Walking near the Willows Mansion in Villanova a few years ago, a resident of the area noticed a reddish terra-cotta roof tile in heavy brush.
Gingerly picking it up from under poison ivy, he took it to the group renovating the mansion, designed by renowned Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen for the bride of a wealthy distillery owner. The mansion was built in 1910 and originally called Rose Garland. The tile turned out to be a fragment of the long-forgotten original roof.
The incident illustrates how chance and luck can play a large role in a historical renovation.
In this case, luck arrived on a summer afternoon in 2017 when a local preservation buff walked unannounced into a meeting of the Willows Park Preserve, a nonprofit that had been organized to deal with the deteriorating mansion. The visitor started by saying he had seen too many historic structures in the area demolished.
And then, according to then-president Tish Long, he asked, “What would it take to save the mansion?”
The mystery man — who remains anonymous — called the mansion “the crown jewel of Radnor Township” and pledged $1 million.
Since then, the preservation group has been wrestling with two problems in one of the most ambitious historical preservation efforts on the Main Line: raising money during a pandemic and balancing the historical integrity of a structure built as a residence in the early 20th century with the demands to be placed on it in the 21st century.
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Current board president Howard Holden of Radnor says that the second problem is in some ways less daunting than it might seem.
“The house was built for entertaining,” says Holden, who before his retirement was facilities administrator for Cabrini University in Radnor and senior horticulturist at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne. “It has million-dollar views. It was ‘open architecture’ before there was such a thing.”
Fund-raising is proving more difficult. The preserve has raised $1.4 million of the $6 million needed — including the anonymous donation — “and we’ve been hammered by COVID,” says Will Nord, the executive director employed by Willows Park Preserve.
Large scale fund-raising events have had to be put on hold, he says, and the pandemic may have given potential donors other priorities. A planned completion date of summer 2022 will surely have to be pushed back.
“But it’s a speed bump, not a wall,” Nord adds.
In addition to the “new old” roof, original dormers and chimneys have been restored, the interior has been repainted, and the heating system brought back to life. Four of five boilers were dysfunctional when the group took over, he says.
Parts of the mansion, such as the original woodwork, have been altered. “Do you keep what’s there and respect that alteration, or do you take it back to a previous time?” asks Suzanne Amrich, a designer and preservationist with the architectural firm Archer & Buchanan of West Chester, which is working on the project.
“There’s a valuable argument for either choice, but we haven’t gotten to that stage yet,” she says. “We’re keeping the exterior more traditional … still what Charles Barton Keen originally designed.
“The home has transformed itself over time.”
The plan is to hold 25 private events a year to cover operating costs. Fund-raising will go toward construction and renovation. Projects include rebuilding the solarium to make room for a garden and renovating a decaying fountain and wishing well where marriages were once held.
An events and development director was recently hired, Nord says, sending “a message to the community that we’re for real.”
And, he notes, alone among the classic Main Line mansions still standing, the Willows will be regularly open to the public.
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In the next phase, for which another $500,000 needs to be raised, terraces will be expanded, taking advantage of views of the park down the hill, to accommodate more outdoor events.
“The best part of this house is the outdoor space,” Nord says.
In addition to staged events, the preserve plans low- or no-cost recreational activities like guided hikes, wildflower tours, nature walks, and yoga classes.
While “everybody we talk to has a memory of going to an event there,” Amrich says, maintaining the mansion has long been a challenge. Radnor Township bought it and the adjacent 47½-acre park in 1972, held some community events there for several decades, and then closed it down in 2012 because it was too costly to maintain.
Numerous for-profit ventures, including a nursery school and a catering facility, had been rejected as impractical.
Willows Park Preserve holds a 25-year lease from the township covering the mansion and immediate surroundings, which went into effect in 2019. The township has committed $1.8 million for infrastructure improvements in addition to what the preserve is spending for restoration.
Now, says Holden, whose son was married at the Willows, “what we’re doing is to restore it so the community can come back in.”
And the mystery man? He still walks the property on occasion, Nord says. And remains anonymous.
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