New public garden opens Sunday on former Haas estate in Villanova

Beginning Sunday, the public is welcome to stroll the grounds of Stoneleigh in Villanova, formerly the estate of the Haas family. The 42 acres will showcase native plantings.

Stoneleigh, the 42-acre Villanova estate belonging to the famously philanthropic Haas family, is the newest public garden in the Philadelphia region, which already calls itself — with more than 30 gardens within 30 miles of the city — “America’s garden capital.”

The former Haas estate, with its elegant Tudor Revival mansion, Gatsby-esque Great Lawn, massive trees and historic landscape, has a strategic new name — Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden — and a 21st-century mission: to plant and promote wildlife-friendly native plants.

The transformed house and garden will open to the public for the first time on Sunday, having been donated in 2016 by the grown children of the late John and Chara Haas to the Media-based Natural Lands, formerly Natural Lands Trust, a land-preservation nonprofit that oversees 43 nature preserves in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Stoneleigh is its first public garden. (John was the son of Otto Haas, co-founder of Rohm & Haas Corp., the international chemical company that is now a Dow Chemical subsidiary.)

“Stoneleigh speaks to our mission of connecting people to nature and saving land,” Natural Lands president Molly Morrison says, “and it offers a very compelling opportunity to reframe the discussion about public gardens with native plants.” It’s a discussion, she believes, with particular resonance in suburbia, the land of generous backyards.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
The house and grounds were impeccably maintained by the Haas family, starting with Otto and Phoebe in 1935 and John and Chara in 1964. The Haases stipulated in their wills that the land, already under a conservation easement, be donated to a nonprofit.

Stoneleigh joins a growing number of public gardens that include or specialize in natives, which have naturally evolved over thousands of years in a particular place and help sustain its ecosystems, especially indigenous birds, insects and other creatures. Nonnative plants, or “exotics,” are introduced to a location either intentionally by humans or accidentally, by birds, wind, and other natural means.

Stoneleigh director Ethan Kauffman, whose last job entailed converting a private estate in Lake City, S.C., into a public garden, does not plan to rip out the estate’s nonnatives, such as azaleas and rhododendrons, but as they die out, they’ll be replaced by natives. Already, invasive “exotics,” such as Japanese honeysuckle, have been removed, and 250 native trees and assorted native grasses, perennials and shrubs, added.

“We want to inspire people with natives,” Kauffman says, “not tell them, ‘Don’t do this in your garden.’”

The house also has a new elevator, upgraded heating/air-conditioning, and four renovated bathrooms. The first floor, available to rent for events, retains the Haas’ elegant wood-paneling and playful stained-glass windows featuring bunnies (“haas” means “hare” in Dutch and German). The second and third floors are occupied by the national Organ Historical Society and its library and archives.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
These pipes are part of a Aeolian-Skinner Opus 878 organ under construction in the basement. The mansion’s second and third floors are occupied by the national Organ Historical Society and its library and archives.

The Haas family has a deep affinity for pipe organs, known as “the king of instruments.” Chara Haas’ father was a longtime organist at the old Swedenborgian Church in Center City and her son Fred is a noted organist in his own right. (With money from the Haas family’s Wyncote Foundation, an Aeolian-Skinner Opus 878 organ is being built in Stoneleigh’s basement.)

“It’s a hoot,” says the society’s Marcia Sommers, who describes Philadelphia, past and present, as “an extremely rich organ community.”

The carriage house is now office space. The filled-in pool is an event patio, and the pool house has been transformed into kitchens. There are repointed stone walls; a new picnic pavilion; visitor kiosk and 66-car parking lot at the entrance along County Line Road, with more available at nearby Villanova University; a new mile of porous paving, and 1.5 miles of trails, half of which are handicap-accessible.

Casey Sclar, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association, which represents more than 625 gardens in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and 20 other countries, calls the new Stoneleigh “a dramatic act of preservation and inspiration.” Its challenge, he says, is “to find a way to tell its unique story, to make people aware of what’s native, and to ensure that the time they spend there is relevant.”

Beyond that, Sclar says, “the preservation of open space is the wonderful story of Stoneleigh.”

Camera icon jessica griffin / staff photographer
Ethan Kauffman, the new garden’s director, checks newly arrived native plantings.

R. William Thomas, executive director of the 48-acre Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, which is celebrated as an evocative tapestry of natives and nonnatives, predicts that Stoneleigh will attract many visitors its first year. The tricky part, he says, is to keep people coming back, especially given that new plants take time to establish. And, while natives have a singular beauty, he says, “right now I’d hate to be without Asian flowering cherries, magnolias and daffodils.”

Still, Thomas adds, “it’s a beautiful property with wonderful trees and some really charming areas. And using all natives is a fine way to go.”

Several of those trees are Pennsylvania State Champions, such as an old cucumber magnolia that measures 202 inches around, 102 feet tall, and 93 feet wide. Kauffman says the Haases liked their trees to grow naturally, without a lot of formal pruning, resulting in some strange and wonderful branching.

The estate’s romantic, naturalistic landscape was cultivated for a half-century by the Olmsted Brothers, a firm comprising the two sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City’s Central Park. By all accounts, the house and grounds were impeccably maintained by the Haas family, starting with Otto and Phoebe in 1935 and John and Chara in 1964. In 1996, the latter placed the property under a conservation easement with then-Natural Lands Trust; when they died in 2011 and 2012, respectively, their will stipulated that the property be donated to a nonprofit, which is how the group took ownership.

On Thursday, Natural Lands announced the launch of Save Stoneleigh, “an awareness and education campaign” aimed at fending off a possible effort by the Lower Merion School District to condemn all or part of the property for a new school and ball fields. School officials could not be reached for comment.

Kauffman hopes Stoneleigh “brings joy to your life. Walk around, look at the native plants, get ideas, and think more critically about how we treat the environment.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Native plants, which have naturally evolved over thousands of years in a particular place, help sustain indigenous birds, insects and other creatures.

Stoneleigh will offer public tours and programming: musical performances, including that fabulous organ in the basement; adult and youth sustainable gardening classes, and, down the road, plant sales. There are no plans to offer Stoneleigh as a wedding venue.

Chris Leswing, Lower Merion Township’s building and planning director, says amicable negotiations with Haas family representatives and neighbors resulted in modifications to the zoning code for larger estates wanting to transition to open space, as well as limits on Stoneleigh’s access, parking, hours, number and size of events, lighting and amplification. Events also must be at least 100 feet from neighboring properties.

“We’re very excited about this because one of our township’s key goals is the preservation of open space,” Leswing says. “It’s what makes Lower Merion Lower Merion.”

A deer fence is in the works, but Stoneleigh happily welcomes red foxes, bald eagles and other critters. Kauffman, 43, a Lancaster County native who once aspired to be a herpetologist, delights in having found five species of snakes so far, including a “really neat” — and harmless — milk snake in the parking lot.

David W. Haas, a philanthropist who serves on the board of managers for the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, owner of the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, is part of the last generation of Haas kids to grow up at Stoneleigh. Despite the scale of their Main Line estate, he says, John and Chara Haas’ five children had a pretty normal time of it, from roller skating in the basement of the 17,000-square-foot mansion and Frisbee-golf on the endless lawns to daredevil tree-climbing and “magical” snowstorms.

As for Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden, “it’s a wonderful outcome,” he says.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
The estate is home to giant trees, many of them native species, such as the American Elm (center).

If you go

Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden is located at 1829 County Line Rd., Villanova, Pa. 19085. It opens to the public for the first time at 10 a.m. Sunday for a Mother’s Day Stroll About the grounds. Members of the public who want to attend the opening day should register online Stoneleighgarden.org or natlands.org ahead of time to get a timed-entry.
Admission: Free
Parking: Free
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and two days each at Thanksgiving and Christmas
For more information about public events at Stoneleigh and others that are for Natural Lands members only, or to learn about becoming a Natural Lands member: go to stoneleighgarden.org or natlands.org, email info@natlands.org, or call (610) 353-5587.