Designed by famed Lancaster architect C. Emlen Urban, the circa-1896 Roslyn mansion property at Marietta and North President avenues had been extensively rehabilitated by late 2018 under new owners who bought it 2016. 

Yet even as the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County was giving the home its 2018 Lancaster Property Rehabilitation Award, the property’s impressive carriage house was languishing.

To facilitate the 2016 sale of the mansion, the carriage house was made into its own property at 321 N. President Ave., and then marketed for sale on its own. Built in the same Chateauesque style as the mansion, the carriage house features a bell-shaped roof, arched carriage doors and battlements with a Roman arch below.

But the inside of the 4,000-square-foot building and the property around it was less impressive. The first-floor former stable area was mostly unimproved and a second floor apartment hadn’t been occupied for at least a decade. Outside, formerly stately trees were dead or dying, vines were wreaking havoc, and bamboo had infested the 1.1-acre property. 

Despite the potential challenges, Scott and Heather Bowser saw it as a dream home, and bought property in December 2019 for $325,000. The Bowsers, who own Mount Hope Estate & Winery near Manheim, had experience rehabilitating old homes, and knew they were in for a challenge with the Roslyn carriage house during planned renovations.

But they weren’t prepared for what happened last Christmas Day. 

“We had already demolished the entire inside, and then were getting ready to start building, when there was an accident,” Scott Bowser said. “The entire wall collapsed.”

‘A lot went wrong’

After spending months and tens of thousands of dollars dealing with the invasive bamboo as well as overgrown trees and vegetation, the Bowsers began work on the house itself, which they planned to completely gut and then rebuild as a home for themselves.

Bowser declined to comment on what exactly happened last Christmas that led to the collapse, but the result is apparent to passersby.

Reminiscent of a doll’s house, the entire back wall is gone, and the bottom corner of a side wall is also detached. Large stones are piled adjacent to and around the missing wall where a horizontal beam is attached to a post outside the structure, reaching in to hold up the second floor.

“You can imagine, for a structural failing of that magnitude, a lot went wrong,” Bowser said.

Bowser would not comment on the possibility of any lawsuits stemming from the building’s collapse, saying he is focused on moving ahead with plans to rebuild the structure, and complete the work that was started.

“The project won’t be stalled by any other matter. We’re moving forward,” he said. “The building is shored up to allow future work to continue safely.”

Bowser said they are finalizing the engineering plan to rebuild the carriage house, and expect to restart some site work by June. He said the work requires careful planning and skilled craftsmen. Like the main house, the carriage house was built with stone from Avondale quarry in Chester County that comprise the load-bearing walls.

“This is a building that needs to be rebuilt right, and has to be historically accurate. That stuff just doesn’t happen in a day, and I want to make sure we do it right,” he said. “When we’re done, you’ll never know (the collapse) happened.”

Bowser said the he expects it will cost $750,000 to renovate the property, more than double the $325,000 they paid to buy it.

“Yes. It looks bad, but yes, we’re committed to fixing it and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later, as in, the next couple months,” he said. “It’s tragic, but it’s going to be fixed, and it’s going to be done right.”

Landmark restorations

A renovation of the carriage house will restore a landmark property, albeit under two different owners.

The mansion and carriage house was designed by a then 33-year-old Urban for Peter Watt, co-founder of Watt & Shand, a department store. Urban would go on to design such landmark Lancaster buildings as Griest building and the Watt & Shand on Penn Square, which has its façade preserved on the front of the downtown Marriott.

The mansion was named forRoslin in Watt’s native Scotland. Members of the Watt family lived on the property until the early 1970s, when it was bought by Lester and Thelma Eshelman. A masonry contractor, Lester Eshelman put the mansion on the market in 2011 after his wife died.

The mansion and carriage house were bought in 2013 by the owners of Cameron Estates in Mount Joy for $795,000. But they never brought to fruition their plans to turn the property into a bed and breakfast and wedding venue. The property was subdivided in 2016, before the mansion was sold in 2016 for $1 million to New York physician Dr. Gaspare Polizzi and Barbara O’Neil, who were recognized two years later for the efforts to preserve the building where they live part-time. 

Brian Bisignani, president and chairman of the board of directors of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, said the carriage house is as much a landmark as the main home.

“If you look at the exterior of that carriage house, it’s very impressive, more impressive than many regular homes,” he said

Bisignani, who lives about a block from the property, was alarmed when he first saw the damage, and was glad to hear of the plan to rehabilitate the property, especially since the plan includes having it become the owner’s primary home.

“I applaud them. One of the worst things that can be done with an historic building is to leave it vacant, leave it empty,” he said.

And while he’s curious about what went wrong, Bisignani said he’s content knowing that there is a plan to make it right. 

“The important thing is not how it happened, but how it’s going to be put back together so nobody knows that it happened,” he said.

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