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Visitors to Glen Foerd on the Delaware marvel at the decorative plasterwork that surrounds the domed, stained-glass laylight crowning the mansion’s central staircase. On tours they see, from their vantage point on the third-floor landing, beams of light pouring in through the 15-foot interior skylight, bringing into sharp relief the buttery yellow plaster with inlays. But until last spring, the mansion’s signature architectural feature could be viewed from afar only.

Glen Foerd is situated on 18 acres at the confluence of the Poquessing Creek and the Delaware River in the Torresdale neighborhood of Philadelphia. Built in 1850 by businessman Charles Macalester Jr. (1798–1873), the mansion is the sole remaining riverfront estate in Philadelphia open to the public. In 1895 leather manufacturer Robert H. Foerderer (1860–1903) and his wife Caroline bought the three-story estate and changed its name from Glengarry to Glen Foerd. During this period Foerderer, who became a U.S. Congressman in 1901, hired Philadelphia architect William McAuley (fl. 1884–1904) to renovate and expand the mansion, work that included the installation of the laylight. After the Foerderers passed away, the house remained in the hands of their daughter until her death in 1971. In 1985 the nonprofit Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation was established to operate and manage the mansion through a lease from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

Over the years, a roof leak formed, allowing water to seep into the plaster of the ceiling. The third floor was subsequently closed, making it impossible for visitors to get a close look at the grand interior skylight. “All the decorative plaster work around the laylight was just crumpling,” said Meg Sharp Walton, Glen Foerd’s executive director. “The plaster was so damaged that it looked like stalactites hanging down.”


A conservator repairs the damaged plaster surrounding the laylight at Glen Foerd. Glen Foerd on the Delaware

A conservator repairs the damaged plaster surrounding the laylight at Glen Foerd. Glen Foerd on the Delaware

In 2006 the damaged roof was repaired, a project funded equally by the Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation and a PHMC Keystone Historic Preservation Construction Grant. Even with the roof fixed, however, the damage to the plaster had been too extensive to allow tours to venture on the third floor near the interior skylight.

In early 2016 the corporation launched a roughly $40,000 restoration project aimed at repairing the damaged plasterwork surrounding the laylight. They requested that Philadelphia Parks and Recreation release money from a small endowment that could be used to partially fund the restoration project. With nearly $20,000 available, they now needed matching funds to start the project, so the group applied for another Keystone Historic Preservation Construction Grant.

Launched in 1993 Keystone Historic Preservation Construction Grants support projects that rehabilitate, restore or preserve publicly accessible historic resources listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Glen Foerd had been listed in 1979. Karen Arnold, the Keystone Grants manager at PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office, said Keystone grants are available for $5,000 to $100,000 and require a 50/50 cash match.

In 2009 another component of the Keystone grant program was added and dubbed the Keystone Historic Preservation Project Grant. Both the construction grant and the project grant are available to nonprofit organizations or local governments; however, project grants hold a different set of requirements. This grant, available for $5,000 to $25,000 and requiring a 50/50 cash match, may be used for planning purposes such as the hiring of an architect to conduct a conditions assessment or to develop plans for future construction projects. Both grants receive funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund. This year a total of $1.5 million has been set aside for the program.

“We are one of the only grant programs earmarked for historic preservation activities,” Arnold said. “Truly, it’s one of the only ones. I think it’s made a huge impact over the course of 20-plus years.” Sharp Walton agreed. “I think it would have been really hard to do this kind of project without support from PHMC.”

In January 2016, after securing a roughly $20,000 Keystone Historic Preservation Construction Grant, Glen Foerd hired Philadelphia-based Materials Conservation to take on the three-month project. Three stories of scaffolding went into place, allowing for the central staircase to be enclosed and a negative air system to be installed to contain the dust generated by the work. Materials Conservation employed digital methods to uncover the original color of the plasterwork. While some of the plaster was able to be repaired, other sections required molds to be taken and replaced with replicas.

In addition to the plaster restoration, Materials Conservation cleaned the laylight and installed backlighting. “Now, at night, we can turn on the backlighting and see the stained glass, compete with the logo for Glenn Foerd,” said Sharp Walton.


The laylight after conservation in 2016. Glen Foerd on the Delaware / Photo by Lisa Varley

The laylight after conservation in 2016. Glen Foerd on the Delaware / Photo by Lisa Varley

Sean Adkins is social media manager for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.