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The Castle Built From Asbestos

By: Bill Kibbel , Contributing Writer
In: Obsolete Design Elements, Non Residential Buildings

Driving north, on the Old Bethlehem Pike from Philadelphia, one passes through a portion of the 19th century town of Ambler, PA. On the right, set well back from the road, just visible in a clearing between trees, is an amazing 3-story, 24-room castle, with crenelated towers rising even higher. This was built in the last quarter of the 19th century on a 400 acre property by Dr. Richard Mattison, who named his estate Lindenwold.

The castle, built to resemble England’s Windsor, is now home to St. Mary’s Villa for Children and Families. It’s not really built out of asbestos, but it was possible because of Dr. Mattison’s discovery and subsequent fortune built on asbestos products.

Keasbey & Mattison
Dr. Mattison, a chemist, and Henry Keasbey, a financier, formed the Keasbey & Mattison Company that originally produced pharmaceuticals.  Dr. Mattison discovered that magnesium carbonate would stick to a hot steel pipe. Adding asbestos fibers created excellent insulation for steam pipes. Steam, at the time, was piped to heat homes and other buildings and was used extensively in manufacturing. From that point on, Keasbey & Mattison Company focused exclusively on the manufacture of numerous asbestos building and industrial materials.

Dr. Mattison transformed the little 18th century mill town into a thriving industrial town. He built 400 homes in Ambler–fine homes for his company execs and more moderate homes for managers and workers.   He was also responsible for civic improvements, a church, library, and opera house.

The Town Today
Ambler is still quite nice. There’s at least 80 percent of its 18th and 19th century buildings still occupied. The homes, stores, and other buildings are mostly still in fine shape. As a close suburb of Philadelphia, with a railroad and now highways, the town continued to thrive after its major industry folded. There’s still some abandoned asbestos production buildings and a huge asbestos waste pile at the west end of the town that perpetually pops up in the media. Here’s a sign on the fence dividing a playground from the pile:

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  1. 5 Responses  to “The Castle Built From Asbestos”

  2. Marquita Lawson
    Aug 29, 2011
    brings back fond memories for my sibblings and I as we spent several years of our childhood there. I can't help wonder how many who lived there at the time will see this article...
  3. Aug 29, 2011
    What the? This is allowed in the US, maybe you can help me whats the link between asbestos and Vermiculite? We don't have this issue in Europe
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    Hi Lucy, The main intent of the article was to answer the readers questions about testing and disclosure. I also wanted to point out that it's best not to disturb any vermiculite. I did include one bullet point that states: “If any planned remodeling, construction, or other work will disturb the vermiculite, have it removed by trained, certified, and properly equipped asbestos abatement contractors". Here's some more information about asbestos abatement: http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/ashome.html#contractor
  5. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Hmmmm...I don't know if I agree with Edward (though I do agree that this was a very interesting post!) about the dangers of asbestos being exaggerated. From my admittedly limited reading on asbestos and asbestos-related diseases (like mesothelioma and lung cancer) I got the impression that the US gov and the asbestos industry actually tried to play down the dangers of asbestos -- that the asbestos industry behaved in a way similar to the tobacco industry. Am I mistaken? As for necessity of removing asbestos, I'd be curious to hear your opinion, Bill. I read your article about vermiculite and asbestos: http://www.oldhouseweb.com/how-to-advice/vermiculite-and-asbestos.shtml But it didn't include any recommendations about removal, only about necessary disclosure when selling a house.
  6. Edward Batavia
    Aug 29, 2011
    Really interesting post here, Kibbel! I think the whole crackdown based on the dangers of asbestos over the last 20 years or so has been somewhat exaggerated. I seem to remember reading an article in National Geographic entitled "The Poisons Within," which discussed the amount of chemicals our bodies ingest daily from products like shampoo, soap, clothing, fire retardant matresses, etc. And one thing mentioned was asbestos and how, more often than not, removing asbestos is more dangerous than actually leaving it be. Why? Because by removing it you actually release the asbestos fibers into the air. Regardless, what a gorgeous castle. I'd love to see pictures of the interior!