William L. Mc Lean Jr.’s
In February 1906, an announcement appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding a house rising on Cherry Lane. Plans were completed and contractors were chosen for “a handsome three story stone residence.” The land, with some old farm buildings on it, had been part of a property called St. Mary’s Farm owned by Harry Shoch, just across Cherry Lane from the larger, 167-acre holding of Louis Wister.
The Furness Touch. The new house was designed by the venerable Philadelphia architectural firm of Furness, Evans & Company, whose principal partner, Frank Furness, had by then reached his mid sixties. Whether he was still directly active as its designer is uncertain; the house adopted the guise of the fashionable Colonial Revival that was sweeping the suburbs, casting commuters in the guise of 18th century country gentry. Such academicism was something of a rebuke to the bold, inventive and expressive spirit that marked Furness’ most celebrated works of the 1870s and 1880s.
Still, there are marks of the old vigor: a distinctive breadth and massiveness, a resistance to the new fluidity, lightness and academic correctness and an unconventionality in plan that seems to recall the old lion’s hand, even if it may have operated here through his influence over others in the office.
The architect’s client was Marriott C. Smyth, a businessman in his early sixties who had lived in Philadelphia. Smyth was president of companies that made wheels and other parts for trains, the Latrobe Steel Company. His own commute was to an office on Broad Street. He was an active clubman both in the suburbs and downtown. During the tenure of Smyth and his extended family, which lasted until his death in 1919, the house and surrounding estate of 33 acres was called Brentwood.
The Lippincott Purchase. Following the Smyths, in the early 1920s the house came into the hands of Walter H. Lippincott, a broker, and his wife Edith D’Olier, who renamed their home Sydbury House.
In 1926, the Lippincotts hired landscape architect Thomas Sears to work on their grounds, which included the design of a formal garden, a pool and tennis court. He also added a library to the house and removed an original porte-cochere.
The McLean Era. The house subsequently became the home of William Lippard McLean, Jr., who had succeeded his father as publisher of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. McLean’s father had purchased the newspaper in the late 19th century, then reportedly the smallest of the city’s 13 daily papers, and transformed it into “the most profitable evening newspaper ever published in this city or state,” according to a 1941 account, with a circulation that at one point topped a half million.
The new owners hired another renowned Philadelphia architectural firm, Mellor & Meigs, to renovate and alter the house. In the late 1930s, William Jr. and his wife Eleanor Bushnell McLean moved here from a house in Chestnut Hill, and she survived him to live nearly fifty years in the house, until 1986. Their son, William III, worked at the Bulletin until 1980. In a recent interview he recalled the house and neighborhood.
“The house, quite naturally, was the product of the Victorian era, and you have to take yourself back into those times to understand it. It is a monstrous rockpile with three floors in front and four floors in back [to fit in lots of servants]…The house was built for five children and their bedrooms were all on the second floor [prompting one visitor to call it “the motel”]…When we moved into Cherry Lane in 1938 there was no traffic light on Montgomery Avenue. But then it wasn’t needed…When my father bought this place, it was staked out in building lots, 33 of them, and it was something less than 22 acres.
In 1954 William III married landscape historian Elizabeth Peterson and they moved into “the little white house” on the property. These younger McLeans recalled the staffing and service buildings of the main house in the years before World War II.
“Pre-war, there was a lady’s maid upstairs and a downstairs maid. There was a chauffeur who lived in an apartment over the garage. This was a garage that could hold six carriages or six automobiles…it was attached to a horse stable. It had right below it a little cow barn. There was a gardener who lived on the place…he had an assistant. There was a house man, a headwaitress, [an old family retainer], and an assistant waitress…there was a cook and a kitchen maid. There were people crawling out of the woodwork.
After the war, that got cut back. Times change. The house man went. A couple of the maids went. But right up to the end, Mother had the head-waitress, the lady’s maid, the upstairs maid; she had a chauffeur and a gardener; both lived on the place. And a laundress; she cleaned the back of the house, not to be confused with someone who cleaned the front of the house. This is just the way things were in those days.”
With all the formality of that, to put it in perspective, [William III’s] mother felt very close to all of them, and she referred to ‘the girls.’ “They could have been 60, but they were ‘the girls.’ She was very fond of them. She worried about them and had one chauffeur who drank. She stuck with him; she worked with him. He went to AA. And she saved him. She was like that. All the maids, all the formality gives you one picture, but I think the way she dealt with them gives you a different picture.”
In 1968, the McLeans had a new house built for them on a corner of the property. In the late 1980s, the land around the old house was subdivided into a minimum number of lots that became sites for new houses designed by Lyman Perry.
Rolling Hill Park
The Walter C. Pew Estate purchased by Lower Merion Township in 1995 for passive recreation and a nature preserve was the last and largest Township park acquisition of the 20th century. The tract in Gladwyne is significant for its lineage as three significant parcels of land that had originated from three different Welsh patent holders under William Penn: John Roberts, Robert Jones and Richard Harrison. At one time miller John Roberts held two of the three parcels. Two parcels had corners crossing Mill Creek, and on each of these the clear, rapid water supply encouraged construction of a mill.
Early Mills. Frederick Bicking built a paper mill by 1762 at the western end. This site evolved into a textile mill by the end of the 19th century. Benjamin Brooke established a forge or gun powder manufactory at the eastern end in 1794. This became a rifle factory under the Nippes family and was later converted to a wool carpet yarn mill. The enlarged mill still stands outside the park.
Above the creek on the adjoining hillside and peak, farmland was cultivated by other settlers to serve local residents or Philadelphians. These parcels served as both agricultural land and for milling industries for nearly two centuries.
Megargee’s Folly Farm. By 1852, a large agricultural tract descending from the Roberts Family was subdivided to a 43-acre parcel. In 1892, a Philadelphia industrialist and paper merchant, Irwin Megargee, developed the site as an elaborate gentleman’s dairy and horse farm called Folly Farm. It featured a caretaker’s cottage, a large stone barn, stables, macadam drives and a swimming basin. Minerva Parker Nichols, a young woman architect, redesigned the early farmhouse for Megargee, who renamed it Pen-y-Bryn (“top of the hill”).
Hagenlocher’s Purchase. When Paul C. Hagenlocher, an investment banker, purchased the farm from Megargee’s widow in 1909, he hired the architect Clyde Smythe Adam to design an elegant new stone Colonial Revival mansion for the same site. Hagenlocher continued the gentleman’s farming tradition and added then-modern concrete farm buildings that included a silo and hog barn (still extant). The stock market crash caused Hagenlocher to sell his farm and it was purchased by Walter C. Pew in 1929.
Pew’s Rolling Hill Farm. Walter Pew, grandson of the founder of Sun Oil, renamed the property Rolling Hill Farm, but he focused less on agriculture and instead expanded his land holdings to create a significant suburban estate. He added tennis courts and a swimming pool west of the house designed by the noted landscape architect Thomas Sears of Gladwyne.
By 1938, Pew had added sections of the Bicking and Nippes mill parcels along Mill Creek, land with at least four stone residences for mill workers built prior to 1850.
The Pews and their two children lived at Rolling Hill Farm until the 1950s, but by 1958 family members had left the residence unoccupied. While it was being dismantled in July 1958, a blow torch set the building in flames. The remains were demolished and the Pews never used the site again, though the caretaker continued to live in the cottage.
The Township’s Rolling Hill Park. When the property of the Pew Estate was put on the market in 1994, there was an immediate effort in the Township to acquire this special tract of open space with its remaining farm buildings and mill residences neatly bounded by Rose Glen Road and Mill Creek.
Through Montgomery County Open Space funds, a Township bond issue and contributions raised by Lower Merion Preservation Trust from the community at large, 103 acres of open space was purchased for $4.37 million and renamed Rolling Hill Park.
A Natural Refuge. Rolling Hill Park is now a cherished nature preserve and cultural resource as well as part of a National Register Historic District. The park is used to teach the history of early Quaker settlement and industry in the Township and to provide opportunities for bird watching, hiking, horseback riding, fishing and picknicking. The farm cottage built for the Megargee’s caretaker is being restored by Lower Merion Conservancy, where they will work to protect open space, historic resources and clean streams throughout the Township.
Two Recycled Estates
Several of the Township’s large properties have been saved for adaptive reuse. There seemed to be rivalries among some of the local railroad barons to see who could erect the most impressive castle.
The estate of Samuel Rea, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1913-1925) now serves as the Waverly Heights, a lifecare community in Gladwyne.
William L. Austin was President of Baldwin Locomotive Works. His property, is also a lifecare community, Beaumont at Bryn Mawr.
Two Modern Classics
Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept for Suntop Homes in Ardmore, was to be a prototype for affordable cluster housing constructed with inexpensive materials. This 4-unit dwelling was built in 1939, but the war blocked plans to develop more.