Chester County, one of the three original counties established in Pennsylvania by William Penn, lies west of Philadelphia, and is home to about half a million people. It is a beautiful region made famous by Wyeth-family paintings of scenes along the Brandywine valley that snakes through the area. Two decades ago, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, Philadelphia natives who have given away $1.2 billion of the fortune he earned in cable television, bought 500 acres of open land in the county and had a house designed for the site. “I went out to see it,” Lenfest told Philanthropy magazine. “The hole was dug and the rebar was being put in. I asked the architect, ‘How big is that house?’ And he said: ‘16,000 square feet.’ I thought for a moment, and I said, ‘You know what, fill up the hole.’” With their children grown, that seemed like too much home, Lenfest explained. He and his wife decided to instead give away the property for public use. They kept their residence in the same house they bought in 1966 for $35,000.
The Lenfests donated the Chester County land, which had a market value of about $32 million, to the Natural Lands Trust, a local nonprofit that has helped private-property owners protect 128,000 acres since its founding in 1953. They also donated $5 million to create an endowment for the property, helped the group acquire an adjoining farm, and in 2012 paid for erection of a public lodge. Their gifts were combined with another plot owned by the county to create the 1,263-acre ChesLen Preserve—a privately owned nature center fully open to public access at no charge. It offers eight miles of unpaved trails, canoeing on two miles of the West Branch of Brandywine Creek, horseback riding, and birdwatching, and is one of the largest parks in southeast Pennsylvania. All created at no cost to taxpayers.