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Brandywine Conservancy preserving legacy of Penguin Court

Mary Pickels

Penguin Court, the former family home of the late Tribune-Review publisher, Richard M. Scaife, is now a preserve of Brandywine Conservancy.

Located off Route 30 in Laughlintown, the more than 1,000 acres of forest, meadow and open space, including Thomas Road Farm, represent one of Scaife’s bequests.

Staff now care for the grounds and oversee educational programming to share best management practices and protection of the surrounding ecosystem. The grounds will be used for academic and professional research.

A Pennsylvania master naturalist program, the first in Westmoreland County, is also underway.

“As long as there is interest in this we will probably offer it annually,” says Melissa Reckner, program manager.

Public programs focusing on pollinators, amphibians and reptiles, monarchs and milkweed and a sunset autumn tour are planned.

“The property is gorgeous, the view shed. … What I find endearing is the (partnership) was really struck by the friendship of our founder (the late George Weymouth) and Mr. Scaife,” says Ellen M. Ferretti, Brandywine Conservancy director.

Scaife served as a Brandywine board trustee.

“Mr. Scaife was a personal friend of mine for over 50 years, and I am saddened by the loss of this great man,” Weymouth said following Scaife’s death. “I am humbled and honored that he has shown his trust in the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art with this generous bequest.”

What was and what remains

Murals, statues, even hand towels in the former pool house reflect the birds for which the estate was named, 10 of whom once waddled around the rural property.

Scaife’s mother, Sarah, bought the African penguins during a national craze over the exploits of Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd.

Several small concrete igloos still stand on the property, faux penguins peering out from their interiors.

The 50-room mansion was demolished after Scaife’s parents died.

But he continued to maintain Penguin Court’s greenhouse. In the 1990s, a three-wing conservatory was added to increase his supply of fresh flowers — common and exotic.

Both remain in use, with staff nurturing plants and flowers as Scaife and his mother once did.

Many of the plants travel east for sale at Brandywine’s wildflower, native plant and seed sale. Others are sold at local native plant sales.

“We hope to do a native plant sale with (nearby) Compass Inn (Museum) next spring,” Reckner says.

The pool has been drained and filled and eventually will be planted. “The soil is settling,” Ferretti says.

Carrying lessons into the future

Reckner notes the bequest mandates no new construction. There is limited indoor classroom space, and little parking on the grounds.

She says stakeholder meetings helped determine where the conservancy fit in the area.

Many programs for children and families are available through the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, Loyalhanna Watershed Association and nearby state parks, Reckner notes.

In an effort to avoid duplication, most programming at Penguin Court will focus on adults.

“We will partner where we can and add value where we can,” Ferretti notes. Volunteers are being sought to potentially man event stations or lead workshops.

“We have a lot of bluebird boxes local school students built and installed,” Reckner points out on a property tour.

“I would like to find a volunteer to monitor those,” she says.

The conservancy is partnering with the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art on some initiatives.

Site horticulturalist Kevin Guerrier is working with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to grow native plants for a project along Route 65 in Pittsburgh, Reckner says.

Echoes of an earlier era

The gated property offers tantalizing Laurel Highlands views.

A concrete bench Scaife was photographed on shortly before he died remains.

Brought to the site from England, it’s called a “whispering bench,” Reckner says.

The acoustics of the curved benches allow people to sit at opposite ends, whisper and hear each other’s words.

Meyer lemons, orchids, birds of paradise and begonias are among the lush, thriving plants in greenhouse and conservatory.

Milkweed helps keep the life cycle of the endangered monarch butterfly going. “This is like our source material, if you will,” Reckner says of the plant life’s role in the preserve.

Keeping the forests intact and natural areas natural, per Scaife’s wishes, are guiding principles at Penguin Court.

“We try to do good stewardship here,” Ferretti says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
A stone igloo, and faux penguin, along a Penguin Court drive in Laughlintown. Richard M. Scaife’s mother once kept penguins on the estate.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Melissa Reckner, program manager at Penguin Court in Laughlintown, relaxes on a bench. The Brandywine Conservancy property formerly was the home of the late Tribune-Review publisher, Richard M. Scaife.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Even the former pool bathhouse has a penguin motif.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
A model of the former estate that once stood on the Penguin Court property in Laughlintown.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
A statue of Diana the Huntress on the Penguin Court property.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
A former pool at Penguin Court in Laughlintown has been filled in and will be planted in the future.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
This bird of paradise plant was nurtured by Richard M. Scaife’s mother at Penguin Court, where it still blooms.
Photos: Mary Pickels | Tribune-Review
Plants continue to blossom at Penguin Court’s greenhouse.
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