Historic Sites

The Widener Mansion

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During the second half of the nineteenth century, prominent businessmen throughout the United States amassed great fortunes through the development of new industries including railroads, steel production, and mining. Men such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Vanderbilt became wildly wealthy and often spent that wealth on lavish houses, yachts, and travel as well as philanthropic endeavors such as universities, museums, and charitable organizations. The era became known as the Gilded Age, and many critics accused the wealthy of wielding unchecked power and taking advantage of poor workers.

During this time, there were few people in Philadelphia who could rival the wealth of Peter A.B. Widener. Born on November 13, 1834 to a bricklayer, Widener worked as a butcher and saved enough money to start one of the first meat store chains in the country. He also began buying stocks in street railways. Together with his friend William L. Elkins, Widener eventually controlled the streetcar system in Philadelphia. His wealth grew even more as he became involved in public transportation systems in Chicago and other cities. He later expanded his power by purchasing large blocks of stock in the United States Steel Corporation, Standard Oil, and Pennsylvania Railroad.

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In 1887, Widener had a large mansion built at the intersection of Broad Street and Girard Avenue. Designed by architect Willis G. Hale, the residence was four and a half stories high and included an arched entrance with a double staircase, a banquet room, and original murals and frescoes by artist George Herzog. In 1900, Widener transferred ownership of this mansion to the Free Library of Philadelphia. The building was designated as the Josephine Widener Memorial Branch of the Free Library in honor of Widener’s wife who had died in 1896. The mansion served as a branch of the Free Library until it was sold in 1946. With the proceeds from the sale, a former bank at 2531 West Lehigh Avenue was purchased and remodeled as the new location for the library branch. In 2005, the Widener Branch of the Free Library moved to its current location at 2808 West Lehigh Avenue. The Widener Mansion was destroyed by fire in 1980.

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In addition to his support for the Free Library of Philadelphia, Widener contributed to other charitable organizations in Philadelphia. He founded the Widener Memorial Home for Crippled Children in memory of his late wife. After his son and grandson died on the Titanic in 1912, Widener provided funds for an additional building at the Home in honor of his son.

After donating his mansion to the Free Library, Widener took up residence at Lynnewood Hall, his newly constructed 110-room mansion located in Elkins Park. Designed by Horace Trumbauer, the mansion was based on a palace in Bath, England and featured numerous outbuildings and gardens. Widener also used Lynnewood Hall as a gallery for his valuable art collection which included works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and El Greco. After Widener’s death on November 6, 1915, his son Joseph continued to add to the art collection. In 1939, Joseph agreed to donate the collection to the newly formed National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.