By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published October 16, 2002
It’s often the case that the converts are stronger proponents of something than the natives. That may be the case with William Morrison, although he came to the Main Line as such a young boy that he virtually qualifies as a native. Now he’s written a book, The Main Line, Country Homes, 1870-1930, which commemorates the estates of the Main Line’s past.
The Main Line certainly shaped him, more than his birthplace of Boston. Morrison moved from Boston to Radnor when he was 6 years old. He attended Episcopal Academy.
“If you weren’t doing well in public school, they figured they had to put you in private school,” Morrison said modestly. The school stoked his love of beautiful buildings.
“I loved the Main Line mansions, many of which were still standing when I was there,” he said. “I lived across the street from the Berwind Estate (in Radnor). Mrs. Berwind was a recluse and was from a family wealthy from coal. They provided all the coal to run the transatlantic liners.”
Upon graduating, he went on to Cornell University to attend its hotel school but according to Morrison, “it didn’t take.” So he transferred to DePauw University in Indiana. He studied in its theater program and then moved to New York City.
But after marrying, he lived most of the time in the Princeton, N.J. area. “My wife worked at Bonwit Teller in Jenkintown and when the kids were born, I was the one who stayed home with the kids in Plainsboro,” he said.
Five years ago he started working on his book on Main Line mansions. He had no formal training in architecture, but a long interest. “I might have gone more seriously into architecture except the schools were controlled at the time by the modern architecture,” he said.
“I was always more interested in the older material, and so when I was thinking about it, architecture didn’t interest me then because I didn’t think people would be interested in anything I would do.”
But having eschewed architecture because it didn’t fit with his view of what buildings should look like didn’t stop his interest in architecture. The more he learned, the more he preferred older styles.
So that led him to the history of the huge Main Line houses.
“I used a lot of the research facilities at Princeton,” he said. “Surprisingly, they had a lot of periodicals which had pictures from when these houses were first built and articles about the architects who built them and who the owners were. I picked up a lot of good information and images there.”
There were also a number of photographs which formed the foundation of the book. “Because we were trying to get as close to the house as it looked when they were completed, we were pretty well limited to black-and-white photography,” he said.
He moved to Red Hill in Montgomery County two years ago. “My wife died of leukemia, and I wanted to get out of that house,” he said. He holds a teaching degree from Rider College and is a substitute English teacher at Souderton High School.
The book that he created was based on popular books done in other suburban areas. “The format was kind of predetermined by books from other suburban areas, such as Chicago. So that was the core of the plan for the book,” Morrison said.
The basis of the book is culled from 500 houses. “We had room for maybe 100,” he said. “Most of those would only be in the catalogue in the back, with just a few featured.” To determine what houses made the book, “we certainly considered how important is the architect, the owner, and how many houses are there that look just the same,” Morrison said.
Then as now there were fads in houses, so few structures were architecturally similar. “If you put in one such house, they represented the others of that same style,” he said. “So the prominence of the owner did have some influence in those decisions.”
Then the attitudes of the editor and publisher had to be considered. “They had a great influence there, to get the best of a particular type,” Morrison said.
But to Morrison the essence was style and quality. “If the design speaks to you, and you can look at one house of a couple in the same style and you can immediately tell which is the better designed,” he said.
“The distinctiveness is what most appeals to me. Others are often just impressed by the size.” For example, Alan Wood built a huge Lower Merion mansion visible from his factories along the river in Conshohocken. “He did that because he was closer to Conshohocken and wanted his workers to feel as though he was keeping his eye on them,” Morrison said.
Morrison isn’t personally envious of many of the homes in the book. “In Lower Merion, there are very few houses in this book that I would have been comfortable living in,” he said. “You would need 10 servants to keep them up.”
Not coincidentally, “The one I was most fond of was the one which became the home of the Episcopal Academy in the 1920s and was used as their upper school,” he said. That building is now gone, victimized by structural problems and fire-code violations. Lower Merion Township wouldn’t let Episcopal use it without repairs, and that was simply too expensive.
“It was named Yorklynne and it was owned by a banker from the Colonial Trust Co. and a follower of a single-tax theory,” Morrison said. “He had a meeting room on the third floor where he would get neighbors together and lecture them on the program.”
According to Morrison, this wasn’t unusual, especially in the rim portions of the Main Line. Evidently it was socially acceptable to have a cause and support it. Sometimes that created an unlikely mix of hard-nosed businessmen and, well, artsy types. This amalgam was exemplified by the Cassatts, with one, A.J., a railroad baron and his sister, Mary, a liberal Impressionist artist who became a Paris expatriate.
“There were a fair number of artists and somewhat radical people [at Yorklynne]. It was much more liberal than further out,” he said.
In Radnor Township, Androssan, centerpiece of the last great Main Line estate, is his favorite. “It’s the one most preserved and has the aura of what it was then. It’s a little shabby now,” Morrison said.
“But what I miss most in the lack of land around the houses. Now when you’re three miles out of Philadelphia you aren’t in the country, you’re in Toll Brothers land. You have to get a really long way out until you’re in real farm country.”
His favorite house in the extreme western Main Line didn’t make the book. The house is West Acres. “It’s only a seven-acre estate, but I thought it was a lovely, simple arts and crafts house, probably 20-25 rooms,” Morrison said. “Many of the others houses on the Main Line were built to impress, not to be good to live in, and this one was not. Wilson Eyre was architect of this house, which belonged to J. Hampton Barnes. Unfortunately, the current owners wouldn’t let me take a picture of the house, so it isn’t in my book.”
The houses are organized in the book by periods, and it features a great many photographs, many of which are published for the first time in generations.
The best thing about the book, though, it the attitude of the author. “I really wanted to create a book that I wanted to have on my coffee table and to read, and that’s what this turned out to be,” Morrison said.