Lenfest Center opens in Newlin Township with praise, gratitude for its benefactors
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
NEWLIN — Stars of all sizes and persuasions – celestial to earthbound – shone Saturday night at the dedication gala for the Lenfest Center, the centerpiece of ChesLen, one of the largest private nature preserves in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Chief among them were Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, whose purchase of 500 acres from the King Ranch in 1987 mushroomed into 1,263 protected acres in Newlin Township under the auspices of Natural Lands Trust.
The 9,300-square-foot Lenfest Center, which will provide office space for its land stewards and public space for visitors and community groups, was constructed within the general footprint of an old cannery once used for mushroom production.
The Lenfests deflected credit for the finished product to the team of people who brought their vision to reality, including Archer and Buchanan Architecture, Ltd., Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects, and the staff of the trust, especially its president, Molly Morrison.
Gerry Lenfest said the public should also thank the late Nancy Penn Smith Hannum, a passionate conservationist. He elicited laughter when he recalled a conversation with her after his hastily-arranged purchase of the land, on which he planned a small development. “How dare you?” Hannum responded. “Don’t you have enough money?”
Lenfest said Hannum’s indignation got him thinking “about what we could do,” inspiration that led to a partnership with the county, which had a contiguous 500 acres, and a subsequent purchase of nearly 200 more.
“I hope you all enjoy it,” Marguerite Lenfest added.
On Saturday, enjoyment permeated a sold-out crowd of 350, especially the stunning vistas. The entertainment included a “flash chorus” in which Jackie Dunleavy led a group of musical friends in “Moondance.” At one point three hot-air balloons from the Chester County Balloon Festival wafted into view. As the skies darkened, members of the Chesmont Astronomical Society had telescopes set up for viewing constellations and planets.
Also on display: the enthusiasm of the staff, which fully embraced the star-studded theme. Lisa Ertl, director of individual giving at Natural Lands Trust, sported snappy gold sandals with star shapes adorning the straps, and Keith Pension, a Natural Lands Trust board member, created an outfit embellished with stars for Yogi, the ChesLen preserve’s mascot. The cocker spaniel, a frequent presence on the property, is owned by David Castaneda, the preserve manager.
Among the guests were Harry Lewis, his wife Regina Horton Lewis, and James and Alberta Manning. Lewis, who is about to relinquish the reins of board chairman for the Brandywine Health Foundation to Manning, said he wanted to support the Lenfests’ generosity.
Another fan was Newlin Township Supervisor Janie Baird, who said the township would now be holding its meetings at the Lenfest Center. “It has chairs with cushions that roll – and things like air-conditioning and heat,” she said rapturously. “We’re so thankful for the Lenfests.”
Two county commissioners – Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell – expressed interest in the possibility of having one of their “on the road” meetings at the center.
Morrison said thanks to donations from longtime sponsors like Wawa and event contributors such as Moore Brothers, the Whip Tavern and Jeffrey Miller Catering, Saturday’s fund-raiser generated $80,000 that would finance conservation efforts and programs.
On Sunday, about 150 members of the public took advantage of an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. that featured refreshments and tours highlighting the building’s green features, such as high-efficiency lighting and geothermal heating and cooling.
Bob Johnson, the director of building stewardship for Natural Lands Trust, said rather than cart away the concrete from the old, 20,000-square-foot cannery, the block was ground to various sizes and recycled. For example, crushed concrete ended up under the driveway while three- to four-inch chunks were used in the retaining wall. “We used all the materials that were here,” he said, adding that members of the public were impressed. “No one had another but positive things to say.”
Greg Tandarich and his wife, Mary Ellen, who attended the open house with their six children, who range in age from 11 to 21, echoed those sentiments. Regular visitors to the preserve, they said they appreciate the fact that such a large expanse of hiking trails and natural beauty is just a short drive from their Unionville home.
As for the new building and outdoor pavilion, “I think it’s spectacular,” said Greg Tandarich. His wife agreed, wondering if weddings would ever be permitted. “This would be such a great place for that,” she said.