The Story of Grey Towers Castle

In the Spring of 1881

William Welsh Harrison, 31 years old and co-owner with his brothers of the Franklin Sugar Refinery, purchased the Rosedale Hall estate in Glenside from J. Thomas Audenreid. He took up residence with his family and began purchasing neighboring properties, eventually extending his holdings to a total of 138 acres.

By 1891 Mr. Harrison decided to enlarge the main house and also provide a gatehouse and more appropriate stables for his horses and carriages. For this project he turned to Horace Trumbauer, a young architect then 23 years old. Trumbauer completed the work in 1892; the gate-house and the stables both carry dating stones of that year.

Up From the Ashes

In January of 1893 a raging fire destroyed the main house of Rosedale Hall and the Harrison family fled to the stables for refuge. Shortly thereafter, they moved into a house in Glenside proper, and Harrison called on Horace Trumbauer to build a new home for him on the site of old Rosedale Hall. By March the architect had completed his plans for a grandiose structure based on Alnwick Castle, the medieval seat of the Dukes of Northumberland in England. The new residence, estimated to cost $250,000, would be inspired by Alnwick, but not directly copied from it. Conveniences of the most modern kind were to be provided, including electricity.

By the end of 1893 work was well under-way. Grey stone was quarried in nearby Chestnut Hill while Indiana limestone served for the exterior trim of doors, windows and other elements. For the interior installations, the finest local craftsmen were called upon for the vast amount of hand-carved woodwork involved. The decor of the principal rooms expressed an eclectic selection of various French styles ranging from the Renaissance through the age of Louis XV.

Eclecticism and Elegance

In the central Great Hall various designs show influences from French Renaissance chateaux such as Chambord in the Loire Valley, erected early in the 16th century for Francis I. The two impressive mantles of Caen stone are interpretations of a huge Renaissance mantle in the Salle des Gardes of the Francis I wing of the royal Chateau of Blois. On these at Grey Towers the royal emblems have been replaced by fleur-de-lis, while the central escutcheon holds the coat-of-arms of Mr. Harrison's father. Clearly, Mr. Trumbauer was attracted at this time by the French Renaissance. This influence appears again at Grey Towers in many of the principle rooms.

The Library, now the President's Office, has walls lined with inset hook cabinets whose original glass fronts have now been replaced with wood panels. Walnut frames carved in Renaissance style outline the cabinets and the ornamental plaster panels above. Below the ceiling cornice runs a plaster frieze molded with cupids and garlands. The original moldings and paint may still be seen on the coffered ceiling.

Beyond the Library, also on the south side of the Great Hall, lies the Dining Room. Here there is the use of classical Renaissance architectural elements in the walnut columns and caryatids or consoles which frame the wooden paneling of the walls and the mantlepiece. These are reminiscent of interiors at Fontainebleau, as is the strapwork ceiling. The glass doors at the far end of the room once opened into a circular metal and glass Conservatory on the south terrace. Unfortunately, the deteriorating state of this structure eventually led to its removal by Arcadia University in 1952.

A corridor leading west from the Dining Room toward the former location of the kitchens and servants' hall gives access to the Breakfast Room. The walnut paneling of this room is surmounted by a narrow band of tapestry woven with scenes of the hunt. Overhead, painted canvas panels fill spaces between the ceiling beams. The marble mosaic work of the fireplace is similar to that found in other fireplace decorations throughout the house. After the Castle had been finished, it was decided to enlarge this room with the present glass and metal extension onto the south terrace. The windows and sills of the original Breakfast Room were removed to provide a broad opening into the addition.

Behind the main stairway of the Great Hall, a sunken landing opens through massive sliding doors into the oak-paneled Billiard Room.

An Ornamental Showpiece

On the north side of the Great Hall, near the Billiard Room, a small circular entryway with a domed and gilded ceiling leads into the Mirror Room. The original form of this room was later changed when Trumbauer arranged for the installation of the present early Louis XV or Baroque Ballroom as it was called. Quite probably this entire room was ordered as a package through the New York offices of a French firm. The room was created in France and shipped to Glenside, along with workmen to install it. The ceiling painting by Francois Lafon (or Lafor) represents the four seasons as women, attended by cupids and floating against a sky cut by the path of the zodiac. Within the cove separating the walls from the ceiling runs a vine motif ornamented with cupids, long-necked birds and female figures.

A pair of sliding doors opens from the Ballroom into the adjoining Drawing Room now known as the Rose Room. Here the ornamentation is a composite of various details typical of the later years in the reign of Louis XV.

The grand stairway of the Great Hall Grey Towers rises to a landing where a large archway gives entrance to the Music Room. Each pier of this arch displays a single, large, mahogany panel carved with French Renaissance designs. The ceiling of the room was originally painted in Renaissance style, but all that now remains is the painting in the spaces over the archway. The mahogany mantlepiece at one end of the room again derives its design from the Chateau of Blois. The original can be seen there in the Salle des Gardes, the same room in which stands the original of the two mantles in Grey Towers' Great Hall. Tapestries decorate the walls above the wainscoting of the Music Room. The piece at the end opposite the fireplace represents an allegory of music with what is presumably the Muse of Music, Euterpe, seated in the center. In the lower right corner of this tapestry can be seen the signature "Baumgarten 1898."

The Dream Fulfilled

William Baumgarten and Company, Inc. of New York City provided all of the tapestries throughout the house and accomplished all of the ornamental painting on ceilings and walls as well. They were not engaged, however, for the Mirror Room. The tapestry, dated 1898, and the date 1897 carved on a panel section of the Library combine with other evidence to show that the interior decoration of Grey Towers was complete by the fall of 1898.

William Welsh Harrison now owned one of America's great castles which, with its 40 rooms, was also one of the largest homes in the country. The eclecticism so popular at the time is well represented in Grey Towers' architecture and interior decoration. The structure attracted attention to the architect, and Horace Trumbauer was launched on a highly successful career.

Mr. Harrison died in 1927 and in 1929 Arcadia University, then located in Jenkintown, purchased Grey Towers from his widow and son at a price of $712,500. For a number of years, classes were held both in Jenkintown and Glenside, but in 1962 Arcadia University transferred completely to the Grey Towers property.

In October 1985, Grey Towers Castle was declared a National Historic Landmark, providing proper recognition of its architectural and historical significance.

Recently, a support group called the Society for Castle Restoration was organized to help with needed maintenance and preservation efforts.

Call 215-572-2900 for more information.


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