In 1946, a social columnist wrote: “Everybody who visits the James Hale Steinmans in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, hints like mad for a return invitation. The reason one casts the amenities to the winds and resorts to such and out measures is the combination of beauty, comfort and fun that Conestoga House offers to every one of its continuous stream of week-end visitors.”
Conestoga House is the estate of the late James Hale Steinman and Louise McClure (Tinsley) Steinman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was home to the Steinman family for over 50 years.
Built between 1812 and 1815 and overlooking Little Conestoga Creek, the house was first used as a tavern for the Conestoga wagon trade between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The name Conestoga House derives from this history. The tavern was abandoned in about 1840 and became an inn when the wagons were replaced by railroads.
The 14-acre property, including the original building and several outbuildings, was being used as a farm when the Steinmans purchased it in 1927.
The house was in poor condition and shortly after purchasing the property, Lancaster architect Frank J. Everts was commissioned to design extensive additions and interior modifications. He was assisted in some aspects of the interior design by Lancaster artist, Charles Demuth.
The tavern was kept as the central part of the home with east and west wings being added to make the home one of the largest residences in Lancaster County at that time. The center hall, drawing room and dining room were all part of the old tavern.
Conestoga House has not been altered significantly since the renovation of the two and one-half story stone farmhouse was completed in 1929.
As it appears today, Conestoga House is an outstanding example of Colonial Revival architecture.
From 1937 to 1940, the Philadelphia firm of Mellor and Meigs was hired to design and develop a landscape plan for 5 acres surrounding the house. They created the framework of formal garden areas, including walls, walkways, terraces, a boxwood garden and stables. A sitting area was built atop an 18th-century lime kiln with its original stone walls and brick-lined pit. At the bottom of the kiln is the skeleton of “George,” a character in a book written by Edgar Allan Poe’s great nephew. The book was written while he visited the Steinmans at Conestoga House.
The Steinmans also added a Colonial-style orangery designed by architect Walter C. Macomber. The property also displays one of Lancaster’s first in-ground swimming pools.
There is a distinct European influence in the garden designs evidenced in part by the emphasis on flowering urns and window boxes. Annuals, perennials and tropical plants abound and are framed and highlighted by shrubs and large specimen trees.
James Steinman died in 1962 and in 1982, as part of his legacy, the house and grounds were incorporated as part of the James Hale Steinman Conestoga House Foundation and opened to the public for summer garden tours.
The gardens have been upgraded and expanded, so that today, they provide a unique look at a wide variety of annual, perennial, and tropical flowering plants.
The pool complex with its sixty-foot swimming pool, bathhouse and outdoor dance floor is both an aesthetic and functional feature of the gardens. Several local civic and non-profit groups use the facilities for touring and small picnics, receptions, and other special events after approval by the manager.
The back terrace and back yard areas comprise a microcosm of the entire gardens with their tubs, urns, windowboxes, and hanging baskets. A three foot deep wading pool was built for the Steinman children at the back terrace. Also there is a hillside garden and an arch wall bordering the formal garden areas on the west.
Adjoining the pool area is the restored lime kiln. Here colorful, low-light plants and comfortable wooden furniture provide a welcome retreat on hot summer days.
Completely replanted in 1992, the boxwood garden is an integral part of the overall gardens and provides a green oasis in all seasons. Unusual tropicals, graceful wrought iron furniture and small fountain pool all add a fresh air to this area of the gardens.
The rose garden was created in 1986 in an area that had been the site of an old barn foundation and paddock area adjoining the courtyard and stables complex. Bordered by beds of summer-blooming annuals and perennials, this garden contains over 160 rose bushes representing almost twenty different varieties of our national flower.
The water garden with its array of hardy water lilies, aquatic plants and resident koi is sited in what used to be the duck pond and is the newest area of the gardens.
Other areas in the gardens include the side yard garden, featuring hanging baskets, an herb bed, roof boxes and a changing assortment of kitchen patio container plants, and the front walk area with its close-up view of the home’s renowned windowboxes.
Animal topiaries, trough gardens and a few bonsai also are on display.
Included in the gardens complex are six permanent greenhouses where many of the display plants are grown and the tropical plants are overwintered.
During the month of December, the gardens are home to a large Christmas lights display. The lights are best viewed from River Drive.