Haas estate to become free public garden

Natural Lands Trust, which owns 43 nature preserves across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, has announced a new acquisition: the 42-acre Stoneleigh estate in Villanova.

Officials at Natural Lands Trust are excited about giving the public access to

Officials at Natural Lands Trust are excited about giving the public access to Stoneleigh's natural beauty.

The children of the late John and Chara Haas donated the property on April 20, according to a NLT press release.

NLT, the region’s oldest and largest land conservation organization, plans to open the Haas family estate as a free public garden that showcases and educates visitors about the joys and benefits of gardens that emphasize the use of native plants, the release said.

“This remarkable act of generosity marks a turning point for both Stoneleigh and for our organization,” Molly Morrison, Natural Lands Trust’s president, said in the release. “We are deeply honored to be entrusted to carry on the Haas family’s legacy of stewardship for this magical place, and excited beyond measure to add Stoneleigh as a unique, shining star in our constellation of preserves.”

Stoneleigh’s history dates back to 1877 when Edmund Smith, a rising executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, purchased 65 acres of land in Villanova and constructed a residence there. In 1900, Samuel Bodine, head of United Gas Improvement Company, acquired the property, the release said.

Following Bodine’s death in 1932, Stoneleigh was subdivided and sold. Otto Haas, entrepreneur and co-founder of Rohm and Haas Company, purchased the southwestern portion of the estate, launching a more than 80-year tenure of careful stewardship by the Haas family.

Otto and Phoebe’s son, John, and his wife, Chara, acquired Stoneleigh in 1964 and lived there for the next five decades. The property includes stately trees, winding pathways, and lush gardens that the Haas family has carefully tended over the decades. The gardens were designed by a number of notable landscape architects over the past century—including Olmsted Brothers, sons of the famed Frederick Law Olmsted.

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A welcoming bunny totem sits at the corner of Spring Mill and County Line roads.

“Our parents took great joy in caring for their lovely gardens and natural areas,” John and Chara’s son David said in the release. “It was their wish that the property’s overall beauty, native habitats, and historic gardens be preserved. We believe that Natural Lands Trust shares our family’s vision and will work to honor the legacy of our parents by making the property a unique natural resource for the community and region.”

After a period of transition, “Stoneleigh: A Natural Garden” will be open with no admission charge to visitors. Natural Lands Trust will also offer a variety of public programs with a primary focus on natural gardening and landscaping techniques. The organization also anticipates hosting family- and child-oriented programs as well as volunteer opportunities. It is expected to take approximately 18 months to make the improvements needed to transition the property from a family home to a public garden.

“Stoneleigh is unique among our preserves in so many ways,” said Morrison. “We envision a place where the public will be able to enjoy the quiet and beauty of the Stoneleigh grounds and be motivated to learn about the joys and benefits of gardens that emphasize the use of native plants.”

The gardens at Stoneleigh were, of course, created to be the setting for a home. The Tudor Revival mansion will serve as a unique venue for lectures and other public events, but the majority of it will serve as offices and archives for the Organ Historical Society (OHS), an international nonprofit dedicated to celebrating, studying, and preserving pipe organ history. The Haas family has long had an affinity for the music of many types.

“In many ways the word ‘preservation’ provides the great operative link between OHS and Natural Lands Trust,” Jim Weaver, CEO of OHS, said in the release. “The invitation to establish our acclaimed library and archives at Stoneleigh is especially rewarding.”

John and Chara Haas placed Stoneleigh under a conservation easement with Natural Lands Trust in 1996. That easement was recently transferred to the Lower Merion Conservancy. Under an easement, the property remains in private ownership, but is protected from future development in perpetuity.

“We very much look forward to working with Natural Lands Trust and are extremely thankful to the Hass family for bestowing this wonderful gift on the community,” Maurine McGeehan, Lower Merion Conservancy executive director, said in the release.

In 2002, John and Chara Haas wrote: “The preservation and development of the gardens, grounds, and house have been an ongoing project of love for us. We feel privileged to have been entrusted with the conservation of this historic and beautiful property. As its stewards, we have made its safekeeping one of our priorities.”

Natural Lands Trust Board Chairman Jack Terrill said the trust appreciates that decision. “Natural Lands Trust is honored to be the next steward of Stoneleigh and we are grateful to the Haas family for their generosity, vision, and commitment to Stoneleigh’s future,” he said in the release.

 

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