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