By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
If there is anything for which the world knows the Main Line, it’s the mansions.
From 1880 to perhaps 1930 the newly rich built huge mansions to honor their unbelievable wealth. Author James Michener caught the spirit in a 1950 article in Holiday Magazine. “Life in the golden era was just about perfect, if one had a lot of money. The winter was spent in Florida. ln summer a few families moved to Newport, hut most preferred the
more sedate and rural life of Bar H arbor. Most families kept a city dwelling in Philadelphia’s famed Rittenhouse Square. And the rest of the time they lived in their palaces along the Main Line. These massive and sprawling homes were fabulous,” he said.
But these mansions were the product of the Pennsylvania railroad in more ways than one. The tracks created a transportation route to Philadelphia, and when regular passenger service got efficient, the appeal of the rural areas could be fulfilled. The first people to build there were the railroad tycoons officers of the Pennsylvania Railroad and their wealthy friends.
“It began on the main Line because the Main Line became accessible from Philadelphia,” says Jim Garrison, a local architect and historian. “The first people that really came out here were the executives from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the associated companies, such as the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the various steel companies and they all lived near each other, and actually on land they got from the railroad. As the railroad fine-tuned its right-of-way, it bought up farms and sold off the left-over land at first to executives then to developers and speculators,” he says.
The area was still bucolic, but the industrial growth had affected it, for the most part negatively. “But farming had pretty much tired itself out. There were a few old families, but this was not really the place to be,” he says. “Even in its denuded state which you see in the old photographs, there were no trees, there was nothing the hills and the streams and the valleys still made it a very pretty place.”
It wasn’t that the Main Line had been abandoned. “There were some old families out here, like the Roberts on City Line, who had always been there. The Evans family in Haverford had been here forever, but they did have an interest in the railroad and they brought out people like Cassatt. So most of the lot of the industrialists and entrepreneurs had risen up from the ranks in the city or were from elsewhere,” he says.
The new Main Line wasn’t created by those who were already there, it was created by this latest group. They were an immigrant group coming into the Main Line much like other earlier groups had, although these immigrants were more escapees from the city, and of course, they were extraordinarily rich.
“This was their reward for being successful. They could afford to leave the factory behind. “But they did mix well with Quakers a lot of the land was still in Penn’s Land Grant. But the Quakers as a group seemed to be very good at mixing in and sometimes even moving out of the way,” he says.
“The original Quakers, if they were still wealthy, had that wealth in land. “The Roberts, for instance, became wealthy because they had the foresight to invest in a lot of industries when they were very young. The Roberts were heavily involved in the iron industry, which became the steel industry,” he says.
“George Roberts then bought into the Pennsylvania Railroad, and became, I think, the third president of it,” he says. “You can’t underestimate what a force the railroad was in this area, and even nationally,” he says. “The Pennsylvania Railroad was really preeminent,” he says.
In its heyday the mansions were almost all built with railroad money. “In one way or another the were tied to the railroad. If you look at Grey’s Lane in Haverford, that was the Evans’ land. Clement Griscom had 150 acres. There was Cassatt, and a whole series of people who are directly or indirectly tied to it,” he says. “Either through the banks or the company’s that provided the steel or rolling stock or shipped on it,” Garrison says.
That began to change when other wealthy people decided to join the railroad barons. “Probably in the late 1880s to 1890s others came because at that very time is when you began to have the middle and upper middle class developments in Wayne. It’s interesting to see that the real suburban development that you associate with of a modern suburb happened either in Wayne or in Overbrook,” he says.
Originally the estates were just summer houses, but technology changed that. “The greater reliability of the transportation and that the city was really becoming a much less pleasant place to be. Rittenhouse Square was the place to live, but just up on Spring Garden Street was the Baldwin Locomotive Works with 30,000 employees, and the associated dirt and noise” Garrison says.
“The initial idea was to get away in summer, for health reasons, and then it eventually became year round,” he says. The developers and speculators built hotels to get the wealthy out of the city during the summer hear, a definitely unhealthy time when people who could get away did.”The period of the hotels was incredibly short, I think the Bryn Mawr Hotel also most from day one was used by the Baldwin School in the off season, and pretty much ceased operating as a hotel around the turn of the century,” he says.
The dynamics of this group was very narrow. “It was largely a combination of the Quakers, the Scotch Irish a pretty Waspish crowd,” he says. “A lot of this was because they were very inbred and clubby. These people were all directors of each other’s companies. Also, the access to capital to create these companies didn’t happen in a marketplace like we have now, it was from friends,” he says.
So for many members of that “club” in Philadelphia, you had to have a place on the Main Line. And they quickly went from summer home to primary residence. For one thing, they could get to work quickly. “The commute was a fast or faster than it is now,” Garrison says.But the cars weren’t filled with junior account executives and lawyers aiming for to be the newest partner. They were filled with those partners, their bankers, their clients their neighbors and social equals.
One reason for this is cost. The steam trains that ran from the Main Line suburbs were expensive, especially compared to that other new people hauler, the streetcar. “There was a major difference in attitude between streetcar suburbs versus steam-train suburbs,” he says. “There’s a whole separate hierarchy. If you look at the Elkins Line that ran out towards Willow Grove, for instance, their riders were middle class,” he says.
These were the lions of industry, living lives better than any monarch in history. They and their families were insulated in a way that is impossible today. Their children went to the same schools, the same colleges, socialized in each others homes, married each other and probably never met anyone not of their class who wasn’t a servant.
The women had no need to question the price of anything they wished to have. With complete control over their time, they did find good works to accomplish. They weren’t evil people, but there were definitely two sets of social rules, one for their kind and one for the rest of the world.
These were the most competitive of America’s industrials. They weren’t born to the money, many were middle class, usually well educated, often as an engineer instead of as bankers or lawyers. Much of their wealth came from the lack of control on industry, and the amazingly cheap cost of labor relative to possible profits. Fortunes were so immense that they belied belief. That left the tycoons with more money than they could possibly spend, although many spent millions attempting to one up each other.
But the income tax changed those fortunes. No longer could they just grow and grow. It was the signal of the end of the era. It took huge staff to maintain these places, 10 to 30 in the house and perhaps 30 to 50 more grounds keepers,” he says. “There’s a great story of a later president of the railroad who had everybody out to his gentleman’s farm and served them milk. They asked why they weren’t getting champagne, and he responded that the milk cost more,” Garrison says.
Another part of the phenomenon was that these people may have had a lot of money but that didn’t necessarily convert to a lot of taste. What they built was often designed to impress, or followed the latest fad in architecture. Not only that, most of these mansions remained in families for only a short time.
“One of the reasons so few survive is that these were for the nuevo riche. It was first and second generation money. There are practically no examples of a second generation that lived in the same house,” he says. “The almost always moved elsewhere, but they didn’t want the dark pile that there father built, they wanted something colonial or newer and brighter,” he says.
But all has gone now. Not just the houses, but for the most part the families. In the later part of the nineteen century they bought these large parcels sometimes hundreds of acres but they lasted for one or maybe two generations.
Between the application of income tax, The stock market crash and new costs for businesses social and safety programs that came about because of the New Deal, the great fortunes were in decline.
“Of the of the great houses built between 1880 1920 perhaps five to 10 percent are left. Of the newer perhaps 30 or 40 percent: with a significant number are an institutional use,” Garrison says. Even many of the families are gone. “There are very few left here. It seems they’re disappearing. There was always something about these families that they keep to themselves. The ones that are around you don’t notice and the rest have moved on.”
But many of the mansions remains, albeit in different form than when they were built. Probably the most enduring is one of the few that remains as a great estate in private hands. That also makes it the most important, in one sense, because it remains as it was a century ago and has not evolved or been torn down as the rest have.
That is Maybrook in Wynnewood. “What is so incredible is it still has 50 acres of land in Wynnewood and is still a private house,” he says. It was built for Henry Gibson the father of Gibson gin.
“The other survivor unfortunately is getting carved up now, and that’s Ardrossan in Radnor Township “it was assembled by the Montgomery family in 1870s and when it was owned by Hope and Edgar Scott was 600-and-some acres until a couple of years ago. Hope Scott, of course, it remembered most for being the model of Katherine Hepburn’s heroine in the movie The Philadelphia Story.
Clement Griscom’s Dolobran
Dolobran was an evolving mansion built by architects Furness and Evans from 1881 and 1895. During this time, there was constant construction, as the plan and variation of styles shows.
Much of the change came about because Clement Griscom had a large and growing collection of Old Master and late 19th century paintings and wanted in insure that it could be housed properly in the mansion. 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.
Over 15 years the Dolobran estate grew to almost 150 acres. Containing 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.
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.
Alan Wood, Jr.’s Woodmont
Alan Wood, Jr. was the grandson of James Wood, who founded an iron rolling mill in Conshohocken in 1832 and became president of the huge Alan Wood Steel Company.
A towering ego, who named both his business and his home after himself, 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. His house, Woodmont, would become they archetypical owner’s mansion above the mill visible to all the poorly paid and overworked employees.
Wood commissioned 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. He stretched the series of buildings across the ridgeline, beginning with the barn, a lodge and then the manor house, using locally quarried stone. This roof is the tallest peak of a small mountain range consisting of turrets, gables and tall chimneys. It is truly a precocious building for a 30 year old architect, no doubt encouraged by a client who didn’t mind ostentation.
Wood’s widow 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 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 Mother Divine as The Mount of the House of the Lord it is a part of Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement and serves as its spiritual headquarters.
In 1998, Woodmont was designated a National Historic Landmark. 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 battlements of Isaac Clothier’s Ballytore made the Wynnewood residence a castle. This towered stone fortress of a house by architect Addison Hutton bristled with a turrets, topped by what appear to have been a sentry gatehouse at each comer.
On 60 acres that had been Henry Morris’ Maple Grove farm in Wynnewood, 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. Morris 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.
The Agnes Irwin school was located there from 1933 until 1960. In 1963, following some structural changes, Ballytore was converted into Saint Sahag & Saint Mesrob Armenian Church.