The 1900 book, Fads and Fancies describes Clement A. Griscom:
“Few men possess more divergent tastes; he is president of a company that operates one of the largest transatlantic fleets; he is a member of a club devoted to agriculture and breeding blooded cattle; he has been commodore…of a yacht club; he sows and reaps his own crops, and takes prizes at county and state fairs for his horses, cows, and sheep.”
The remainder of the article speaks of his various national and international honors, but little of his amazing estate.
An Evolving Mansion. The house is the work of the firm of Furness and Evans between the years of 1881 and 1895. During this time, there was constant construction, as the plan and variation of styles shows a distinct evolutionary trend.
Much of the building occurred to house his growing collection of Old Master and late 19th century paintings. After his death, the inventory of an auction of his collection lists works by Rembrandt, Canaletto, Constable, van Dyck, Monet, and the sister of one of his neighbors, Mary Cassatt.
The Dolobran estate grew to almost 150 acres over a 15 year period. The grounds contained formal and informal gardens, farm buildings and pastures, and a golf course. The main house shows Furness working in the “stick style,” a mode favored for resort architecture, and practiced by his mentor, Richard Morris Hunt, in his Newport cottages.
Hunt was the first American architect to study at the Ecole de Beaux Artes in Paris, and Furness studied at the studio Hunt established in New York in the 1850s. Allen Evans was the son of a doctor and land speculator who bought property along Gray’s Lane in Haverford. He developed the land for himself and others, notably Alexander Cassatt.
Evans began his apprenticeship in 1872, and became his partner in 1881.
By the mid 1880s, the house had doubled in size and was sprouting towers and the Furness trademark chimneys. By 1890, the “shingle and stick styles” were giving way to more substantial stone construction.
Dolobran encompassed a floor area of over one half acre spread across five levels as the house rambled across the gently sloping site. The building that remains is a fascinating chronicle of changing tastes of the late Victorian era.
Upstairs. Downstairs. Just as the exterior evolved from earlier less formal resort styles to a more classical mode, so did the interior changes. For a house of it’s overall size, the individual rooms are not particularly large, except for the 40 x 50 foot gallery/ballroom addition at the rear.
Throughout the home were collections from Griscom’s world travels: exotic glass, porcelain, Delft tiles, a painted canvas ceiling in the manner of traditional Oriental art, intricately carved wood paneling.
The upper floors contained a master bedroom suite with two bathrooms, and bedroom suites for each of the Griscom’s five children. A three story service wing contained a warren of servant’s rooms along with a large kitchen and larder with three built-in tiled ice boxes.
Clement Griscom lived in the house for over 30 years, but when he died, the landholdings and ancillary structures were rapidly sold off, and most demolished.
The main house, hopelessly out of style in the Colonial Revival age, sat empty for many years. Many objects were stored in the sub-basement. During the restoration preceding the Vassar Showhouse of 1990, many original pieces were re-installed, and the exterior was returned to its original appearance with wood shingling, green trim, and a copper-edged roof. Since the house was commissioned by such a prominent Philadelphian, and reflects so many periods in the architectural practice of Furness and Evans, it is a priceless relic of the Gilded Age on the Main Line.
Its battlements make Isaac H. Clothier’s Wynnewood residence, Ballytore, a castle, and its present use (with some structural changes as a sanctuary), make it a church.
Originally, this towered stone fortress of a house by architect Addison Hutton bristled with a turret, crenelated walls, a semi-encircling covered porch (instead of a moat), and a porte-cochere, its piers topped by what appear to have been a sentry gatehouse at each of its four corners. Still intact is a four tiered square defensive tower. Instead of being walled solid, it has narrow “lookout” windows on each level, as does its turret. The steeply peaked roof is another Hutton signature.
The Clothier castle was constructed in 1885, the same year and by the same architect as another large mansion, Torworth (in Germantown) for Clothier’s business partner, Justus C. Strawbridge. Hutton also designed, and repeatedly worked on, the co-partners’ Strawbridge & Clothier department store building in Philadelphia. So the two mansions were a natural next step.
Addison Hutton was commissioned to design a castle in Wynnewood on 60 acres for his personal friend, Clothier, the department store magnate and philanthropist. On property that had been Henry Morris’ Maple Grove farm, this assignment doubtless had special significance for Hutton, “the Quaker architect of Bryn Mawr,” who was at the apex of his career.
Henry Morris, Clothier’s son-in-law (by then living next door at Fairhill) had been Hutton’s first client and earliest patron. Hutton saw to it that the architectural career of this rural upstate lad was launched three decades earlier: he had young Hutton design the Morris family “cottage” at Newport.
Earlier, in 1878, Morris built three cottages of dressed stone, their low-slung roofs covered with red diamond-shaped tiles and having secret passages below ground. This picturesque and eccentric group, Red Roof, was built on what became Ballytore ground. While Hutton might have been involved in the design of the round-towered lodge house, one suspects that Henry Morris himself was the creator.
Morris, a widely traveled amateur architect, probably designed these quaint houses which were the forerunner of all the “English villages” in this country. He had used themes brought home after trips abroad and put into practice his own great love of fine handcraftsmanship in every aspect of the construction. Morris’ Red Roof group remains a handsome harbigner of the Arts & Crafts Movement that blossomed in the 1880s on this side of the Atlantic.
Agnes Irwin School was located at Ballytore from 1933 to 1960. In 1963, Saint Sahag Saint Mesrob Armenian Church, ministering to over 300 members in the tri-county area, relocated there from the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia. Following some structural changes, Ballytore was converted into a distinguished sanctuary. Clothier’s mansion continues to have a vital legacy.
Alan Wood Jr.’s
The Towering Estate. Alan Wood, Jr. was the grandson of James Wood, who founded an iron rolling mill in Conshohocken in 1832. Alan was to become president of the huge Alan Wood Steel Company.
Mr. Wood now owned many acres on what may be the highest point along the river in Lower Merion Township. There was a 15 to 20 mile panorama of the Schuylkill valley, including a view of the Wood steel mill down in Conshohocken.
Wood commissioned the noted Philadelphia architect, William L. Price, to design Woodmont. The house was constructed between 1891 and 1894 in the style of a French Gothic chateau.
Price took advantage of his spectacular site with an architectural confection unmatched by any of his previous work which had been stylistically eclectic, plumbing the various revival styles, sometimes in new ways, but generally typical for the day. At Woodmont, he stretched the series of buildings across the ridgeline, beginning with the barn, a lodge, and then the manor house. It owed some inspiration in the French Gothic revival of Richard Morris Hunt, but the combination of forms and massing was unlike any predecessor.
Using locally quarried stone with limestone trim, Price combined the academic detailing of pinnacles, crocketed dormers, gargoyles and buttresses with a tall red pyramidal roof over a great hall. This roof is the tallest peak of a small mountain range consisting of turrets, gables and tall chimneys. An overscaled porte cochere projecting from the center front anchors the building to the ground, while an octagonal study and semicircular porch with their attendant roofs are the foothills of the composition. It is truly a precocious building for a 30 year old architect, no doubt encouraged by a client who didn’t mind ostentation.
The interior continued the baronial theme in the great hall by an elaborate Caen stone fireplace, grand stair and encircling balcony. The stair, railings, doors, and ceiling are carved, stained oak, with a distinct medieval character.
Mrs. Wood thought the house was too isolated and sold the property to a nephew, Richard G. Wood. In 1929, he subdivided 73 acres, which included the manor house and five support buildings, and sold it to J. Hector McNeal, a corporation lawyer known also for his horsemanship. The interior of the main house underwent renovations.
The Peace Mission. The estate was neglected for a number of years after the death of Mrs. McNeal. In 1953, the house and acreage was sold to the followers of Father Divine.They established the country estate of Father and Mother Divine as The Mount of the House of the Lord and spent a little over one year restoring the 32 rooms. The Palace Mission, Inc., is one of the incorporated churches under Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement and serves as their spiritual headquarters.
Woodmont is open to the public on Sundays from April through October, without charge. Guests can enjoy the first floor of the manor house and visit Father Divine’s shrine.
The property is cared for by consecrated co-workers who live communally, some on the property and others in Peace Mission Homes in Philadelphia. The movement’s dynamic leader, Mother Divine, is also active in the local community.
In 1998, Woodmont was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today the property reflects the extraordinary care it has received from this religious community. It is a masterpiece of a striking estate, formal gardens, wooded hills, a pond, a lake, streams…and peace.
In 1889, Joseph Sinnott, owner of the Philadelphia distillery, Moore and Sinnott, purchased 40 acres in Rosemont…land once part of the Ashbridge estate called Rosemont Farm. By summer of 1891, a 32-room house designed by Philadelphia architects, Hazlehurst and Huckel, was ready for occupancy. The house was named Rathalla which in Gaelic means “home of the chieftain upon the highest hill.”
Joseph Francis Sinnott had come a long way from his arrival in 1854 as a 17-year-old immigrant. He had been born in County Donegal, Ireland to a family that could trace its roots back for 700 years…when the first “Synnots” arrived with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century (during the reign of Henry II). One descendent, Susan Synnot, came to America in the 17th century and married George Nixon. Their grandson, John Nixon, gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence at the State House on July 8, 1776.
Sinnott joined the distillery firm of John Gibson’s Son as a 20-year old bookkeeper. After a brief stint as a private in the Civil War, he began to move up in the business. In 1884, Gibson retired and Sinnott and Andrew Moore took over. With Moore’s death in 1888, Sinnott became the owner of one of the largest distilleries in the country.
When Sinnott and his wife moved into Rathalla, they had six boys and three girls ranging in age from 27 to 13. In addition, there were seven servants in residence: cook, assistant cook, two chambermaids, seamstress, laundress, and groom. Mr. Sinnott died in 1906, his wife in 1918. The house stood empty until its purchase by the Sisters of the Holy Child in 1921.
In 1980, the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Percival E. Foerderer (1884-1969), a successful Philadelphia businessman, retired in his early 50s to contribute his energy, affection and support to public service. For 33 years he was the backbone of the growth of the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. His significant contributions earned him the nickname, “Mr. Jefferson.”
Percival Foerderer was the third generation in the family leather business. His grandfather was a curer of hides in Prussia. His father expanded the company in Philadelphia and invented the “chrome process” of treating goatskins to manufacture soft, pliable leather. Their Vici Kid factory, in 1892, employed 2,300 who turned out quality leather kid gloves and shoes.
Foerderer attended Penn Charter School and entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1903 with the desire to be a doctor. His father’s serious illness forced him to abandon a college career and he entered the family business to learn the trade from the ground up.
In 1910, Foerderer married Ethel Brown, daughter of a Philadelphia textile machinery maker. For the next 26 years Percival was president of the largest leather manufacturing business in the United States, perhaps in the world.
There was unemployment and unrest during the Great Depression, and after a strike at the Foerderer factory in 1936, Percival chose to close the plant and retire.
After World War II service, he returned to the home that he and Ethel had designed on a 6+-acre plot in Merion.
Foerderer’s success in the stock market allowed him to dream of a larger home in Lower Merion, but not in the popular Colonial or Tudor Revival styles that flooded the Main Line. Percival and Ethel yearned for another home with Spanish and medieval character.
Who else to turn to but Addison Mizner, designer of flambouyant homes in Palm Beach in the 1920s? Foerderer and Mizner, a great team, created La Ronda in 1929, a vast residence on 233 acres. 51 rooms (21 bedrooms) included an elegant mixture of styles: Spanish towers, Gothic porticos, Venetian stained glass, Italianate monastery cloisters and flags, plus European formal gardens.
With the help of 27 employees, Ethel and Percival raised their three daughters in these unique European surroundings.