As Mother Divine Fades Away, What Indeed Will Happen to Woodmont in Gladwyne?

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carla's picture
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In Gladwyne, near Philadelphia Country Club sits one more mansion of a monsterous size: Woodmont.

Woodmont was built in 1891 - here from their Wikipedia page:

Woodmont was designed in 1891 by Quaker architect William Lightfoot Price in the French Gothic style for Alan Wood, Jr., a steel magnate and former U.S. Congressman. Overlooking the Schuylkill River, the industrial town of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and the Alan Wood Iron & Steel Company Plant, the chateauesque mansion was completed in 1894 at a cost of one-million dollars.

The site is the highest elevation in Montgomery County, and features views of 15 to 20 miles. The mansion stands on the estate's highest ground, with the Schuylkill Expressway passing by it, hundreds of feet below.

The model for Woodmont was the George W. Vanderbilt mansion, Biltmore, in Ashville, North Carolina. Price had designed a nearby hotel for Vanderbilt, the Kenilworth Inn (1890-91), and was intimately familiar with the then-under-construction chateau.

Woodmont includes tennis courts, a swimming pool, stables, several outbuildings, greenhouses, a stream, and walking paths. The original property spanned more than 400 acres (1,600,000 m2), including a working farm with two dairy barns (one survives).

Alan Wood, Jr. occupied the estate for less than a decade. A year before his 1902 death, he sold it to his nephew, Richard G. Wood, who lived there for 28 years. Richard began subdividing the land in 1929, including the sale of 200 acres (810,000 m2) to the Philadelphia Country Club.

The estate is today the center of the International Peace Mission movement. Father Divine, a self-proclaimed God and leader of the movement, was given the estate by a follower, John Devoute, in 1953. His followers renovated the mansion and placed an American flag prominently in front reflecting Father Divine's patriotism. They also added a garden like those on previous Peace Mission properties. An open house was held on September 10, 11, and 12, 1953.

Followers visited Father Divine here until his death in 1965. All furnishings in Divine's rooms, including an antiquated television set, have been left as they were at his death. The estate is now a shrine to his life and a meeting place for his few remaining followers.

Woodmont is open to the public on Sunday afternoons, from April to October. The guided tours are free of charge.

Ok face it, this Peace Mission is for all intents and purposes a cult - we started to hear about them again when Main Line Today launched the article Prodigal Son (Part I):Will Tommy Garcia rescue Gladwyne’s foundering Peace Mission? Not if Mother Divine has her way.

This is fascinating. Read the article. But what really got me thinking was an article I re-read this morning as I was getting ready to chuck old magazines. It is the conclustion to the article. Keys to the Kingdom (Part II)
The second installment of our two-part series examines the fate of Gladwyne’s historic Woodmont estate—and the Peace Mission’s hold on it. What will happen to both after the controversial movement’s figurehead, Mother Divine, passes? And will anyone care?
By J.F. Pirro

Definitely read this article. Notice what former King of Eminent Domain in Lower Merion - another commissioner who up and resigned - one of the ones we can thank for the Reed-Taylor legacy is mentioned. Yep - Matt Comisky. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Keys to the Kingdom (Part II)
The second installment of our two-part series examines the fate of Gladwyne’s historic Woodmont estate—and the Peace Mission’s hold on it. What will happen to both after the controversial movement’s figurehead, Mother Divine, passes? And will anyone care?
By J.F. Pirro Published October 6, 2010 at 01:23 PM

Assessments of the aging Mrs. M.J. (Mother) Divine’s health vary—though few are positive. One source claims he’s known the symbolic leader of Rev. M.J. (Father) Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement for 15 years. She didn’t recognize him the last time they met. A participant in this year’s annual “Winter Trek” at the Peace Mission’s historic Woodmont estate recounts an odd conversation with Mother that February day: “She asked me four times if I went on the walk.”

Some believe Mother suffered a mild stroke two years ago—or that she may have the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Tired and passive, with less energy and focus, Mother no longer attends meetings and functions for the Lower Merion Historical Society or the Gladwyne Civic Association. “She isn’t what she was two years ago,” says one insider.

Now in her mid-80s, Mother Divine appears to be getting the same sort of protection inside the secretive sect’s Gladwyne headquarters that enveloped her husband in his final years. And it’s likely her retreat from public view will continue as she shows further signs of mortality....With its matriarch largely sequestered, the Peace Mission continues to conduct its ceremonial business in plain view. It hosted its annual “Holy Days” open house Sept. 10-12. The event recognizes Father Divine’s death on Sept. 10, 1965, along with the September 1953 dedication of Woodmont as the “Mount of the House of the Lord” and the September 1968 dedication of Father’s “Shrine to Life” mausoleum. Those Peace Mission followers who remain continue to worship their Father as God in what is now a dwindling interracial, celibate religious and social movement long past its 1930s prime.

The Peace Mission’s core beliefs will not allow its followers—no matter how few in number—to concede defeat. “Cult-minded selectivity is an interpretative process that’s always morphing with failed predictions,” says Swarthmore’s David Clark, a founding and current board member of the Recovering Former Cultists’ Support Network.

Swept up in all this uncertainty is the fate of Woodmont. Its 1998 National Historic Landmark designation amounts to little unless the Peace Mission followers named on the active deed allow Lower Merion Township to list the old Alan Wood Jr. mansion as a Class I building. Otherwise, it can be sold and subdivided—or demolished. There’s fear that increased preservation pressure will put followers on the defensive, perhaps even prompting a scenario along the lines of the controversial destruction of the La Ronda mansion in Bryn Mawr. And other than a philosophical agreement, no conservation easement has been signed to protect the grounds, says Mike Weilbacher, former executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy.....Woodmont is owned communally by Palace Mission Inc., a conglomerate of church members. That would be consistent with Father Divine’s other properties and possessions, which were always purchased by followers for him. It’s been said that the 1940s deed from the Divine Lorraine, the Philadelphia hotel the sect sold in 2000, included hundreds of names. In the case of Divine’s New York empire, as owners on a deed dwindled to one living survivor, the property was quietly resold and deeded to other followers to keep it held communally.

The father of Blank Rome firm partner Lawrence F. Flick II represented the Peace Mission for years until his death one year ago. He recounts the painstaking efforts it took his dad to track down every person whose name appeared on a group deed when signatures were required.

Real estate attorney and Blank Rome partner Matthew J. Comisky is a former president of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners who has represented the Peace Mission in the past. And while he wouldn’t return calls or e-mails for this story, sources say he once spoke of turning Woodmont into a state park along the lines of the Ephrata Cloister, a sect that met its end in modern times in Lancaster County....In the end, the fate of Woodmont might well be in the hands of the last living follower who still owns stock in Palace Mission, Inc.—or, as one person close to the movement says, the last “senile, doddering old lady.” Or someone who comes out of Woodmont’s woodwork with an estate challenge.

Palace Mission, Inc. was formed in New York, but a search of online records at the office of the New York Secretary of State shows that no such entity still exists. As for its qualifications in Pennsylvania, it has a registered office at 20 S. 36th St.—the West Philadelphia address of the Divine Tracy hotel, which was sold in July 2006 and converted into housing for Penn and Drexel students.

The Woodmont estate isn’t on the real estate tax books. Categorized as a parsonage—or the home of a religious figure—the estate wouldn’t normally be exempt under that designation, according to Gilbert P. High Jr., Lower Merion Township’s solicitor. But the years of Peace Mission religious services do make it exempt, perhaps suggesting an alternative need for its Holy Communion Banquet celebrations.

Read the whole article. I found it quite interesting - and do we face another potential La Ronda in our midsts?

Main Line Times wrote an article about the estate itself in 2009

They twaddle about preservation in Lower Merion Township, but would Liz Rogan be able to save someplace like Woodmont? Highly unlikely. Besides she seems to prefer the company of shopping center folks and former township staff doesn't she?

They couldn't save La Ronda, so I doubt if they had to, would be able to save this.

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bobguzzardi's picture
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This is very interesting. I was totally unaware of Woodmont or the status of Father Divine and his organization. Thanks Citizen Journalist Carla for this informative post.

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ArdmoreWilley's picture
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Yes, interesting indeed.  I've never been to Woodmont despite being recommended to visit by the heirs(the Woods).  (I'm great friends with one of the surviving heirs and have meet most of the heirs - this family has such a great history in this area)  The Devine's, father devine, wel, well, interesting is an understatement when it comes to this organization.  Of particular interest is the marital concepts practiced by father devine and the spiking of food served to the public with salt-peter for a desired affect at their center city hotels.

Definitely something to watch regarding potential unwanted development... 

Thanks Carla.

 

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Susan Africa's picture
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I'm not sure about the Devine Tracy Hotel but if you google the Divine Lorraine Hotel you will find additional, interesting historical info about this group.  I think the rebuilding of the Hotel was someone's pipe dream ... I think it is still standing but I haven't been down that way for a while.

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RADNOR's picture
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What will happen? Are you kidding me!

1. Building torn down with no public comment.

2. Land cut up and subdivided to build more McMansions for LOSERS.

3. And NO ONE from LMT will march on city hall demanding to be heard!

Take a cue from the Egyptian People. Cause the elected will listen when you march.

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