Publisher’s Son. Early in 1892, when his only child was 11, Walter Lippincott (son of noted Philadelphia publisher J.B. Lippincott) began the purchase of his 20-acre summer estate on Fishers Road in Bryn Mawr, between the Wheeler and Fisher estates.
Part of the Lippincott property near the corner of Pennswood and Fishers roads included the Lovell farmhouse which was later enlarged and named Greenway. A concrete walkway wandered through specimen trees between Greenway and the service buildings on the Avon Road end of the property.
During the war, Greenway was the site of frequent large parties for wounded servicemen held by Lippincott’s daughter, Mrs. Stricker Coles. Mrs. Coles won the Gimbel Award for helping the wounded and founding the United Service Club in Philadelphia during World War I. About two years before our involvement in World War II, the 50-room mansion was demolished.
Alscot. Lippincott named the mansion house, Alscot, after Alverdiscott (pronounced Als-cot) in County Devon, England, where the Lippincott clan had been living since the 16th century.
Walter Lippincott’s vast Main Line estate also included a guest house he named The Annex. East of the main house was a cluster of 13 buildings: dog kennels, garage, stable, carriage house, tool house, duck house, two hen houses, a greenhouse, a laundry/workshop, a power house (used for heating the main house, still standing), Colony Cottage (still standing), and Hillside Cottage (where foreman Hatton lived). Two other buildings across Avon Road remain: Sunnyside Cottage and Haven Cottage.
Daughter’s Marriage. In 1908, Walter and Elizabeth (Bessie) Trotter Horstmann Lippincott’s only child, Bertha, married Dr. Stricker Coles. Their wedding reception was held at Alscot. The couple lived next to her parents on Walnut Street in Philadelphia (a common wall joined the two residences) but at some point the family gave up city living and made Alscot their main home. Summers were spent at Jamestown, Rhode Island (favored by the wealthy Philadelphia Quakers over Newport) and on their yacht.
The Annex. Nestled at Alscot’s back door, this was the guest house used for parties. In 1932, Dr. and Mrs. Coles’ son Walter and his bride, Frances Sadtler, spent their honeymoon night at the Annex and lived there for three years. They subsequently moved with their toddler into Greenway for a couple of years until a new stone house, Colesbrook, was built for them on Avon Road.
- The women who were always at home were never idle, because they always had fruit to be canned and stored away or jellies to be made. Another thing they had was rhubarb; they made pie from it. Everybody had a little bed of rhubarb because rhubarb came up every year. It was no trouble at all.
- Fathers who worked around the countryside in the farms came home in late afternoon and when they’d had their dinner they worked in their own gardens. They didn’t have anything to listen to or watch, or anything. And so this became a real nice type of place where everybody was friendly with everybody else.”
This mansion is truly a Main Line legend, both for the scale of the house and gardens and because of the manner of its demise.
Beginning in 1890, Percival Roberts began amassing farmland in which is now Penn Valley and Gladwyne. By 1898, he had accumulated 539 acres. He had also significantly increased his fortune, leading the Pencoyd Iron Works through its evolution as the American Bridge Company to make it the leading supplier of steel for bridge construction in the country.
By 1901, it made the next profitable leap, merging with the giant U.S. Steel Company, with Roberts becoming one of it directors. Soon after the merger, Percival and his wife Bessye began to plan their house.
They drew on the architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns of Boston, perhaps because Bessye was a Bostonian, or perhaps because families like the Da Costas and Biddles in Philadelphia had already employed this talented partnership.
The newspapers argued over just what inspired the 75 room house…Fontainebleau? Hampton Court? Sandringham? Probably it had elements of each, including a strong dash of Hardwick Hall and Longleat.
The reception hall was marble; the floors were teak. A great balcony surrounded the hall. Much of the interior paneling was antique, brought from England. Newspapers speculated on cost…millions many thought, but it would appear from Roberts’ secretary’s notes that $525,000 for the basic structure was more the reality.
But that was just the beginning. The house had to be decorated and furnished. An electric generating plant was built along Mill Creek. Landscape architects, the Olmstead Brothers, had to lay out miles of drives and create the great screen and gates along Conshohocken State Road which looked up the hill past fountains and terraces to the house and beyond, capped by an impressive brick water tower at the highest point of the land.
Millions were undoubtedly spent. The house, when completed, was the centerpiece to a vast working farm where dairy barns for the Ayrshire herd were immaculately maintained, with veterinarians on staff, and dozens of farm workers.
But while Penshurst may have fulfilled a role signifying both business and social prominence, it never was used to its fullest. The Roberts did very little entertaining. Sadly, their sons died at an early age probably of scarlet fever or dipthera. Thereafter, Percival and Bessye led quiet, relatively unpretentious lives considering the luxury of their setting, and seem to have found their greatest pleasure in the gardens and farm.
The legend continues. By the late 1930s, Mrs. Roberts was quite ill. Roberts commented on how nobody could afford to live in a house like this anymore. He grew increasingly angered as he heard of plans for an incinerator whose tall smoke stack would be in his view. Although he tried to block it, he was not successful. When the incinerator was built in 1939, they moved to a large suite at the Bellvue Strafford Hotel in the city, where live-in nurses and servants attended to their needs.
That year Roberts filed for a permit to demolish the house. He made good on his threat, first selling interior paneling and the artwork, but leaving elements of the garden… summer houses, fountains and gates.
At his death in 1944, the land and his estate were bequeathed to the Roxborough Hospital and the Children’s Seashore Home. The hospital in turn sold it to Home Life Insurance Company, whose owner for many years maintained the Japanese rock gardens, a favorite place for a Sunday stroll by Lower Merion residents.
In the 1950s and 60s, much of the land was developed; Welsh Valley School was built. Today all that remains are the gates along Conshohocken State, a large mid 19th century house and several farm buildings and outbuildings.
John O. Gilmore’s
In 1900, City Avenue was still an unpaved country lane.The road itself had only been re-surveyed in the mid 1850s to more exactly determine the boundary between Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Moving south from the Schuylkill River, the road was lined with farms and some new large estate houses.
William L. Price had been one of the principal architects for the builders Wendell and Smith at Overbrook Farms in the mid 1890s. Known as the “Quaker architect,” his practice was entering a phase that included more large residences, with many being located in Overbrook and Merion.
The Snuff King. The largest house by far at this time was Yorklynne, designed by Price in 1899 for John Odgers Gilmore. A Philadelphia native and educated in the public schools, Gilmore was a member of the firm of W.E. Garrett & Sons, the largest snuff manufacturer in the world.
At the turn of the century, Philadelphia was the largest, and one of the most diverse manufacturing centers in the country. Fortunes could be made in products ranging from snuff, men’s hats, umbrellas, to steam locomotives.
Gilmore planned a move from a modest speculative home in Wayne and launched a competition for architects, a rare custom. Many of the top names in the profession competed, but Price’s eclectic blend of European medieval styles won. The house is said to have cost more than $200,000, but with the designer’s decorative arts program for the interiors (including furniture designed by Price) the cost was certainly greater.
Stylistically, the exterior was similar to his other designs, with coursed rubble stone contrasting to the carved limestone trim. Flourishes such as gargoyles, an immense red tile roof, and terra cotta fleur de lis gave it a French flair.
A House of Crafts. The interiors were a museum of the craftsman’s and artist’s work. The paneled 20 x 40 foot living hall created an Elizabethan impression. All through the house there was a vibrant mix of contemporary arts set off against furniture and interior architecture that had medieval overtones. This was consistent with the Arts and Crafts movement, also contemporary, that looked back towards a guild system and handwork as a contrast to the mechanization appearing everywhere at the turn of the century.
The upstairs contained a large living hall and suites of rooms for for Gilmore, his wife, and children. Topping off the interior was a huge open room under the roof. Jack Gilmore, grandson of John Gilmore, said that his father had especially enjoyed roller skating around the large room.
In his later practice, architect Price was promoting the ethic of craft work (he would be co-founder of an artist’s colony in Rose Valley), his office was at the forefront of modern building technology, as in his reinforced concrete Jacob Reed’s Sons store in Philadelphia and the Blenheim and Traymore hotels in Atlantic City.
In 1921, seeking to reduce its debt by selling its building on a valuable Center City lot, the Episcopal Academy purchased the entire property for $225,000 and moved the school to the suburbs.
For most of the 50 years the school occupied the building, it served as the Upper School. It was demolished in 1973 after a new consolidated building was constructed behind the Latches Lane mansions that housed the Lower and Middle Schools. Yorklynne was one of the last of Price’s great ecletic houses, and certainly was the centerpiece of the grandest estate on City Line.
Percy Hamilton Clark (1873-1965) was descended from the Clarks who emigrated from England to Boston in early 1600s. His family had long resided in Germantown. A successful lawyer in Philadelphia, Percy married Elizabeth Roberts in 1904. Elizabeth was one of five children of Pennsylvania Railroad president George Brooke Roberts and his wife Elizabeth (Pyle Williams) Roberts. George was a descendant of one of the first settlers in the Welsh Tract, John Roberts, who settled in 1683 on a grant of land from William Penn. That became the family estate, Pencoyd, in Bala.
In 1908, Percy and Elizabeth Clark received property on the Roberts tract along Belmont Avenue. They commissioned a cousin, architect Clarence Clark Zantzinger, to design their home, to be called Willoughby. The gracious residence would eventually hold their growing family (eight children) and a large staff (houseman, cook, scullery maid, waitress, governess, a nurse, chambermaid and others).
They also built a handsome barn and chauffer’s cottage because this was to be a working farm: seven cows, one horse, and 400 chickens. Two gardeners, a farmer, and a driver added to Willoughby’s retinue.
John Clark remembers his parents as a “perfect team.” Father: patient, thoughtful, dedicated, an enthusiastic outdoorsman; Mother: outgoing, energetic, humorous, dedicated to others, and a good executive who not only ran the large household, but was an involved, loving mother. “There were never any serious ‘tiffs’ among us eight. We were very involved with our many Roberts cousins who lived nearby. There is still a strong bond between those who remain,” John recalls. Percy Clark, determined that his six boys should learn how to handle money, established a paper corporation, The Clark Brothers Chicken Co. Every day, after returning from the Montgomery School, the boys gathered eggs from the barn, which were then delivered (by the chauffer) to the neighboring relatives and friends.
In 1951, the estate was sold to The Mary J. Drexel Home. A tribute to Mary J. Drexel Lankenau by her husband, John, the facility provides a unique caring residence for older adults. It is part of the social ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.