Bryn Mawr, Suburban Square and English Village

Bryn Mawr is a community of approximately six thousand people located nine miles west of Philadelphia on the Main Line. Although it has no formal boundaries, portions of it are contained in Radnor and Haverford Townships with the largest portion being in Lower Merion Township. It has evolved from a colonial farming society into a cosmopolitan suburb.

The land Bryn Mawr occupies was originally part of the charter given to William Penn by King Charles II in 1681. Even though he had legitimate British title to the land, Penn believed that the Lenape Indians, “the original people” and true owners of the land, should be compensated.

In July 1683, Penn bought the land from the Indians, an action which gained the Indians’ great respect and established peaceful relations between the European and indigenous communities. The following February, Penn subdivided the land and sold it as part of the 62 square mile Welsh Tract to primarily middle class Quaker farmers.

First Stage of Settlement. The original families and their immediate descendants who occupied this land confronted a vast forest of rolling hills, fertile soils, abundant water and a moderate climate. They included Rowland Ellis from Wales who settled here in 1704, naming his farm Bryn Mawr (from the Welsh “great hill”). In 1719, it was renamed Harriton by Richard Harrison and his wife Hannah Norris.

South of the Ellis tract was land owned by the Humphrey family. Purchased by Benjamin and John Humphrey in 1683, it included land upon which Bryn Mawr College and The Baldwin School are located.

West of the Humphrey tract was land bought in 1708 by William and Reese Thomas, which eventually became the Ashbridge estate. Of note is the Cornog log cabin, on the northwest corner of County Line Road and Mondela Avenue, built around the beginning of the 18th century.

Agricultural Development. During the early period, the community supplied food and tobacco to the growing Philadelphia market. It was a crossroads, providing access to local producers for commerce and communication.

1910 photo of the horse and buggy days in Bryn Mawr…Merion and Lancaster Avenues, looking west.
Photograph c. 1877 of the side view of the Humphrey’s homestead, The Lindens at 845 Lancaster Avenue.
Lancaster Avenue early in this century…at Merion Avenue, looking east.
A typical town residence (still standing) on Old Lancaster Road.

The Revolution. The community provided leadership in our struggle with Great Britain. Charles Thompson, owner of Harriton, was Secretary of the Continental Congress. The Continental Army retreated through the area on September 12, 1777 from the Battle of Brandywine; General Washington stopped at Buck Tavern three days later. In the winter of that year there was a battle here between the American Generals Potter and Sullivan and British Lord Cornwallis.

Humphreysville was the name of the community at the turn of the 19th century, honoring the Humphrey family who had amassed a large amount of property.

In 1831, Milestone House was built by a member of that family at 845 Lancaster Avenue, in front of the 9th milestone on the original Lancaster Pike. This marker is now located in front of the Ludington Information Center. The home was demolished in 1955.

In 1834, the State Legislature enacted the first common school law and Lower Merion, as the only supporter of the act in the County, opened its first public school in 1835.

By 1858, the town consisted of 21 houses, a two story schoolhouse and many private estates. The town was growing, but it was still a rural community. It was about to undergo profound transformation as it entered a new technological age.

The office of the Bryn Mawr News on Lancaster Avenue in the 1940s.
William Ramsey’s General Store “Feed, Flour, Groceries, Dry-Goods, Paints, Oils, &c.”, built about 1870. It also served as Bryn Mawr’s post office. Present site of the Bryn Mawr Trust Company.

Railroad Expansion. In 1832, the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway constructed its “Main Line” between Philadelphia and Lancaster. In 1859, a station and telegraph office were built at Whitehall (the intersection of Bryn Mawr Avenue and County Line Road). The building remains, now occupied by the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop.

In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation acquired the Philadelphia & Columbia. It also purchased all the land bounded by the rail line and named this new development Bryn Mawr. By 1869, this name replaced Humphreysville.

Victorian Summer Resort. With the coming of the railroads, Bryn Mawr became a fashionable summer destination. The White Hall Hotel opened in the 1830s; the Bryn Mawr Hotel in 1871. A number of inns and boarding houses were established to meet the tourist demand during the Centennial Exposition: Summit Grove House, the Humphrey Board House, The Penn Inn, The Pines, The Farmhouse and The Castner House.

The Real Estate Boom. The Pennsylvania Railroad aggressively promoted the town, creating a demand for elegant country residences. Many of the new owners commuted regularly to Philadelphia, preferring quiet country living to the hustle of city life. Thus, Bryn Mawr became one of the first commuter suburbs.

With this influx of population, the institutions which provide support and service for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of a community were created. By 1900, six churches were established; a post office, hospital, two private schools, a college, the water company and two banks were founded. By 1884, Bryn Mawr was the most populous town in Lower Merion Township with over 300 homes and many small businesses.

Bryn Mawr National Bank, early 1900s, at 800 Lancaster Avenue.

The Automobile Suburb. By 1904, most of the roads which exist today had been completed, under the supervision of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s A. J. Cassatt. The presence of the automobile began to be felt; gas stations were erected; Lancaster Avenue was widened in 1936 to accommodate increased traffic and parking spaces for autos.

During this period, developments of smaller homes were constructed along Lancaster Avenue to provide housing for the working people of the community. They were neighborhoods for the professional class, for small shopkeepers, for the black population and for the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to Bryn Mawr around the turn of the century.

Bryn Mawr Today. A mature, post-war suburb, Bryn Mawr begins a new century with a distinguished history and exciting future. The town has shaken off its sleepy beginnings and now encompasses a vibrant commercial center with the finest small specialty shops in the region. It boasts one of the most beautiful residential areas in the country. However, its greatest assets are the people: captains of industry, doctors, lawyers, business people, artists, teachers, architects, professors, tradespeople with all the skills and resources that are necessary to preserve and expand Bryn Mawr’s impressive quality of life.

Built in 1887, the building housed the Bryn Mawr National Bank on the left and the Bryn Mawr Trust on the right, 1895 photo. Site of present post office.
1950 photo of Penn House at Lancaster and Penn Avenues.

Surburban Square

In 1881, a mansion was built on six acres on Montgomery Avenue in Ardmore for a Mr. Blummer. Two owners later, it was sold to Alan B. Rorke, a prominent Philadelphia builder. He named his summer home, Thorncroft. An 1897 history reports, “George Hewitt was the architect of the grey stone edifice of ample dimensions, surrounded by a piazza.

Mr. Rorke added various embellishments and improvements…a porte cochère..and erected an artistic stable with a red tile roof.”

The next owner, Edward S. Dixon, Sr., upon his death in 1920, left the estate to his son. Six years later, the son sold the house and land to the Suburban Company.

Surburban Square was developed by James K. Stone in 1926. He purchased the property from the Suburban Company in that year for $365,000 and commissioned an architectural firm, Dreher and Churchman, to design a shopping center on the site of Thorncroft. The original plan was to have a bank, post office, food market, small stores, a department store, an office building and a movie theatre. The same building material was to be used for all the structures. There were to be only two tall buildings: a department store and the Times-Medical building. Parking spaces for cars were to be in the center and around the perimeter and on two wide streets with diagonal parking.

When construction began in 1927, a furor ensued. Local residents were concerned about the traffic and the decline of property values. Ardmore business owners feared a drop in revenues, but building moved forward.

In 1931, the center was named Hestobeen Square for three of its developers. Five years later, a contest was held to find a new name and Suburban Square was chosen.

In the 1970s, a street was replaced by an attractive pedestrian courtyard and walkway. At the left is Strawbridge’s; on the right, the Times-Medical Building.
Suburban Square in the late 1920s. Note the early Sunoco station.

Suburban Square was not the first outdoor shopping mall in the United States, but Strawbridge & Clothier was the first major department store that opened a suburban branch…to be followed by Wanamaker (in Wynnewood) and Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor (along City Line Avenue).

In 1937, Strawbridge’s added a separate Men’s Store, across the way, on the ground floor of the Times-Medical building. There are seven floors of medical offices. The Main Line Times was an original occupant.

Recent improvements include additional shops and landscaping that have added a certain European charm.

English Village

A typical double house on Arthur’s Round Table. Each house follows a simple ell-shaped plan. Pairs are connected at the base of the ell to create a central courtyard. Every pair differs slightly. Many have been modified since their original construction. Photos show typical Arts and Crafts techniques:

During the 1920s the population in Lower Merion Township grew faster than in any other decade. Housing shortage after the First World War, an interest in “garden suburbs,” and improved railroad transportation were some of the causes of outward city migration. A need for new housing, and a builder’s fascination with the architecture of Shropshire, after a stay in England for military duty, resulted in the construction of an English village in Wynnewood during 1925.

A Picturesque Village. The builder, Donald M. Love, collaborated with his brother S. Arnold Love, a practicing Philadelphia area architect. Together they created a Tudor village, using street patterns, architectural designs, construction technologies and building materials that evoked “old England.” On a five acre rectangular tract between Cherry and Wister Roads, west of Montgomery Avenue, they laid out narrow winding lanes in the shape of an oval (Arthur’s Round Table) with a snakelike tail (Love’s Lane) that ran between the two parallel roads. By 1928 the planned development was completed with ten double and nine single houses. Real estate value of the time has been quoted as $9,000 per home.

The quaint charm of this small development arises from a compact design that avoids sidewalks and sets the buildings close to the street, but often irregularly. Stone or brick walls, hedges, fences and well positioned plantings create protection and add to the character of each unit.

The houses are all two or two and-a-half stories tall and roofed in wood or composition shingles. The shapes are basically rectangular or ell-shaped with asymmetrical configurations of gables, chimneys, porches and garages. The principal building material is local stone, cut thin and neatly coursed.

Stone chimney with decorative brickwork.
Lead came windows with small panes and exterior stone chimneys with decorative brickwork are typical features.
Various brick patterns are used between the half timbers.
A steeply pitched projecting gable with intricate timber work, stucco infill and diamond-patterned casement windows.
A picturesque home.

Tudor Details. The English character derives from the use of exposed half timbers in both upper gables and full walls. A look of age and the Arts and Crafts tradition of the time were emphasized by use of irregular or bent timbers, natural crooks and sawn brackets. The use of old barn wood and railroad ties helped cultivate the sense of antiquity.

Stucco or used bricks, laid in various patterns, provide infill between the timbers. Massive end chimneys of stone and decorative brick contrast with delicate leaded and small-paned windows used throughout the facades. Historicizing details such as casement windows, rain barrels, bird houses and statuary niches add special flavor.

Throughout the complex of 29 homes the uniform scale, building materials and color palette of natural earth tones integrate the development. Building interiors feature the use of Arts and Crafts detailing such as Mercer tile, exposed roof trusses, wide oak floor boards, window seats and large stone fireplaces.

Artistic Charm. During a period of interest in revival architecture and craftsman finishes, English Village was an instant success. Rapidly the residences became known as an enclave for artists and writers who sought quiet, intimate surroundings. Many created studios and artist’s spaces within their homes.

Arthur Love himself lived in a single unit for many years. Another brother, who painted but never cooked, lived in a home designed without a kitchen. Today, English Village remains an outstanding and unique architectural development of the early 20th century.

This single house shows the asymmetry and irregularity of many houses in the village. Note the extensive wall of half timber and brick patterning plus gable peaks, projections and various window sizes.
Another single home on Love‘s Lane shows the use of clapboard at one gable end and an artistic projecting gable in the otherwise half-timber and stucco façade.