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TRR photo by David Hulse
Gifford Pinchot was a man of the outdoors and his home reflects it in the landscaping and attention to outdoor architectural detail. (Click for larger image)

Grey Towers: restored and even better


MILFORD — An unsuspecting motorist turning off West Harford Street onto the unassuming Owega Road might well be expecting restaurant parking, but that’s not what he’ll find.

Traveling up the hill along the tree-lined road behind the Apple Valley Restaurant, he’ll soon be confronted with the massive stone gatehouse that marks the entrance to Grey Towers, the home of the “father” of the U.S. Forest Service and former Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot.

And following the winding drive to the top, he’ll find a national historic landmark that is markedly improved from the one he would have come upon five years ago.

Built in 1886 for Pinchot’s father James Pinchot as a summer home, Grey Towers was modeled after the French estate chateau, complete with massive turrets.

It was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty and the expansive Biltmore House near Asheville, North Carolina.

Moviegoers will recall the Biltmore House and estate as the sets for portions of the recent thriller, “Hannibal.”

Gifford Pinchot was a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and helped mold Roosevelt’s reputation as a conservationist after he became president. As first chief of the Forest Service, Pinchot restructured the national forests, made their management a profession and tripled their size to some 172 million acres.

Pinchot met Cornelia Bryce, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy Long Island family, in 1914 during an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. They married that same year. Cornelia Pinchot is credited with much of the landscaping and gardens at Grey Towers, which she remodeled extensively.

Pinchot made Grey Towers his permanent home and after two decades service in Washington, he became Governor in 1922. He was re-elected again in 1930 and is well remembered for his road construction efforts, paving some 20,000 miles country roads. He died in 1946 at the age of 81.

After Cornelia Pinchot’s death in 1960, Grey Towers was donated to the Forest Service in 1963 by Pinchot’s son, Dr. Gifford Bryce Pinchot. Grey Towers was then opened to the public.

The house and its satellite buildings, including Pinchot’s office and archive, “The Letterbox,” and their son’s playhouse, “The Baitbox,” saw immediate renovations after the public acquisition, but little since then. By the late 1990’s it was evident that more extensive renovations were needed.

A new slate roof was added in the fall of 1996 and the Forest Service began a multi-phase restoration and renovation project in 1998, which necessitated closing the structure to the public for three years. Some $12 million went to renovate the former servants’ wing into office and support services, including installation of a new elevator.

TRR photo by David Hulse
Inviting rocking chairs sit on the east patio of the main house. The “Letterbox,” Pinchot’s office and private archive, is pictured in the background. (Click for larger image)

In the main house, all the interior surfaces were restored, including painting, wood moldings, ornamental plaster, plaster ceilings and walls. Restoration quality furnishings were added to the tour areas. A new covered south porch was built and the wood flooring system was structurally modified.

New plantings and lawns were added outside, along with paved walkways and the terraces were reconstructed.

In the fall of 2001, Grey Towers reopened, but the work isn’t finished. A $342,000 renovation of the original farmhouse was completed earlier this month.

The Letterbox, designed in 1925 by famed architect Chester Aldrich, is next on the restoration list. Matching a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation has raised $116,000 in matching funds from individuals and corporations to help renovate it. Work is scheduled to begin in the fall.

Beyond that, the Forest Service is looking toward dealing with Grey Towers’ increasing popularity. In the past, Grey Towers averaged 13,000 visitors annually, but in the four months following the fall reopening, 10,500 persons visited.

Some of that was generated by local curiosity, but with its new conference center, Grey Towers has greatly widened its venue. “It’s available to anybody in the tri-states region with anything to do with our mission: the environment, history, the Pinchot Art Program...We’re expecting our visitation will be three or four times what it has been in the past,” said spokeswoman Lori McKean.

So, the next phase will be a visitors services complex, with much needed parking for growing visitation. By the end of the project, McKean estimated that $18 million will have been invested in preserving the home of the man of whom Roosevelt said, “… among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, Gifford Pinchot on the whole, stood first.”

News & columns provided by The River Reporter