For generations of residents surrounding the small Chester County hamlet of London Grove, an 1882 mansion called Dunleigh Castle was an architectural curiosity and a mystery.
All they knew was that it was somehow associated with the 19th-century author Bayard Taylor. Taylor (1825-1878) was the author of more than 50 books. The Kennett Square native was greatly celebrated in his lifetime but is now largely forgotten—at least outside of Chester County.
Taylor’s novels such as The Story of Kennett (1866) were often thinly veiled true stories, and for that reason, residents assumed that Dunleigh—a towering mansion in East Marlborough built like a fortress of enameled brick—was the home of an Irish nobleman.
Dunleigh, as a plaque above the main entranceway still reads, was built by an admirer of Taylor’s story The Strange Friend, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867, and centered on what the New York Times called Taylor’s quaint “country neighbors.”
That literary association might have been forgotten if not for one fact: Taylor based his story on a real Irishman, a man variously identified as “Henry Hamilton” or “Henry Cox,” who leased the property Dunleigh sits on when it was known as the “old Pennock farm,” in 1813. In The Strange Friend, Cox’s fictional counterpart, Henry Donnelly, is an Irish nobleman who temporarily settles in America to escape his debts in Ireland. Like Cox, he becomes a member of “Londongrove” meeting, where he is known for his constant attendance, traveling each week with his family by a new and shiny carriage from his home on Street Road.
No accounts explain why Dunleigh’s builder, a newly widowed Quaker farmer named Samuel G. Moore and Taylor’s neighbor, decided to defy convention by tearing down an old homestead and replacing it with a structure more in keeping with the fashionable Second Empire homes of urban dwellers. Add a back-story that includes a contested will and Moore’s shared inheritance of $123,000 in 1859, and the history of the castle is filled with the kind of character transformations and dramatic tension favored by Taylor. Suffice it to say, a castle was built that was a reference to the estate owned by Cox in Ireland.
Dunleigh, resplendent in its brightly enameled brick, could be seen for miles; the enamel had a gleaming polychrome effect in colors of pale ivory, dark maroon, daffodil yellow, pastel green and turquoise blue.
Growing up in the mansion from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, Anne Marvin says that she was only vaguely aware that Dunleigh was a community landmark, a place where the central tower served as a beacon for equestrians and members of the Cheshire Hunt. In the 1940s, the master of the hunt,W. Plunket Stewart, owned part of the property.
When Marvin’s parents bought the property in 1948, the purchase agreement gave rights to the hunt for “perpetual and exclusive foxhunting privileges,” according to copies of deeds Marvin has saved. By then, Dunleigh had been painted a dull grey and had been stripped of some of its Victorian elements such as the built-in redwood bookcases and the four acetylene gas lamps on the first floor that neighbors told her about.
Marvin credits her father, an advertising executive with Wilmington’s Hercules Powder Company, for seeing potential in Dunleigh’s fading allure. As a young bride, Marvin’s mother, Marjorie Pierson Marvin, now 94, thought nothing of moving to a 13-room mansion in the midst of hunt country—she had grown up on a 1,000-acre farm in Virginia. But living in an enamel brick mansion, she says, blocked sounds like the bellowing herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle that had gotten loose from a nearby farm and ended up in her backyard. “It was quite an introduction,” the elder Marvin recalls. Later, a hurricane swept through the countryside and she missed it. “The place was so solid. It was built like Fort Knox—I didn’t hear a thing.”
Dunleigh was a personal wonderland of places to explore for the Marvin kids. There were the basement’s root and wine cellars, the old servants’ stairway, and the massive former barn that was later rented by the New Bolton Center. The grounds included an old pump house fed by a tributary of the Red Clay Creek, and a large farm pond her father built with an earthen dam. “He would put a rope on the row boat and pull us kids all around,” Marvin says of the pond.
Today, Dunleigh Castle is surrounded by tall trees and is barely visible from Street Road. The former central tower that appears in early photographs, looming above an open landscape, is gone, but the mansion has retained most of its architectural details including marble sills on all its 72 windows.
Recently, another chapter in Dunleigh’s ownership began when Marvin, her brother, Richard, and her mother made the decision to sell Dunleigh. It had been owned in recent years by another brother, Theodore “Teddy” Marvin. He died unexpectedly, at the age of 57, in early 2011.
The remaining family felt it was important to keep the property intact as much as possible. Much of the acreage was sold to William Chase, a landscaping and tree care contractor, while the mansion itself was purchased by Matthew Cole, an experienced restorer and salvager, who says he has moved his family from one Victorian mansion to another mainly because of the Unionville school district.
Marvin calls her childhood home an engineering marvel, with its “six chimneys, 15-foot-high ceilings,” and “thick timbers” exposed in the basement as well as millwork made from California redwood. “My blacksmith told me that he read that the redwood had to be shipped around Cape Horn,” she says. “It was brought here by train and then in wagons pulled by horses from a local fire house.”
Only the finest materials were used throughout: the enamel bricks were shipped from Waynesburg, Ohio; loads of lumber arrived at the pier of the newly built Brooklyn Bridge apparently on the very day of the opening of that structure to traffic, in 1883.
Bayard Taylor himself had grown up in a Quaker household but he saw his own life change after the publication of his first book, “Views A-Foot,” when he was 21. The instant best seller was the result of Taylor’s first trip to Europe, which was financed by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.
Given Bayard Taylor’s literary interest in transformation, it’s not surprising that would inspire generations of writers on a quest to find the true identity of Lord Dunleigh (aka Henry Cox). An obituary discovered by this writer, for Cox’s son, Richard, reveals that he died in the same manner—a fall from a horse—and was buried in an unmarked grave at London Grove Meeting as was his fictional counterpart.
Ironically, the most detailed summary of Cox’s life is found in the “Who’s Who” of the region, The History of Chester County, an 1881 tome published 60 years after Cox’s return to Ireland. This in turn was reprinted from an earlier account by a 23-year-old West Chester attorney named Joseph J. Lewis, who first met Cox while running errands as a young boy.
Lewis writes that he is mystified that he can’t find a copy of Cox’s book-length poem, Pennsylvania Georgies, published just before Cox left America. Around the same time, Cox donated a “black box” to the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was later discovered to contain such important American documents as the log of the Mayflower.
Fast forward a century and the Marvin family were getting their own stories about Dunleigh from neighbors. One source of local history told of how Dunleigh stood out in a landscape of tidy brick homes and whitewashed stone farmhouses. The neighbor spoke of riding in a carriage as a child and seeing Dunleigh’s enameled surface “glistening like diamonds” after a rainfall.
When Teddy Marvin owned the property, it was surrounded by shade gardens, flowering trees and a large-scale organic garden. “He had everything he needed,” Marvin recalls. But her brother also stayed close to Dunleigh in part because of the wood/coal furnace, which heated 17 steam radiators. It needed to be stoked every six hours and was fed more than a bucket or two of coal a day.
Early on, her brother became curious about the enameled bricks, when he noticed a bit of color behind some peeling grey paint. “We knew a lot about Dunleigh’s history,” Marvin says, “but until Teddy tried to clean the surface, we had no idea it was colored enamel. His Tower Hill friends helped him put up a scaffold and they worked all summer to expose the whole surface—exposing the pattern of negative and positive colored bricks.”
That was the beginning of the brother’s interest in his home’s architectural history. Just the other day, Marvin says, she got an inquiry about Dunleigh from a historical group. “It still has a presence as a prominent and unique historic property in East Marlborough,” Marvin says.