The fate of one of Philadelphia's last large Gilded Age estates is again in question, three years after a sale intended to secure its preservation.
Last week, a bankruptcy judge restored ownership of the Elkins Estate - a 43-acre property off Route 611 in Cheltenham - to the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci, the religious order that sold it in 2009.
The ruling comes after the property's most recent buyer - a nonprofit that turned the grounds into a reception hall and spiritual center - failed to make several payments on its $8.5 million sale price and filed for Chapter 11.
"Ultimately, we don't want to retain ownership," said the congregation's president, Sister Anne Lythgoe. "We do feel a certain obligation to preserve the estate."
In 2009, the order and Cheltenham Township officials hailed the Elkins Estate's sale to the Land Conservancy of Elkins Park as a preservation miracle.
From the marble-pillared, two-story reception hall of the Italian Renaissance-style Elstowe Manor to the more subdued Tudor-style Chelten House nearby, the estate had retained many of its rich details, meticulously planned by railway magnate William Lukens Elkins in 1859.
It had been intended as a retreat from city life for Elkins, who had clambered his way up from a job as a grocery clerk to become one of Philadelphia's business and philanthropic titans. He was integral in the formation of what would later become SEPTA and the Philadelphia Gas Works.
In the nearly eight decades since buying the property from the Elkins family, the sisters had kept the estate intact, but they decided in 2009 that it no longer met their needs.
Though some worried they might sell to a developer who would carve up the estate, the order eventually found a buyer in David Dobson, a 58-year-old nonprofit manager who had turned a small Hare Krishna ministry into one of Philadelphia's largest housing and hunger charities.
Dobson's hastily formed charity - the Land Conservancy - made a $1.5 million down payment using money from his nonprofit Food for Life and worked out a self-financed mortgage held by the sisters to pay the remaining $7 million.
Within months, Dobson's group began missing payments. In November 2010, the Land Conservancy filed for bankruptcy.
Since then, Dobson and Sister Anne have come to three agreements in court aimed at keeping the Land Conservancy on the estate, but the group has made no payment since before its bankruptcy filing, she said.
The latest deal - approved by Bankruptcy Judge Eric L. Frank in December - hinged on financing from a Texas-based financial backer that Dobson later claimed in court filings took his deposit and never came through with the promised money.
In a Feb. 21 ruling, Frank granted full ownership to the Dominican sisters.
Sister Anne said Thursday that while Dobson had since offered to make an immediate $300,000 payment, her order no longer had any interest in negotiating with him.
"We're not willing to engage in any more conversation," she said. "We want Mr. Dobson to leave the property."
The Land Conservancy has until Tuesday to file an appeal.
"We continue to try to negotiate with the congregation in order to avoid the dire consequences . . . that will affect so many parties," Dobson wrote in an e-mailed statement. "It is our sincerest hope that their goal is for amicable resolution as well."
Sister Anne, neighbors, and Cheltenham are not the only ones waiting for answers about the estate's future.
Under Dobson's ownership, the property had become a premier location for weddings, drawing couples from across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Among the Land Conservancy's dozens of creditors, many are brides or grooms who put down deposits before the bankruptcy filing.
While the Land Conservancy continued to host events there throughout its court proceedings, many couples quickly rearranged their wedding plans for fear Dobson's group would lose control before their scheduled dates.
Sister Anne said Tuesday that she had approached Dobson with an offer to honor any wedding contracts through May, but that he had not responded.
"My heart goes out to those who have planned to celebrate their weddings at the estate," she said. "It's a gem. It's an absolutely beautiful place."
Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jeremyrroebuck.
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