Alexander J. Cassatt’s
One of the best known Main Line figures is Alexander J. Cassatt, who became nationally known as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. His house set the style for summer retreats for wealthy Philadelphians in these western suburbs.
Cassatt began Cheswold in 1872 on his 54-acre parcel of land off Montgomery Avenue. About $50,000 went into the construction of this Queen Anne style villa with the notable Philadelphia architects Furness & Evans incorporating a boldly paneled walnut hall, stained glass windows, and plentiful bedrooms and baths for the family.
There was great energy to the design and details, and wonderful textures to the materials used, appropriate to a railroad officer and art connoisseur. Cassatt’s frequent travels to Europe, especially to Paris to visit his sister Mary, already a well-known artist, expanded his collection of furniture and art on a continuing basis. Soon they overflowed his Rittenhouse Square residence and Cheswold.
Furness & Evans returned several times to do alterations and additions. Cassatt was also increasing his involvement in Lower Merion Township as he paid to have Montgomery Avenue paved, established a gas plant, and purchased a significant share of the Lancaster Turnpike.
By the 1880s, his passion for horse racing and fox hunting had grown and since the area around Cheswold had begun to develop (as he had hoped) he also purchased Chesterbrook Farm in Berwyn, about 600 acres. Cheswold’s sub-division began in the late 1930s with Walter Durham designing charming colonial style residences on a more modest but still elegant style.
Charles Wheeler’s Pembroke, in Bryn Mawr, originally looked out over 100 acres bounded by Fishers Road, Morris Avenue and New Gulph Road. The Wheelers were among the first of the prominent families to build in Bryn Mawr after several seasons of staying at the Bryn Mawr Hotel.
Wheeler, president of the Pascall Iron Works and a founder of the Central National Bank, hired Quaker architect Addison Hutton to design his summer house which was built in 1873. As it first appeared, it was a square Gothic villa with large verandas and a porte-cochere…a modest summer cottage.
Wheeler died in 1883, and in 1890 his widow decided to move to Bryn Mawr year round. Her family wrote of the many excursions out from Broad Street Station to Bryn Mawr in the fall and winter season when partygoers journeyed for an evening at Pembroke. Reports are that guests took whole passenger cars and festivities began as soon as the train left the station. Coaches would meet the formally attired guests and drive them the mile to Pembroke where they would enter the large hall and find a roaring fire.
Perhaps influenced by houses on the Isle of Wight in England, where Mrs. Wheeler spent July and August, she expanded the house into a vine covered, picturesque old English manor.
Around 1903, her son hired Wilson Eyre to redesign the billiard room, this time in the style of a Tyrolean chalet. Extensive gardens were highlighted by formal elements near the house and natural features moving down the hill towards Morris Avenue.
The family began selling off parcels of the land as early as 1910, but the house remained for many years until it was destroyed by fire. Its gate lodge survives along Fishers Road, and dotted over the former gardens and farmland are houses designed by Walter Durham.
William L. McDowell (1824-1897) symbolized the entrepreneurial spirit that swept into Lower Merion in the post-Civil War era with the lightning speed of a fast trotter.
The countdown for America’s 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia had already begun when McDowell became the moving force behind establishing and operating Belmont Driving Park, the harness race course that lured Centennial throngs and decades of visitors to 73 acres where Merion Park now is. He quickly acquired a major farm as track location, formed a syndicate of backers and held its mortgage. McDowell also provided upscale off-track accommodations in a former Price colonial mansion, calling it Maplewood (later named Brookhurst Inn).
This self-made man, born in Philadelphia, was hired as a youth to be a manufacturing firm’s entry clerk. He rose rapidly to become a partner and, in 1869, became its president. Leibrandt & McDowell Stove Company employed 208 people.
Settled at Olinda on 51 acres in Wynnewood c. 1872, the William McDowell household in 1880 comprised wife Mary Abbott and himself, six of their seven children, a son-in-law, grandson, mother-in-law and three Irish servants, before the children built nearby homes of their own.
Charles E. Hires’
Charles E. Hires is best known as the originator of Hires Root Beer, a soft drink which gained great popularity in the 1870s. Hires began his career as a pharmacist and sold a variety of health remedies and flavoring extracts before introducing root beer as a healthful and refreshing alternative to beer.
He also sold ginger ale which was called champanale. While soft drinks were at the heart of his enterprise, he was a pioneer in manufacturing condensed milk and had factories in towns near dairy centers including Malvern, Pennsylvania. His Purock Water Company distributed spring water around the region and Hires water coolers were found in many Philadelphia area buildings. Hires’ sugar plantations in Cuba supplied his bottling plants around the country.
Hires is seen as one of the pioneers of modern advertising, using trade cards and then magazine, newspaper and radio advertising to sell his products. Hires Root Beer was a staple of most soda fountains and an item popular for home production.
Hires’ first wife was Clara Kate Smith, a Quaker lady, who was the mother of his six children. Their children attended local Quaker schools…his sons rode horseback to Haverford School. After 35 years of marriage, Clara died and Charles went through an agonizing period of grief.
After his second marriage to “Miss E,” Emma Waln, member of a prominent old Quaker family, Hires financed the restoration of Merion Friends Meeting, wrote a history of that historic house of worship, and was actively involved with Friends’ Central School’s move to Lower Merion Township.
Hires’ five children pursued various careers. His son Charles worked his way up through the company to become its president in 1923. His home was on Remington Road in Wynnewood. Harrison worked for the family company but also had a lively interest in the arts, writing several books of poetry. Son J. Edgar was an engineer and in the 1920s and 30s lived on Linwood Avenue in Ardmore. Next door lived his sister, Linda, a graduate of Wellesley who was trained as an architect. The youngest daughter, Clara, became a botanist.
and later J. Kearsley Mitchell’s
Red Rose Inn & Stoke Poges
Red Rose in Villanova was almost the site of an arts colony such as Rose Valley near Media or the Roycrofters in East Aurora, New York.
In the early 1900s, Frederick Phillips purchased 800 acres off Spring Mill Road with several 18th century farm houses. He named the property Stoke Pogis (sic) after William Penn’s family home in England and remodeled one farm house into the style of a colonial inn, calling it The Red Rose.
Here he planned a community of artists and craftsmen who shared common tastes and the simplicity of old stone buildings. These would be individuals of modest means, kindred spirits who would work in their studios during the day and then come together at night to dine, drink, and socialize.
Phillip’s early death dashed this scheme and soon after pieces of the 500-acre holding were sold off, many to be developed by the architect/builders Baily & Bassett with sizable Tudor and colonial style houses.
The largest parcel, 194 acres, was purchased by the financier J. Kearsley Mitchell and his wife, the daughter of one of Philadelphia’s richest men, Edward Stotesbury. It included the old Red Rose Inn, farm buildings, stables, and Phillips’ studios. A large half-framed Tudor manor, designed by Cope & Stewardson, was built in 1911 for the Mitchells at a high point of land.
Terraced gardens were designed by well-known landscape architect Beatrix Farrand which, like Wheeler’s Pembroke, integrated a formal arrangement near to the house and then flowed out to the farmscape of old buildings and rolling pasture.
Later, Mitchell’s son would occupy the farm buildings which were remodeled as a comfortable and unassuming house…quite a leap from his grandfather’s 125-room mansion, Whitemarsh Hall, in Wyndmoor.
Once again, Walter Durham was the developer when most of Red Rose was sold, and Brynllawn Road encompasses both Durham’s designs of the 1950s and readapted Red Rose outbuildings.
Henry C. Gibson’s
Along Penn Road in Wynnewood, distiller Henry C. Gibson’s Maybrook was designed by the Hewitt Brothers and built in 1881. Described variably as a Gothic or Elizabethan house, it was clearly English in inspiration and built to impress its visitors.
To have the work done properly, English stonemasons were brought over. When it was completed it had cost $200,000, a grand sum for that era. A 72 foot tower served as a striking landmark to be viewed for miles around. Fountains splashed in front of the house and Victorian gardens with thousands of annuals were its setting.
The suggestion may have been great age, but the comforts were modern…hot-air furnaces and plenty of hot running water. Later, a baronial room which had a court about 60 feet long with a 50 foot ceiling was added. Stained glass windows by Violet Oakley lit the cloistered court, giving it a feeling of part ballroom, part cathedral.
The house was purchased from Gibson’s daughter by John Merriam who built the Thomas Wynne apartments on part of the land. The estate remains in private hands.