Dr. William Edgar Geil


the Great Wall of China

Remembering The Barrens

Located just outside Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in Bucks County, "The Barrens" is a 3-story 10,000 square foot mansion constructed of reinforced concrete. It was built after Dr. William Edgar Geil married Lucy Constance Emerson on June 6, 1912. It took three years from 1912 to 1915. The picture above appears to have been taken very late in construction or just after it was finished while grounds work remained to be completed.

The property consisted of the main house; a rear house occupied by Grandy's cook and driver, Mr. & Mrs. Trego; and the Pagoda, a 5-story water tower my grandfather built to resemble Suzhou's Ink Pagoda in China. You can read more about the Pagoda at my Doylestown 2008 page.

The Barrens also incorporated some Chinese influences including panels on the back of the house bearing inscriptions found at the east and west terminuses of the Great Wall. Pictured here in 1959 (left) is one of these panels. It reads "The Great Barrier of the Whole World." The original (right) is pictured in William's Lindesay's The Great Wall Revisited. The photograph was taken by Dr. Geil in 1908.

Laycock Family Photo

Doylestown is roughly 40 miles north of Philadelphia. In the 1950s my parents lived in Abington, a suburb about halfway between Philadelphia and Doylestown. Mom and Dad would drive us all to the Barrens on Sundays for dinner. I was under 5 and have only spotty, incomplete memories — tiny snippets of mental video, or even just stills. My brothers and sister were older and recall a lot more.  

In this section we share our memories of Grandy and the Barrens when she was living, and the Barrens again during the summer of 1959 after she died. We spent several weeks there to shut down the house and prepare it for sale. My brothers, Brad and John, are up first with their remembrances. I will add my sister's and mine in a future update. Included here also are some photographs. We're still scanning so more will be added over time.

Finally, my page on the Brevard Hotel in Cocoa, Florida, has some information on Grandy with more to come in the future.

The second panel (not pictured) bears an inscription that reads "Heaven created the Sea and Mountains."

After Dr. Geil died in 1925, my grandmother ("Grandy") remained in the house with a full staff until her death in 1959. In her later years, Grandy needed an elevator to get upstairs and had one installed off the kitchen. This was no small feat given the reinforced concrete construction. My mother delighted in telling the story of that harrowing project. The poor man doing the work "lost his religion," she told us.

Laycock Family Photo

Courtesy of William Lindesay

Constance Emerson Geil pictured in Augusta, Georgia, January 1932.

Laycock Family Photo

Memories of the Barrens at Doylestown, Pennsylvania

John E. Laycock

Dinner at Grandy’s House

After our family moved from Chicago, Illinois, to Abington, Pennsylvania, we made frequent trips to Doylestown for dinner with our maternal grandmother, Constance Lucy Emerson Geil, affectionately known as Grandy.  How the widow of Dr. William Edgar Geil came to have this soubriquet is unknown.  Perhaps we could not pronounce “grandmother” and instead christened her with something easier for a child to say!

Over the hill and through the wood

to Grandmother’s house we go;

the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,

through white and drifted snow.  

This beloved 1844 Thanksgiving poem by Lydia Maria Child originally referred to “Grandfather’s” house, but the song lyric I learned as a child speaks of “Grandmother’s” house and is therefore more fitting.  Our sleigh was motorized, of course, and our visits were in warm weather, because Grandy was what we now call a “snowbird”.  She sought refuge from winter’s “white and drifted snow” at the Brevard Hotel in Cocoa, Florida.  (My parents met at Cocoa, which in time led to me and my siblings.  But that’s another story.)  The joyful anticipation of Ms. Child’s poem was certainly characteristic of our visits to Doylestown.

Abington is a suburb a dozen miles outside of Philadelphia.  In the morning we would pile into the car for our drive north on Highway 611, also known as York Road, past Willow Grove Naval Air Station (now Horsham Air Guard Station), to Doylestown.  This borough (small town) is the county seat of Bucks County, located on the state’s eastern border.  

My grandmother’s house stands on a low hill east of Highway 611 (Easton Road) just a mile south of the town’s center.  Getting there seemed to take forever, but in that day I was still in the “Are-we-there-yet?” stage.  Highly competitive, Brad and I took delight in being the first to shout, “I see the red roof!”  The Barrens’ red tile roof was the first part of the house we could glimpse through the trees as we approached.

As one entered the house, the living room was to the right and the dining room to the left.  Running the full width of the first floor, the living room was spacious, dark, and a bit musty.  The mustiness probably emanated from bookcases flanking the fireplace and behind the sofa, which were filled with handsome sets of leather bound books on English royalty, Norse mythology, and other arcane subjects.  Several of these sets are now in my entrance foyer, and still smell musty!  A record player — an Upright Floor Model Victrola Phonograph — and a collection of 78 rpm vinyl records stood in the back corner of the room.  Grandy and my mother would sometimes sit in the living room while I played on the window seats overlooking the entrance driveway.  These west-facing windows were shaded by heavy canvass awnings which contributed to the room’s dimness.

In warm weather we often spent the afternoon on the south porch, an open-air roofed terrace overlooking the entrance driveway (to the west), broad lawns (to the south), and dense forest (to the east).  Sometimes Grandy and I would “fly” around the world on the big gray wicker swing suspended by chains from the ceiling.  This swing creaked and groaned as we swung back and forth.  I would peer over the edge as Grandy pointed at the tile floor below and exclaimed, “Look!  There’s China!”

Grandy at the Barrens with John (L) and Brad.

A special treat in the heat of the afternoon was iced Canada Dry Ginger Ale, accompanied by homemade cookies, all served from a small wicker desk.  Early habits endure: Canada Dry brings back happy memories even to this day.

Grandy would often challenge us to a game of croquet.  The course was laid out on the south lawn: nine wickets and two stakes.  Although a sweet soul most of the time, croquet brought out Grandy’s aggressive edge.  Given a chance, she would knock your ball off in the direction of Philadelphia, and chuckle with satisfaction as she did so.

Eventually we would be called to the dinner table by the set of three chimes kept at a window in the foyer.  Weekend meals were dinner in the formal sense of a midday or mid-afternoon meal, or sometimes an early supper, prepared by Mrs. Trego, Grandy's cook, and enjoyed at her large dining room table.  For these events

Grandy laid out her best china, crystal and silver flatware.  The food was always excellent, and there was animated conversation throughout the meal.

Grandy sat at the head of the table, with her back to Dr. Geil’s study and the sideboard.  We children sat “below” within reach of a parent.  When it came time to serve a course, Grandy would step on a button concealed under the carpet near her chair.  We would hear the buzzer sounding in the kitchen, and soon Mrs. Trego, the cook, and/or Alice MacIntyre, the maid, would appear bearing delicious fare.  If soup was served, we were instructed always to spoon away from oneself to avoid drips and spills.  The main course would be chicken, turkey, or beef with an appropriate gravy, together with side dishes, salad, bread, pickles, and so on.  Every meal seemed to me like Thanksgiving!

Dessert was the crowning touch.  If ice cream was on the menu, Grandy would serve it from a large cut glass bowl.  If dessert was a baked sweet, it was often accompanied by Angel Sauce, a delicious foamy topping ladled from a glass dish.  I managed to keep Grandy’s Angel Sauce dish from being lost in one of my father’s house sales.  It is my most cherished artifact of that time and place.

We all returned to Abington well-fed and very tired after a day filled with adventure.  I usually slept through these homeward journeys.  One by one, Dad would carry the four of us children into the house asleep (or nearly so) and Mom would put us to bed.

Laycock Family Photo

The Property

The Barrens was built on a treeless hilltop.  Because Dr. Geil had a flair for vivid language, my impression is that he gave the site its unusual name.  My mother said that when the marriage proved childless, Constance Geil came to feel that her home’s name was a kind of reproach.  The conventional assumption is that Constance was infertile.  However, during his overseas adventures Dr. Geil contracted exotic illnesses accompanied by high fevers.  Thus the fertility problem could easily have been his, not hers.

Built in 1912, the house was a wedding gift from Dr. Geil to his bride.  I was told by my mother that construction was paid for, in whole or in part, by E.O. Emerson, Grandy's father.  Edgar supervised design and construction.  I assume that he consulted with Grandy, but her role in the project is unclear.  They shared this house for thirteen years, until his death in 1925.

The Barrens consisted of four structures: the main house; The Cottage, a small frame dwelling occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Trego, who served as cook and driver, respectively; a second house located near the point where the driveway now exits to Route 611, occupied by Grandy’s maid, Alice MacIntyre; and the pagoda.  In addition, my brother Brad remembers a deteriorated log cabin in the woods behind the pagoda.  However, the purpose this building served is unclear.

During my childhood my grandmother owned a parcel of wooded property east of the main house.  The window seat on the landing of the main stairway made a fine perch from which to look out over this woodlot as thunderstorms rolled past.  When I was quite small my father had to hold me up so I could see the lightning.  These storms thrilled me then, and still do!

The grandfather clock made by one of Dr. Geil’s Seese relatives stood on this same landing, clanging out the hours.

As Brad reports, the house was gray in color — in fact, the color of the reinforced concrete from which it was built!  Some walls were heavily covered with ivy.  A most unusual feature of the exterior was the reproductions of tablets from the two termini of the Great Wall of China.  These tablets were worked into the exterior walls of the Cold Room, a kind of root cellar where vegetables and other food was stored.  They emphasized the explorer’s intense devotion to China, as did the red tile roof, slightly reminiscent of Chinese temple architecture.

Dr. Geil’s pagoda is an "ink pagoda", because it resembles the square sticks of dry ink common for centuries in China.  I was told that the explorer’s pagoda was modeled on the Ink Pagoda at Suzhou (formerly Soochow), a five-story square structure resembling an inkstick.  At The Barrens this building served as a garage housing vehicles on two levels.  In addition, the pagoda provided water for the property.  Edgar designed this as an artesian system.  Water was pumped up to a cistern on the top floor of the pagoda.  Gravity then provided the pressure needed to supply the main house and Cottage.  I do not recall complaints about this system, and assume that Dr. Geil’s design was sound.

There were two enclosed porches which may have been added after the house was built.  One was the east porch at the rear of the house, accessed from the living room.  This narrow glassed-in space was notable mainly because it housed part of Grandy’s huge collection of National Geographic magazines.  The second was a small glassed-in structure, like a greenhouse, perched on the roof of the south porch and accessed from Grandy’s bedroom.  Its use is uncertain, but I speculate that this solarium provided fresh flowers during cold weather.

There were flower beds here and there, but the grounds were never formally landscaped.  I have no memory of my grandmother working in the gardens.  However, she clearly loved flowers, because a cutting garden supplied flowers for the house during the summer.  In particular I recall the towering, showy hollyhocks that grew near the east porch.  A vegetable garden was located at the rear of the house, accessible from the kitchen.  Perhaps this was a relic of World War II when Victory Gardens were a common part of the war effort.  During this period — 1950-58 — the War was a very recent memory.

My mother told me that Dr. Geil could not abide the smell of tobacco.  In a day when many people smoked without concern for their health, Dr. Geil insisted that visitors smoke outdoors, regardless of weather.  Guests found this demand irritating.

Later Memories

I have only a few memories of The Barrens during my older childhood years.  We would sometimes stay overnight, and my brother and I would sleep in the room my mother had occupied as a child.  Yet that bedroom was not the only place to sleep.  The Barrens had a sleeping porch located at the rear of the house, off Grandy’s second floor dressing room and bath.  It was a simple space, furnished with metal beds.  The screened windows made the sleeping porch a delightfully breezy place to pass a sultry summer night.  

However, the sleeping porch had one glaring defect: it provided an ideal, weather-protected place for wasps to take up housekeeping.  During a vacation trip to the Pocono Mountains at about age five I conceived an intense dislike for bees and wasps when Brad suggested that we throw stones at a wasp nest.  The wasps chased us, and because I ran more slowly, they focused their attention on me!  So it was that one morning on the sleeping porch I awoke to find my bed, including my pillow, crawling with wasps.  In panic I called for help and my father rescued me.

The memory of that sleeping porch was so strongly happy that I tried to incorporate a similar sleeping porch into the second floor of my retirement home.  Unfortunately, the cost was prohibitive.

I suspect that as Grandy grew older and her health began to fail, she was less inclined to host us for dinner.  Four young children create a lot of noisy chaos!  For this reason my memories of weekend meals at my grandmother’s home end at about age ten (roughly 1955).

When Grandy could no longer negotiate the stairs, a small elevator was installed to give her access to her bedroom on the second floor.  With considerable amusement my mother told me that the contractor had not realized just how heavily-reinforced this concrete house was!  (I was told that Dr. Geil used one-inch rods on three-inch centers.  This man built for the ages!)  A jackhammer and torch were needed to cut a hole in the floor to accommodate the elevator.  “That poor contractor nearly lost his religion on this job,” my mother laughed.

In the summer of 1958 we moved from Abington to Shaker Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland, when my father was transferred to the Colonnade Cafeteria home office.  Grandy died in Florida on January 16, 1959.  We returned to Doylestown that summer to prepare the house for sale.

This final visit at The Barrens provided an opportunity to explore the house as never before.  I made my first trip to the third floor, used the back stairway to access the kitchen, and even poked around in the basement.  We turned up wonderful artifacts on these excursions.  Among them was a large package of wood-handled fans of the type funeral homes often handed out before air conditioning became so common.  These fans advertised the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.  The WCTU was, and remains today, a social reform organization dedicated to abstinence from alcohol.  In this way I learned that my grandmother was a staunch WCTU member and teetotaler.  I also explored the pagoda.  One day I broke a pagoda window for no particular reason.  That vandalism earned me a severe parental reprimand.

The place I most enjoyed exploring was Dr. Geil’s study.  A double doorway in the corner of the dining room gave access to the explorer’s sanctum (why two doors were needed remains a mystery).  Built-in bookcases with concrete shelving lined the walls and were capped by semicircular (or fan) windows.  On the wall nearest the dining room was a fireplace, its hearth adorned by a mosaic of a Native American starting fire.  A relief of a Chinese tiger decorated the wall to the left of the fireplace.  Below this sat Dr. Geil’s roll-top desk.

In the summer of 1959 this room was remarkable for its disorder.  Every other part of my grandmother’s house was clean and tidy, but Dr. Geil’s study was a shambles.  Filing cabinets with half-open drawers stood in the middle of the room.  Boxes full of papers littered the floor.  A wooden barrel containing copies of Dr. Geil’s biography packed in excelsior sat to one side of the desk.  The desk itself was piled with a jumble of papers.  Judging by the dust, this room had not been cleaned in years.  I later wondered if someone had gone through his study after Dr. Geil’s death — possibly biographer Philip Whitwell Wilson as he wrote the explorer’s life — and then my grandmother simply locked the door and never returned.  Perhaps the memories contained in that room were too painful, for she mourned her husband the rest of her life.

Under a bookcase to the left of the entry door I found a small black chest with interesting hardware.  It was filled mainly with rice paper rubbings and a few maps which appear to have been presented to Dr. Geil by local Chinese officials as he traveled from town to town.  A cardboard chest contained more rubbings and some small items. Reflecting on this later, it was clear that Dr. Geil had no interest in collecting artwork or valuable artifacts.  For a man who traveled so extensively not only in China, but across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Polynesia, and Asia, he had very little to show in the way of souvenirs.  In this respect he anticipated the late 20th century dicta for sustainable and respectful travel: “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

I realize now that Dr. Geil’s study contained many more treasures, but at age 16 I was too young to appreciate the importance of correspondence, diaries, working drafts of books, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other mementos of his wanderlust.  In any case, my parents would not have allowed me to take this material, because we had nowhere to store it.  We are indeed fortunate that so much of the explorer’s effects were purchased in the house sale that summer and preserved.

A Final Thought

In late December 1982 I visited The Barrens for the first time since the summer of 1959.  The property had been handed from one owner to the next; my mother told me it had been used as office space for real estate agents and medical professionals.  But the building was never successfully repurposed, and in time it was abandoned, probably because upkeep was so expensive.  The main house was now a brooding shadow of its former self.  Its gray concrete seemed almost black.  The lawns were unkempt.  Piles of beer cans told of intruders using the south porch for parties.  Tiles on the entry porch were broken.  Tree limbs littered the driveway.  Several basement windows had been broken out, and it appeared that animals were living in my grandmother’s once-stately home.  However, this was a reinforced concrete building!  It survived because no one could afford the high cost of demolition!

In the master bedroom of The Barrens there is an inscription above the fireplace which reads “NVKVALOFA.”  I initially thought this might be classical Latin, but a friend who teaches Latin ruled out that possibility.

However, an internet search did yield a place name: Nuku’alofa, capital of the nation of Tonga.  Dr. Geil traveled the south Seas and almost certainly put ashore at this town.  A Tongan-English dictionary indicates that alofa means love, and nuku probably means place or harbor.  Thus this inscription — and the bedroom in which it is found, as well as The Barrens as a whole — likely means “harbor of love.”  For Constance and Edgar Geil, a proper Victorian couple deeply in love, this romantic touch seems perfect.  A century later their house, so beautifully restored, memorializes the love they shared here for too brief a time.

The Barrens, circa 1930.

Laycock Family Photo

Grandy & The Barrens

This is a photo gallery featuring a collection of miscellaneous pictures of the Barrens; Constance Emerson Geil ("Grandy"); my parents, Ralph B. Laycock and Constance Geil Laycock; and my brothers, John Laycock and Brad Laycock. Over time additional photographs will be added into more organized collections.

To More Remembrances


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