still shine against a dark wooden backdrop. The Lynnewood Hall Instagram account – which shares photos to raise awareness for the property and its need for restoration – has claimed in a photo caption that this is “arguably the most glamorous room in the house.”
Even the former servants’ quarters have that same magnificence to them, although they would have been even more impressive in their heyday. A wrought iron staircase connects the staff’s walkway from the butler’s pantry and into the breakfast room and dining room. And aside from a bit of crumbling paint, it’s still an impressive architectural feature.
So, Lynnewood Hall has certainly been neglected, but it doesn’t seem to be beyond repair – for the moment, anyway. And as the property has changed hands a few times in recent years, this may signal that someone is ready to step up and restore the incredible abode to its former glory.
In any case, Lynnewood Hall is too expensive to be a mere impulse buy. In 2014, you see, the estate hit the market with a price tag of $20 million. It’s been up for sale a few other times – although always listed at an increasingly lower cost. In 2019 the owners wanted just $11 million for the sprawling historic home.
Experts have pointed out, however, that the expense of buying Lynnewood Hall is just the beginning. Mary DeNadai – an expert in historic restoration – told The Philadelphia Inquirer in September 2020 that a basic repair of the place would cost $10 million. Returning the property to its former opulent self would cost five times as much.
But time is of the essence in the case of Lynnewood Hall. Back in 2014, DeNadai had also explained to the newspaper that any restoration would have to be carried out quickly to avoid the home becoming a lost cause. In her opinion, there was only a decade or so before Lynnewood Hall became “beyond salvage.”
Luckily for the historic mansion – and the legacy of the tragic family who lived there – the tide could be turning. A New York-based medic and pastor named Richard S. Yoon now owns the property, so perhaps he’ll spruce it up. Increasing numbers of people have been drawn into the story of the home, too, and have engaged in a push for its restoration. So, the tale of Lynnewood Hall could still go on for years to come if the right person decides to finally revive that magnificent interior.
And perhaps someone will renovate Nicholas van Hoogstraten’s enormous English mansion, which also looks from a distance like the pinnacle of luxury. But get closer, and you’ll quickly realize that things aren’t quite as they should be. The earth underfoot is covered in trash, while weeds grow out of control all around. The mansion itself, meanwhile? It’s decrepit, decaying and frankly rather eerie. No wonder locals refer to the property as the “ghost house of Sussex.”
Work on van Hoogstraten’s house got underway in the mid-1980s, yet the project was never actually completed. To this day, the enormous structure stands empty – devoid of any inhabitants. And the building stands as a blemish on the otherwise scenic Sussex landscape.
In the English language, we might use the word “folly” to describe something which is ostentatious or over-the-top. But it also has a more specific meaning in architectural circles – referring to a design that’s overly elaborate and entirely pointless. Bearing this in mind, we can confidently call van Hoogstraten’s house a complete and utter folly.
According to reports, van Hoogstraten has poured over $50 million into his vainglorious project over the years. That’s a huge sum of money, of course, but looking at the unfinished house you wouldn’t necessarily be surprised. It is, after all, larger than the Queen’s own primary residence of Buckingham Palace.
Van Hoogstraten clearly had extravagant notions of what his residence would be like when it was finally completed. But the thing is, even after all these years, the project hasn’t even made it that far. The whole site is still a mess, while the house itself represents little more than a hollow shell.
A glance at the preposterous property is surely enough to tell you that its owner is an eccentric individual. But as it turns out, Nicholas van Hoogstraten’s story isn’t just outlandish, it’s also downright dark. He appears to be a callous individual at any rate, but his record suggests that he’s also dangerous.
The man calls himself Nicholas von Hessen nowadays – perhaps indicating a desire to disassociate himself from his own shady past. But regardless of whatever name he prefers today, there’s no confusion as to van Hoogstraten’s status as a wealthy individual. In fact, some estimates have even suggested that he’s actually a billionaire.
Regional news website Sussex Live quoted van Hoogstraten discussing his business interests in the English seaside resort of Hove. Speaking in March 2020, the mogul said, “I own nearly everything around here. And by own it, I mean own it – there’s no mortgage on anything. It’s one of the reasons why nobody can tell me what to do. I don’t have to be nice to anybody.”
But despite van Hoogstraten’s ill manners, it seems that he’s had little trouble developing a vast portfolio of assets. As well as his audacious unfinished mansion, he’s also said to have owned a huge number of other premises. Yep, according to Sussex Live, we’re talking about thousands of places – the bulk of which are in that county.
Van Hoogstraten has established something of an infamous reputation for himself in the U.K. for several decades. And there’s absolutely no indication that this negative image bothers him in any way. If anything, he seems to enjoy and cultivate it. But how did he end up this way?
Van Hoogstraten was born in the town of Shoreham in West Sussex in 1945. In school, the young boy made some money by trading stamps. He would then go on to become the country’s youngest millionaire at the tender age of 22. Sussex Live notes that he acquired over 2,000 properties during the property boom of the 1980s. And he had sold around 90 percent of them by the following decade – netting huge profits in the process.
Beyond his business dealings, van Hoogstraten also spent his time building up an image of himself as a pretty terrible person. In the ’60s he was taken to court over accusations that he’d organized for a grenade to be thrown at one of his enemies. According to Sussex Live, the judge overseeing the case described van Hoogstraten as “a sort of self-imagined devil who thinks he is an emissary of Beelzebub.”
And that dark episode was by no means van Hoogstraten’s only brush with the law. No, the man was once again embroiled in a serious legal battle around the turn of the millennium. One of his business competitors was killed by two men on his doorstep in the town of Sutton.
It was an undeniably gruesome episode, and van Hoogstraten was implicated in the crime. As a result, he was jailed for manslaughter in 2000. But he successfully appealed against the verdict three years later and was freed from prison.
The victim’s family weren’t happy with the decision to let van Hoogstraten walk free, though. They took another case to court, and the U.K.’s High Court eventually conceded that the magnate had likely played a part in the crime. The family were reportedly given nearly $8 million in compensation, but, crucially, van Hoogstraten stayed out of jail.
During the court case, van Hoogstraten was subjected to psychological analysis. And according to reports, the psychiatrist responsible for this evaluation was seemingly taken aback by the man’s mental condition. According to Sussex Live, the expert said that it would “take years to understand him.”
Another questionable aspect of van Hoogstraten’s life relates to his friendship with the late Robert Mugabe. The latter ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades until his death in 2017. As many of us know, Mugabe’s leadership was marked by years of violence, economic decline and state-sanctioned repression.
All in all, then, several aspects of van Hoogstraten’s past are extremely dubious. Yet even so, the man has emerged as a figure of great interest in Britain. And in 2002 the BBC even broadcast a documentary about him. This film offered a glimpse of the tycoon’s eccentricities, as evidenced in one scene where he’s cutting stamps out of old envelopes so that he can use them again.
Speaking to the filmmakers, van Hoogstraten says, “There’s too much waste in the world. I wouldn’t say we [reuse stamps] for ecological reasons. That’s obviously part of it, but it’s not uppermost in my mind. Uppermost in my mind is saving money, of course. That’s the difference between people who have made their money and people [who] have inherited it.”
In another scene, van Hoogstraten lectures his son on the budgetary benefits of purchasing large amounts of condiments at once. You might think it’s odd that such a wealthy man is concerned with these comparatively inexpensive things, but he’s an unusual individual. For instance, he had four separate romantic partners at the time that the documentary was being shot.
Speaking of these four partners, van Hoogstraten remarks in the documentary, “They all know, so I’m not hiding anything. Obviously, they mind, but with me, it’s not much good minding, is it? With me, I’m sure you know, you have to put up with it or f*** off. [It] doesn’t matter who you are.”
Van Hoogstraten continues, “I’m the oasis in the desert of everything I’m dealing with… That’s the way I am, that’s the way I’ve always been and I’m not going to change. But at least I let everyone know that in advance. That’s why I’m known as the letter of last resort. When you come to me, you’re going to deal with me on my terms and I want my money.”
With millions in his bank account, you might expect van Hoogstraten to be grateful for his position. But, of course, he isn’t. The businessman has even actually complained about his affluence and the societal influence it affords him. According to Sussex Live, he’s referred to his vast riches as “a pain” and “a headache.”
This stance demonstrates how utterly unappreciative van Hoogstraten is of the good fortune that’s defined his life. But he does at least appear to grasp the notion that money isn’t everything. Sussex Live notes that van Hoogstraten once said, “I don’t believe money brings happiness. I know a lot of very wealthy people, they’re certainly not happy…”
So, van Hoogstraten resents the supposed hassle that being rich inflicts upon him. And on top of that, he also seems to recognize that wealth does not mean that a person lives a good life. But if these are the views he holds, then why doesn’t he stop doing business? Well, when this question was put to him, Sussex Live notes that he answered plainly, “What else am I supposed to do?”
Van Hoogstraten then went on to elaborate on his thoughts about wealth and his relationship to it. According to the publication, he said, “I’m not interested in spending money – never have been. I can’t understand how people equate spending money with enjoying yourself. I’ve never seen it. I think spending money would be the opposite to enjoying myself.”
The BBC documentary that came out about van Hoogstraten wasn’t the only work that focused on the man, though. Another network called ITV produced a documentary about the enigmatic figure in 1999. In this one, van Hoogstraten can be seen taking the filmmakers around his unfinished mansion in Sussex. At one stage, the man explains that he’s growing trees there as a means of booking a place in heaven.
Van Hoogstraten goes on, “I’m going to assume [God] is going to say to me, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he’s going to list all the crimes – or supposed crimes – I’m supposed to have committed. What you are calling a crime down here, it’s not a crime in reality. Crime to me is if you take advantage of an innocent person, who doesn’t know any better – that is a crime.”
Clearly, van Hoogstraten is a pretty strange individual. After all, you need only look at his questionable past and his previous comments. And you could argue that the tycoon’s unfinished mansion is just another reflection of his character. Just like its owner, the property known as Hamilton Palace is a complicated mess.
So what about the house itself? Well, the property is concealed by trees and is situated near the town of Uckfield. Though the site isn’t exactly welcoming – a gate blocks outsiders from approaching the residence. This barrier reportedly bears a sign that reads “High Cross Estate, Private Property, Keep Out.” Yep, it seems that van Hoogstraten doesn’t want people fishing around his space.
In fact, there are several other signs littered around the property that seem to be there in order to put people off from entering the site. One apparently reads “shooting in progress,” while another says “dogs running free.” And yet another warns that the place is being monitored by a CCTV system.
Perhaps the creepiest aspect of Hamilton Palace is a building that stands separate from the main body of the property. Interestingly, this structure is topped with a golden dome on its roof. And it’s actually a mausoleum – a place that was designed to hold van Hoogstraten’s remains after he passes.
We all have different tastes, but we’re fairly confident that Hamilton Palace wouldn’t appeal to you. It seems to have been modeled on the stately residences of England’s Jacobean and Georgian periods of history. But the desired effect isn’t exactly achieved. In fact, the building is a total wreck.
And things don’t get any better inside the building’s walls. Few people have ever been able to get inside, but a small number have managed it. One journalist who entered the residence back in 2000 was able to provide us with a brief description of the interior. They explained that stone columns could be found inside, along with a massive staircase and some elevators.
A whole level of the house was designed to hold van Hoogstraten’s assortment of artworks, according to Sussex Live. And given the large space that was envisioned for this gallery, we can only imagine how many paintings the man owns. And another plan that never came to fruition was a garden intended for the roof of the property.
It’s fair to call Hamilton Palace a failure – given the fact that it was never completed and serves merely as a blemish on the Sussex countryside. But on top of everything else, it’s also attracted the ire of people living in the area. There was a time when a public walkway snaked through the site, but van Hoogstraten has ensured that nobody gets to travel along it nowadays.
And in a style that’s typical of the tycoon, van Hoogstraten has responded to his neighbors’ concerns with nastiness. According to Sussex Live, he said, “Even the most moronic of peasants would be able to see… that we have been busy landscaping the grounds of the palace so as to prepare for scheduled works.”
There have been rumors that Hamilton Palace is beginning to crumble. This really wouldn’t be a big surprise, after all. The place has been completely unlived in for decades, and it was never even finished. But still, van Hoogstraten has remained adamant that the property is in good shape.
But what does van Hoogstraten have to say about claims that his property is falling to pieces? Well, according to Sussex Live, he retorted, “Hamilton Palace is far from ‘crumbling’ and was built to last for at least 2,000 years. The scaffolding only remains as a part of ongoing routine maintenance such a property would require until completion.”
Who knows if Hamilton Palace will ever actually be completed? Given the state of repair that presently defines the property, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the project never concludes. In any case, van Hoogstraten is in his mid-70s at the time of writing. It’s unlikely, then, that this strange, unpleasant and frankly dangerous man will ever live within its walls.