Having grown up in central New Jersey and lived the last two decades in Bethlehem, Pa., Meg Sharp Walton can rightly be considered a newcomer to the Far Northeast.
But in a different respect, the new executive director of the Glen Foerd Conservation Corp. can be considered as native to the area as its oldest residents, living or dead.
Sharp Walton and her husband, James Walton, now occupy the same ground at the confluence of the Poquessing Creek and Delaware River first settled by James’ ancestors — brothers Nathaniel, Thomas, Daniel and William Walton — more than 330 years ago.
Although separated by centuries and many generations from those early local settlers, Meg Sharp Walton now finds herself in the unique position of preserving and telling the history of perhaps the most elaborate and extravagant residence ever built in the Northeast.
Glen Foerd on the Delaware stands as Philadelphia’s lone surviving 19th-century waterfront estate, a remnant of the Gilded Age when industrialists like the estate’s namesake, Robert Foerderer, sought to flaunt their wealth in king-sized, exquisitely decorated homes.
Those two specialties, industrial-era history and interior décor, make Sharp Walton an ideal fit for the needs of the non-profit conservation corporation, which recently entered its second quarter-century of maintaining the city-owned mansion and its surrounding 18 acres of lawns, gardens and woods.
“It’s a great site, and it has a great collection,” Sharp Walton said. “And it’s not just the collection itself, but (also) what it says about the people who lived here and worked here.”
Sharp Walton can now count herself among those people. She credits a convergence of favorable circumstances for leading her to Glen Foerd.
Late last year, the previous executive director, Patrick Hotard, resigned to accept a similar position at a historic mansion in southern Arkansas. A native of the South, Hotard was director of the Beauvoir-Jefferson Davis Home in Mississippi until 2005, before arriving at Glen Foerd.
Sharp Walton most recently operated two businesses, one as a museum consultant and another as an interior decorator specializing in room planning. Most of her career has been spent in museum settings, including a stint as a park ranger at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
A native of New Brunswick, N.J., she holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State College) and a master’s in history from Temple. Her preferred area of study is “the impact of industrialization on society, on the relationships between men and women and families,” she said.
“(Glen Foerd) was the home of an industrialist, and it fits into that time period,” Sharp Walton said.
Around the same time that Hotard was leaving Glen Foerd, Sharp Walton and her husband were planning a move of their own. Although they loved it in Bethlehem, a historical town undergoing a renaissance, the couple were looking forward to a move to the city.
With their daughter having graduated high school in 2010, the Waltons wanted to be closer to the cultural resources that they both love.
“My husband and I are terrible history fanatics. He’s much worse than me,” Sharp Walton said.
They considered moving to New York, but Philadelphia is much more affordable. A rustic corner of the Far Northeast isn’t exactly the setting they had in mind, but the area offers easy transportation to downtown destinations via highway or train.
The couple would learn only after her hiring about their family connection to the brothers credited as the first Quakers to set foot on the site now known as Glen Foerd.
“We knew (my husband) was probably a descendant of the Byberry (Friends Meeting) Waltons, but we didn’t know about the earlier, earlier Waltons and how they got here,” she said.
Regarding Glen Foerd, Sharp Walton believes that prior executive directors and the site’s dedicated volunteers have made great progress in the last 25 years saving the mansion from demolition, organizing the conservation corporation and raising money for necessary repairs and improvements.
Each year, the site hosts dozens of varied public programs, along with a thriving catering business. Sharp Walton plans to continue the many successful programs while expanding the site’s public outreach and educational efforts while further researching and documenting its 160-year history.
She became the full-time executive director in mid-January.
“I came in when they were just finished marking their twenty-fifth anniversary,” she said of the conservation corporation, which leases the property from the Department of Parks and Recreation for a nominal annual fee.
“They were in transition. They were renewing their lease; they had just renegotiated their catering contract (with Conroy Catering); and they were hiring a new executive director and embarking on a new strategic plan,” she said. “The board here is great and the volunteer commitment here is unbelievable. That’s because it’s the community that saved the place.”
One of Sharp Walton’s first moves was to open the mansion to weekly public tours, every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Previously, tours were available one Thursday per month.
In the coming weeks and months, the site will host many familiar programs, including the final performance of its summer concert series with the Timlin & Kane Irish Duo (Aug. 16), a bird walk (Sept. 17) and its history lecture series (Sept. 13, Oct. 11 and Nov. 1).
A new decorative-arts series will be available to the public on Sept. 27, Oct. 25 and Nov. 15, while an antiques-appraisal event similar to Antiques Road Show has been scheduled for Oct. 4.
Fees vary for different programs, although admission is free for some.
For conservation corporation members, there are new book and poker clubs that will meet monthly.
“We want Glen Foerd to be known as a cultural center of the Northeast,” Sharp Walton said. “We want people to see Glen Foerd as a place where you can do all of these cool things and you can also have your event here.
“Our mission is to preserve and to provide programming to the public. (The conservation corporation) has preserved, and now the focus is really on the programming part.” ••
For information about Glen Foerd on the Delaware, visit www.glenfoerd.org or call 215-632-5330.