Lower Merion Historical Society

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Rich Men and the Castles

By Phyllis C. Maier

Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years, Chapter 109
Edited by Jean B. Toll and Michael J. Schwager
Published by The Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies (Norristown, 1983)


The building of the great houses of Lower Merion began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Many of officers of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Works built homes along the Main Line for summer or year-round use, apparently rivaling each other for the largest and most impressive estates. The railroad company had to buy farms between Haverford and Rosemont and so could ensure the quality and size of the lots sold north of the new tracks. It built the Bryn Mawr Hotel (now the Baldwin School) for summer visitors to encourage use of the railroad. This building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Among the railroad’s presidents were George B. Roberts (1880-97) of Bala-Cynwyd; A. J. Cassatt (1899-1906), Haverford; James McCrea (1907-13), Ardmore; Samuel Rea (1913-25), Bryn Mawr and Gladwyne, and Martin W. Clement (1935-51), Rosemont; also Edmund Smith, first vice-president, Villanova; and William A. Joyce, general freight agent, Rosemont. Many others had associations with the railroad. Wayne MacVeagh, the principal attorney of the railroad, for instance, lived in Gladwyne. Alba B. Johnson, who became president of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1910, purchased Castana (built by William Joyce on Montgomery Avenue in Rosemont in 1894). In 1980 it was the abode of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus across from Rosemont College. In 1881 William P. Henszey, also a proprietor of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, built his home Redleaf on Lancaster Avenue in Wynnewood. It was designed by Furness and Evans. The dark gray stone house featured a stone piazza and porte-cochere, a brick and frame tower, and a large semicircular window rising the full height of the building. The carriage house was still in use in 1982.

Soon successful merchants such as the Clothier family of the Strawbridge and Clothier Company established handsome estates with fine houses.

Isaac Hallowell Clothier was representing a wholesale cloth dealer while Justus Strawbridge was running a small store in the 1860s. They both had Quaker backgrounds and much in common when together they rented a house for the summer in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where their young families could be in the country air. There were five Strawbridge sons and nine Clothier children. The two men agreed to become partners and joined forces in 1868. The firm’s business, based on honest merchandise, cash only, and fixed prices, flourished. Buildings were added at locations adjoining the original store at Eighth and Market Streets. By 1887 the store had increased its departments to fill a five-story building.

Isaac Clothier built Ballytore near Wynnewood Station, a stately four-floor Victorian mansion featuring a square English tower, flanked by a more aspiring oriel tower. This substantially built structure was used by the Agnes Irwin School from 1933 to 1961, and then remodeled for the Armenian Church of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob. Mr. and Mrs. William Clothier built on a portion of this Wynnewood estate. Another son and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Clothier, Jr., developed the elaborate Sunnybrook on fifty-seven acres at the west end of Lower Merion Township and extending into Upper Merion, between Montgomery Avenue and County Line Road. Morris L. Clothier’s Clairemont, with 161 acres, a stunning white mansion with classical columns and other Greek details, was perhaps the most imposing of all the Clothier homes. Located at 1860 Montgomery Avenue, Villanova, it has been the central building of the Northeastern Christian Junior College since the college opened in 1959. Selkirk, the home of Lydia B. Clothier and her husband John Rogers Maxwell at 711 Mount Moro Road in Villanova, has also found a new purpose as the Faith Presbyterian Church. Organized in 1964, it joined the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1970s.

Henry C. Gibson, a real estate developer and the son of the originator of a whiskey-distilling company later bearing Henry Gibson’s name, engaged George W. and William D. Hewitt to design his home Maybrook in 1881. It was built on the former Owen Jones estate on a site with a long, straight pathway between trees leading to Wynnewood Station. Henry Gibson’s interest in horticulture led to the planting of oaks, maples, and pines and other evergreens on the former farmland. Huge rhododendron plants surround the well cared for lawns and stream and still afford only a glimpse of the secluded house.

Maybrook was built of stone with a light red slate roof and the crenelated towers and bartizans of a medieval Scottish castle. It was finished in 1881 but had later additions including a library reputed to have cost $125,999. Its two-storied ballroom had elaborately ornamented carved stone pillars, arched windows, and a cathedral like vaulted ceiling. The original property contained sixty-seven acres, but after it passed to Gibson’s daughter, Miss Mary K. Gibson, the corner at Wynnewood Road and the railroad tracks was sold for the Thomas Wynne apartment building, enabling 220 more families to enjoy the woodsy grounds. The house has remained privately owned.

The Henry C. Gibson Company provided funds for another of the most impressive mansions of the area, Rathalla . This, the home of Joseph Francis Sinnott, was completed in 1891 on gently sloping land on Montgomery Avenue in Rosemont. It was designed by the architects Hazlehurst and Huckle, in an ornate French baronial style that greatly impressed those passing by on the Main Line trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Featuring circular and hexagonal towers at the corners, it was built of gray stone. White marble outlined the variety of windows and wall surfaces, pinnacles, balustrades, and gargoyles. In the interior a three-story light well, directly above the immense fireplace in the central hall, provided both light for the lower stories and a sense of extravagant spaciousness well fitting the dazzling exterior

Since 1922 Rathalla has been the centerpiece of Rosemont College, a Catholic college for women. It was accepted on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Joseph Francis Sinnott was born in Ireland in 1837. He embarked for America in 1854, expecting to join an aunt and cousin in Charleston, South Carolina. Unfortunately, both had died during a yellow fever epidemic and he remained in Philadelphia, where he joined the counting-house of John Gibson’s Son and Company as assistant bookkeeper. After organizing a new branch in Boston, he returned to Philadelphia in 1866 as a partner in the entire Gibson business, which came to be the most extensive of its kind in the United States. When Henry Gibson retired from the firm in 1884, it was carried on by Sinnott and Andrew M. Moore under the name Moore and Sinnott. With Moore’s death in 1888, Sinnott became the sole proprietor. Sinnott had purchased Henry Gibson’s home and property in West Philadelphia, extending from Walnut to Locust Street and from Forty-second to Forty-third. When Sinnott moved to Rosemont in 1891, he maintained a townhouse at 1816 Rittenhouse Square. He and his wife, the former Annie Eliza Rogers, raised nine children.

Joseph Sinnott’s life was associated with many activities of the Catholic Church and the city of Philadelphia. He was a manager of St. Charles Borromeo Theological Seminary, St. John’s Orphan Asylum, St. Francis Industrial Home, and others. He was a director of the First National Bank of Philadelphia and a number of historical, genealogical, and archaeological institutions, as well as a member of exclusive local and city clubs.

Two of the most ostentatious estates in Lower Merion were built by the heirs of men who started metal industries. Alan Wood, Jr., was the grandson of James Wood, who founded an iron rolling mill in Conshohocken in 1832. James’s son, Alan Wood, continued in the iron business, and Alan Wood, Jr., became president of the huge Alan Wood Steel Company in West Conshohocken when steel production was undertaken.

He built Woodmont in 1892 on a site that held a commanding view of the Schuylkill and the steel company on the other side. This French Gothic chateau, designed by William L. Price, took four years to complete. It was built of stone quarried locally with white limestone trimmings, high-peaked red tile roofs, and varieties of levels, towers, terraces, chimneys, and porches. The large porte-cochere is roofed over with an elaborate balustraded porch. Woodmont Farm contained 100 acres of the 400 contiguous acres belonging to the Wood family. Exterior ornamentation features elaborate hand-carved stonework abounding in figurines and trim, while the interior displays the paneling, railings, and decorations also devised by the skilled craftsmen brought from Europe for the purpose.

Mrs. Wood thought the house was too isolated and sold the property to a nephew, Richard G. Wood. In 1929 it was sold to J. Hector MacNeal, a corporation lawyer known also for his horsemanship. In 1952 Woodmont was purchased by the Peace Mission Church as a home and headquarters for its leader, Father Divine. It then consisted of seventy acres. The property reflects the extraordinary care it has received. It is a master-piece of formal gardens, wooded hills, a pond, a lake, and streams.

Percival Roberts, Jr., born in 1857, joined his cousin, Algernon Roberts, in operating the Pencoyd Iron Works, which had been founded by his father, another Percival Roberts. The small firm grew to sprawl a mile along the Schuylkill while Percival, Jr., was advancing from clerk to general manager, to vice-president, and to president of the company. When Pencoyd merged with the American Bridge Company in 1900, he was made president of the new firm.

The property had been in his family for eight generations, having in part been settled in 1683 by John Roberts, who with his future wife, Gainor Roberts, was on the first ship from Wales to America. The land was used as a farm by succeeding generations, each improving and often enlarging it. By 1963 the land had become immensely valuable and impractical for farming. Another Gainor Roberts sold the original house and estate to Martin Decker, then president of the Decker Corporation Research Laboratories.

The Penshurst estate , considered Lower Merion’s most lavish, was started by Percival Roberts, Sr. In 1860 he acquired 160 acres in the present Penn Valley. At his father’s death in 1898, Percival Roberts, Jr., inherited this land, which was later extended to 571 acres. He announced that he would build a house and a conservatory, each to cost $50,000, but the total amount for the seventy-five-room mansion was thought to be well over $3 million. Boston architects Peabody and Stearns were selected, and George F. Payne and Company of Philadelphia was given the contract to build it. Roberts had decided to use an Elizabethan style, and the architects were dispatched to England to study such houses as Longleat and Hardwick Hall. Much of the wood and ornamental hardware were antique, imported from England. Floors were teak. The magnificent mansion, built high on a steep hillside, was visible only from a small gate on Conshohocken State Road. Its banks of bay windows were outlined with white, as were the quoins, the tops of walls, and the banisters of the graceful stairs descending on either side to the fountains and pool below. The house, perfectly reflected in the pool, faced southwest over spectacular gardens, with colorful rock plants and specimen plantings filling the rising hillside.

Percival Roberts, Jr., and his wife, the former Betsy Wolcott Frothingham of Boston, were married fifty-seven years. Sadly, their two children died while still very young. They lived here with a staff of fifty to take care of the house and farm. Percival was much respected in his role as farmer. He kept a prize herd of Ayrshire cattle imported from Scotland, as well as pedigreed Berkshire hogs, chickens, and sheep. The cows and bulls were so guarded that he isolated imported animals for a year to be sure that no infection could be transferred to his current stock.

In 1939 the township decided to build an incinerator, whose smoke might be seen from Penshurst. Roberts opposed this unsuccessfully. He then had the mansion demolished by a wrecking firm for $1,000 and its contents sold at auction.

Percival and Betsy Roberts spent their last years in hotels. She died in 1942 and he a year later.

Oil also played its part in Lower Merion wealth. Joseph Newton Pew, a self-made man, had grown up on a farm in a family of ten children. From real estate he advanced with a partner to be president of the Peoples’ Natural Gas Company, supplying Pittsburgh with oil and gas. At twenty-five in 1886, after oil was struck in Beaumont, Texas, he began building a refinery at Marcus Hook, the beginning of the Sun Oil enterprise. When this was completed in 1904, he moved his family to Bryn Mawr, his wife and their five children, Arthur E., Sr., J. Howard, Joseph Newton, Jr., Mary Ethel, and Mabel Anderson Pew, later Mrs. H. A. W. Myrin.

In 1908 he purchased Glenmede, a 16.6-acre estate on a high hill at Old Gulph and Morris Roads. It was planned by the architect William L. Price, and built for George S. Graham in 1904. This vast mansion of late Victorian Gothic design was built of dark multicolored brick, one of the first brick houses in the area. White shutters and white stone offset the different roof elevations, the many windows, the three northern extensions, and the large balustraded terrace overlooking the streams and opposite hills. It was occupied for many years by Miss Ethel Pew; after her death the Pew Trust gave it to Bryn Mawr College in 1980, and it became the Glenmede Graduate Center.

J. Howard Pew, Joseph’s second son, was thirty when he was made president of Sun Oil Company after his father’s death in 1912. His record was also remarkable. Born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1881, he acquired a degree from Grove City College at age sixteen and a second degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at eighteen. Four years later, in 1904, working with assistants, he developed petroleum asphalt. During World War I when German U-boats were sinking United States tankers, the Sun Shipbuilding Company was established under his leadership, and during World War II forty-one million barrels of 100-octane aviation gasoline were delivered for Allied planes. After Eugene Houdry was brought into the firm, Marcus Hook became the first large-scale commercial catalytic cracking plant, producing Blue Sunoco, the first unleaded high-octane gasoline.

Under J. Howard Pew’s regime Sun Oil volume was estimated to have multiplied forty times. He remained the president until his sixty-fifth birthday in 1947, when he continued as chairman of the board, and remained a director of Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company until his death in 1971. He was well known for his generosity to charitable causes, and for his interest in Grove City College, the Presbyterian Church, and the Republican party.

His home Knollbrook in Ardmore was one of the great showplaces of the area. Beginning with a very simple brick house on a four-acre tract, he purchased two nearby mansions, Lynhurst in 1937 and Ballyheather in 1951, and sixty-five acres of the most desirable land on the Main Line. Deeds in Norristown list Mr. and Mrs. Pew as purchasers in at least seventeen sales and ten agreements between 1917 and 1951, and as participants in numerous transactions among members of the immediate family.

The architect of be original brick house has not been identified, but little of its original design remains. Over the years Knollbrook became a handsome Georgian mansion. Under William Woodburn Potter as the architect, the brick house was more than doubled in length, the imposing entrance pavilion added, and the rooms enlarged and embellished, carrying out the Georgian motif on both the interior and exterior.

Renovations over the years added a swimming pool, extra rooms, extra garage space, a flagstone courtyard, changes to the driveways, and constant improvement to rock gardens and other plantings; meanwhile, Pew was adding to the acreage.

The original Knollbrook house had been built by an earlier entrepreneur, I. Layton Register (1842-1913) for his son Albert. Layton Register who owned a tract of 107 acres, including the Pew land, which had belonged to a client, Sam Croft, a miller. Croft had been obliged to sell at sheriff’s sale. At some distance above where Knollbrook was to be built, the Registers had built their own home, Lynhurst, in 1884, a great Victorian palace typical of its architects, Furness, Evans, and Company.

Even this tract had its connection with the men of the flourishing railroad business. The Registers’ daughter Louise married Matthew Baird III, the son of one of the first organizers of the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Register had given her 5½ acres still higher on the hill, where Baird built Grey Range in 1899, selling it in 1908 to James McCrea, then president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who enlarged the house, acquired adjoining land to bring the estate up o 34.9 acres, and renamed it Ballyheather.

After Howard Pew died, the two houses were sold with the main estate in 1973 to Richelieu Custom Builders, who divided it into about fifty generous properties, which were sold gradually.

Another fine estate was La Ronda , the home of Percival E. Foerderer, which had consisted of 233 acres when Wayne MacVeagh purchased it from John Y. Crawford, a farmer, in 1881. Then named Brookfield Farm, it was bordered by Conshohocken State and Spring Mill Roads, and Morris Avenue, an irregular line defining its southern border. MacVeagh, mentioned above as a lawyer with the Pennsylvania Railroad, was well known for his humorous writings. He became attorney general of the United States under President Garfield. He was also minister to Turkey and ambassador to Italy. Even when elsewhere, he regarded Brookfield Farm as his home until his death in 1917.

Percival Foerderer had owned a Mediterranean type home on Merion Avenue in Merion and chose Addison Mizner, a Palm Beach architect, to design La Ronda in the same style. Replacing Brookfield Farm, the house was built on a steel frame instead of the usual concrete. Its builder, John W. Cornel, Jr., in his History of a Philadelphia Builder (Philadelphia, 1974, p. 21; pp. 9 and 10 in photograph section) describes the house as

stucco on cast stone trim placed all around the solid bronze windows and doors. We cast the stone on the site, including the elaborate floral designs…. Wood forms were used for the major moldings for the floral work. Baking soda and rock salt coating on the forms produced the desired weathered stone surface and texture, while color and water were added to the concrete mix.

Completed in 1929, it has a pinkish tone and Italianate square and round towers with crenelated turrets of fortress like design. Particularly designed gardens, especially the natural woody area at the stream, enhance the fine home. Of its fifty-one rooms, twenty-one are bedrooms.

In 1908, at the age of twenty-three, Percival Foerderer had taken over the leather-manufacturing business founded by his grandfather, Robert A. Foerderer. The firm pioneered in the manufacture of Vici Kid for shoes. He discontinued the company in 1937, devoting himself to his other interests as a trustee of the Land Title Bank and Trust Company, U.S. Leather Company, Pennsylvania Forge Company, Philadelphia Bourse, and Pennsylvania Mutual Life Insurance Company, of which he was made chairman of the board. He was also chairman of the Board of Trustees of Jefferson Medical College and Medical Center, and he served many Philadelphia health organizations. In 1962 Percival and Ethel Foerderer created the Percival E. and Ethel Brown Foerderer Foundation devoted to education, medical research, and charitable needs. They were the parents of three daughters. Foerderer died in 1969, twelve years before his wife. The Foerderer Pavilion of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital was named in his honor.

Between Foerderer’s death and 1981, his Gladwyne estate was almost constantly in the headlines. He had sold it to Villanova University in 1969 for $2.9 million, to be used as an investment by the university. Later prospective purchasers of the tract included the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, for a planned residential development of 403 single homes; the Foerderer Tract Committee spearheaded by Edwin K. Daly, for single homes; Lower Merion Township, for a possible golf course or school; Montgomery County, for future park land or other uses – each proposal for varying amounts of land on varying terms. The house, La Ronda, was sold to Arthur Gallagher in 1972, but foreclosure followed.

Investigations of Edwin Daly’s involvement led to one hundred civil suits against him, as well as charges of conspiracy and perjury. Once the heir to the Horn and Hardart fortune, he lost all his property and was disbarred from practicing law.

In December 1974 Sandra Schultz Newman, a Narberth attorney, was appointed receiver for Daly’s personal possessions, and in August 1977 she was made liquidating receiver. The final owners were Nicholas Martel and Harold Davis of Realty Engineering Company of Wayne. They purchased the 153 acres for a reported $3.5 million from Sandra Newman and obtained PRD zoning (planned residential development, which authorizes clustering houses in groups so that a percentage of the land can be retained as open space). The Wayne company was the first in the township to take advantage of this new zoning. In 1981 it started to build 107 townhouses on ninety acres of the tract, while the rest of the land was being developed for individual houses.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century the Clifton Wingates estate has had four owners, exemplifying changing sources of wealth and life styles. Designed by the firm of Price and McLanahan on a choice piece of land (192 acres) overlooking Mill Creek, and then named Dipple , it was built for William C. Scott at the end of 1903. When J. Crosby Brown, a wealthy financier, acquired it next, the Price and McLanahan firm made alterations in 1914. After Brown’s death in the early 1930s the land was divided into several large estates and handsome mansions, now barely visible from Crosby Brown Road.

In contrast to homes that have now found uses as schools, churches, and other institutions, Clifton Wingates has remained a private home. It next belonged to Eugene Houdry, a French chemist who chose the name Le Mesnil, the Little Farm, for the house. Houdry owned it from 1937 until his death in 1962. His neighbors brought zoning infringement charges against him for using his garage for manufacturing purposes. Actually he was conducting experiments like those that had led to his discovery of the catalytic cracking of oil into gasoline and the first unleaded high-octane gasoline, Blue Sunoco, which Sun Oil placed on the market in 1927. J. Howard Pew, the president of Sun Oil, had brought him from France to work at the plant, and perhaps Pew helped Houdry find such a fine home so close to his own.

The next owner of the house was Mike Douglas of television fame. He conducted a talk show that had originated in Cleveland in 1961 and was nationally syndicated two years later. He moved to Philadelphia in 1965 and conducted the Mike Douglas Show. He added a swimming pool to the property.

In late 1979 Teddy Pendergrass, a black “soul singer, ” purchased the estate. By the age of thirty he had to his credit five platinum records (for topping the million mark in sales) and had earned nationwide stardom. His application to Lower Merion Township, subsequently granted, for authority to split the thirteen acres (on which his house now stands) into three properties was strongly contested by the half dozen or so neighbors who also lived on Crosby Brown Road. Unfortunately a tragic automobile accident in March 1982 may have cut short his career. “Teddy Bear” was his popular nickname among his many women adorers. The mansion, which had been decorated with handsome mahogany furniture by the Crosby Browns and with French antiques by the Houdrys, was now filled, according to Ebony magazine in 1979, with three hundred to four hundred stuffed teddy bears, all gifts of his devoted followers.

Phyllis Maier
Local Historian