U.'s Sinkler Estate to be parceled off, sold

· September 18, 1998, 5:00 am

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Couples who reserved the site for weddings must make new plans. and Scott Lanman The University has a big, beautiful property it does not really need, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. Officials decide to sell it. The move angers people who are connected with the property in some way. It happened during the past year with the 211-acre Gutman Farm, located about 30 miles northeast of campus in Upper Makefield, Bucks County. And it is happening again now with the 32-acre Wharton Sinkler Estate, which is frequently used for weddings and is located just across the city line from Northwest Philadelphia's tony Chestnut Hill section. But while the former situation had, more or less, a happy ending -- the University agreed to sell the farm to a coalition of neighbors and community groups who were upset over Penn's initial plans to sell the pristine land to a developer -- plans to carve up and sell the latter have already produced as much animosity as several acrimonious divorces. Earlier this month, the University notified about 16 engaged couples that their weddings -- booked at the Sinkler Estate for dates after May 31, 1999 -- would have to be somewhere else, shocking and infuriating those who had planned their dream nuptials there. "I was a proud alumna, but I definitely have a lot of negative feelings against the University [now]," said Regina Egoville, 28, who earned a master's degree from the School of Social Work in 1995 and had planned to marry Jay Gumpman at Sinkler on July 2, 1999. "It seems very arbitrary, very insensitive and completely unethical, and I financially and otherwise wouldn't want to support a university that acts that way." Penn spokesperson Ken Wildes said officials are "trying to be as sensitive and caring as we possibly can." The cutoff was set at May 31 because the number of scheduled events "significantly falls off after that." Eleven events are scheduled for Sinkler in May. Several of the weddings have been moved to Penn's Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, Wildes said. "We're doing everything possible to find alternate sites," he said. But Penn's cancellation has left Egoville feeling "shocked, angry, disappointed, betrayed." Penn T-shirts used to be a common sight in her family, as Egoville's father also holds a degree from the University. So does her grandfather, who was a professor at the Dental School. Now those good feelings toward Penn have mostly vanished. Egoville, who got the bad news after a day shopping for a wedding dress, said she may sue Penn for breach of contract. Penn plans to divide the estate into between five and six luxury lots for "low-density" residential development. Three months ago, Penn hired alumnus Edgar Scott of Core Capital Realty to figure out the best use of the property. The University soon decided to engage in "low-density residential development," or divide the estate into five or six luxury lots for houses, Wildes said. Louise Sinkler donated the estate, located at 631 Gravers Lane in Wyndmoor, to the University in 1971. Since then, it has been used as a conference center and for various social events, including wedding receptions. The sizes of the lots range from about 2.5 acres to 12 acres for the largest lot on which the manor house sits. The house is made from material imported entirely from England and was built around the turn of the century. In order to enter, one walks through a 1,000-year-old oak front door into a foyer with a 900-year-old floor. Inside the building, which has 20 rooms, 11 of them bedrooms, is a cedar-paneled library once owned by a prime minister of England. Also sitting on the grassy field alongside the many trees are a Tudor-style craftsman cottage, two greenhouses and other small buildings. Scott said he believed a number of these other building could be converted into residences. With such a unique and historic property, both Penn and neighbors are concerned with conservation. "We presume that the buyers will want to preserve the historical structures," Scott said. The people living in the houses around the estate seem to be happy with the plans. A group representing the neighbors presented the local development authority with a petition in support of the plan. Scott said such action by neighbors to these type of projects is "almost unheard of." The property is very expensive. When Scott still planned to divide the estate into seven lots, the smallest 1.7 acre lot would have cost around $450,000, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month. Scott and Wildes declined to comment on the properties' prices. While Scott said it is too early to tell when all the lots will be sold, he said the interest level has been high.

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