Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

Missing mansions of the Main Line

When released nearly 60 years ago, the classic film The Philadelphia Story depicted a fading world of sprawling estates, swank parties and genteel living among the wealthy denizens of the Main Line. That rarefied world had already been shaken by the Great Depression and would be altered forever by a post-World War II suburban housing boom that would convert many of the properties into housing developments.

Chronicling the Philadelphia story today means tallying up the dozens of estates lost to development or neglect. These properties, with names like Penshurst, Cheswold and Timberline, may be gone, but they're not forgotten-at least not by historians like John Marshall Groff, AS '81M, who has made the lost mansions of the Main Line the focus of his recent research.

Groff, executive director of Wyck, a National Historic Landmark house and garden in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, has researched the history of hundreds of homes built on the Main Line from the post-Civil War building boom of the 1870s through the late 1920s. His work has its roots in his teenage years when the Bryn Mawr native would bike around the Main
Line checking out the mansions.

Years later, when Groff was enrolled in the University's Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, these great houses would become the focus of his master's thesis, "Green Country Towns: The Development of Philadelphia's Main Line, 1870-1915."

"It's a combination of my interest in architecture and the houses in their landscapes, and the scale of living in staffing these houses, maintaining them and entertaining in them," explains Groff, who does his work in consultation with architect James Garrison, architectural historian Jeffrey Cohen and preservationist/architectural historian Jean Wolf. "The more I went along in time, the more I realized how brief that period had been before the houses became obsolete and too large."

It was the Great Depression that really brought an end to this era of grand living. "You see a decided shift to more modest houses," Groff says. "They could still entertain nicely, but it didn't take a 10-room servant wing to staff them. As the suburban lifestyle became more the norm, even if families wanted to keep their houses, the land became too valuable. By the time you got to the second or third generation, you had half a dozen heirs, so the properties were sold to satisfy bequests or estates. That's the period when people who were serious about living in the country moved."

While the way of life embodied by these imposing physical structures has gone out of style, many of the elaborate buildings have survived, through conversion to offices, schools and other institutional purposes. For example, the gate lodge for Ashwood in Villanova, Pa., houses a bank, while Beaumont in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and Waverly in Gladwyne, Pa., are now life-care facilities for senior citizens.

"More survive than have been lost," Groff notes. "The greatest number that were lost were built from the 1870s to the 1900s. Some were even torn down in the early 1900s to be replaced by what would be seen as a bigger, more modern house. Of the significant, large houses [those with 25 to 50 rooms], at least two-thirds survive."

A few remain in private hands, notably Ardrossan, the home of the late Hope Montgomery Scott, the model for Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn in the film version of The Philadelphia Story. And, there are even some new houses being built today that are larger than ones from 70 years ago.

"In the 1970s, I would have been incredulous if people had told me that in the 1990s, people would be building new houses of equal scale," Groff says. "Now, some are [even] being turned back from institutional uses and put back into private hands."

Those still standing won't go the way of Penshurst, a 75-room, Elizabethan-style mansion that was situated on a 500-acre parcel in Penn Valley. One of the largest homes to be built on the Main Line, it was torn down in 1939; all that remains today are its wrought-iron gates.

Or Cheswold, an 1872 Frank Furness-designed, 54-room Victorian manse that was the home to Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the brother of the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. It was razed in the 1930s.

Or Timberline, an Italian Renaissance-style villa in Bryn Mawr that featured elaborate gardens designed by the Olmsted Brothers, who planned New York's Central Park. It didn't escape the wrecking ball either and was torn down in the 1970s. It is now the site of a portion of Route I-476, known as the Blue Route.

Of the large Main Line homes that remain, only a few are open to the public, notably Chanticleer in Wayne, Pa., known today primarily for its spectacular gardens, which have been featured in The New York Times. But, none has emerged as a major house-museum, along the lines of Wyck or the 200 or so other historic houses and mansions open to the public in Philadelphia and Wilmington.

"Part of it is scale," Groff explains. "It's a big expense to take on. A lot of people in preservation focused on the 18th and early 19th centuries, and didn't look at these newer houses, like they did in Newport, R.I. There's a keen interest out there, but no one in the immediate area has turned one over to a museum and figured out a way to fund it. It's my hope that someone will."

Groff's interest in the Main Line relates nicely to his professional duties as the executive director of Wyck, the home to a Quaker family, the Wistars and the Haines, from the 1690s to 1973. The focus at Wyck, a modest dwelling in comparison to the typical Main Line mansion, is on presenting the life of the family, which lived comfortably, but not lavishly, in the 15-room house. The garden, which features 25 varieties of old roses, is also a popular destination.

"We try to present the continuum, but we're focused a bit more on the teens and '20s of the last century because the house today is unaltered from that period," he explains. "But, we've got 1950s things in rooms with items from 1710. Our real goal is make the visitors feel they are coming to someone's home, rather than a museum."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88