Even on a bright Sunday afternoon, I feel spooked driving through Elkins Park, a grassy suburb just beyond the city border. Here looms the massive, haunted-looking shell of the old Widener estate, its parched, ragged lawn overgrown with vines. Nearby, like another tombstone in the architectural graveyard, lies the abandoned hulk of the old Tyler art school campus, empty since 2009.
Rounding the curve on Ashbourne Road, I come upon the entrance to the Elkins Estate, a forty-two acre white elephant of a property boasting a pair of ornate mansions that, like its derelict neighbors, were designed by Horace Trumbauer, the 19th century architect of Philadelphia’s Free Library and Museum of Art.
But what a buzz of human activity I find here today. Cars converge through the wrought iron gates, up the long driveway. Families with little kids in soccer shorts, elderly couples, tattooed young hipsters— everyone is streaming into the 1898 Italian Renaissance-style palace, Elstowe Manor, with its elaborate caryatids and ceiling fresco.
I grab a seat on the periphery of the capacious hall, where, in contrast to the gilded plaster and marble, rests a gigantic angular aluminum structure hung with bright-colored trapezes, hoops, and silks. A team of muscular young women, members of Tangle Movement Arts, are demonstrating their innovative crossover of aerial acrobatics, spoken word, and modern dance.
This unusual performance space is the brainchild of Benjamin Lloyd, producer and driving force behind the non-profit White Pines Productions. In the past week alone White Pines has produced five diverse arts events on the campus of the Elkins Estate. Last night, there was a production of the play Our Town in a homey backyard setting a five minute walk from Elstowe. Earlier today, inside the Tudor-style mansion next door, there was a brunch with jazz vocals and guitar. There is never an admission charge, and afterwards, there is always opportunity for audience members to connect personally with the artists.
Lloyd, an Elkins Park-based actor, is on a mission to develop a new type of cultural center for Philadelphia: a place where theater artists, dancers, and musicians will be supported in their work, and connected to one another, as well as to ordinary citizens in the community. He wants art to be free for audiences. And he wants to do all this in the richly historical setting of the estate, which was built as the summer home of late 19th century oil tycoon and arts philanthropist William Lukens Elkins.
The idea of collaboration is essential to Lloyd’s vision for his arts community. This summer White Pines is sponsoring residencies for three performing arts ensembles who specifically use a collaborative process—as distinct from, say, a dance company led by a single choreographer. I learned of White Pines through Tangle’s founder, my 25-year-old daughter, Lauren Rile Smith, when her postmodern circus troupe was awarded one of the residencies, which includes a week of room and board for the 8-woman company, and access to interior and exterior space around the estate. This opportunity, says Lauren, has been invaluable for an emerging group like Tangle, whose spatial and technical requirements make practice and rehearsal time precious.
During their residency, Tangle members worked together from 8 AM until 11 PM every day, accomplishing more in one week at White Pines than they could have in months on their regular schedule. This afternoon they are sharing excerpts from their new work-in-progress, which will premiere this fall at the Fringe Festival.
Tangle’s new work has been profoundly influenced by the Elkins Estate’s architecture and domestic setting, which includes artifacts from its posh heyday under ownership of Elkins family, as well from its long interim period as a convent and convalescent home for nuns. During the demo, Sarah Nicolazzo dances mid-air on a trapeze—with a wooden dining room chair. A humble coffee table becomes a vehicle for handstands in a whole-group ensemble segment. In an acrobatic routine using aerial rope, Sarah ascends towards the fresco on the ceiling, twists, and suddenly is upside down. Then she drops precipitously, only to be caught mid-air by the rope. A toddler the audience roars out in astonished joy, and the audience bursts into applause.
The problem with Benjamin Lloyd’s vision for a cooperative artists’ haven in Cheltenham Township is that the Elkins Estate is currently “tangled” in a complex legal knot. White Pines Productions is a tenant of the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park, a non-profit that is in default of its mortgage to the property’s longtime owners, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci, who purchased the estate from the Elkins family during the Great Depression. The LCEP uses the estate as a yoga retreat, and rents it out for cash by the hour for weddings and other events (currently, LCEP is hosting a three-week-long photo shoot for Victoria’s Secret’s winter lingerie catalogue inside the old convent and chapel). Now bankrupt, The LCEP owes over $800,000 in taxes to Cheltenham Township, and is under a court-ordered eviction. Lloyd writes rent checks to an escrow account for the nuns. A bystander in this struggle, White Pines faces an uncertain future.
In order to distance himself from the LCEP, and to find a solution for preserving the estate, Lloyd sought foundation support to commission a feasibility report by Culture Works of Greater Philadelphia. Currently two months into the six-month study, Lloyd hopes to discover strategies to help realize his vision of a utopian artistic commons—while also satisfying the nuns’ mortgage and the estate’s tax obligation to the township.
It’s a tall order, finishing the current White Pines season while planning for the future in the face of so much turmoil and acrimony. But Lloyd is resolved to continue for as long as he can, pointing out that White Pines, the nuns, and LCEP all share the same goal of conserving the existing buildings and gardens while going forward with a viable future plan. Meanwhile, White Pines’ loyal audiences continue to grow, and art continues to blossom, for now, on the Elkins Estate.
This essay appeared, in slightly shorter form, in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 22, 2012.