Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Public Won't Believe It

In 1940, when Philadelphia businessman Edgar Scott offered George Cukor the use of his wife's family home to film "The Philadelphia Story," Cukor declined. "The public," the director explained, "would never believe Americans lived that way." Designed by Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938) and completed in 1911 for Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery (1879-1949), Ardrossan was, and amazingly still is, the apotheosis of the grand American country estate with a British accent. Trumbauer, known for his palaces, gave the client a scholarly Georgian Revival house, upon which Col. Montgomery gave White, Allom & Company, favorites of the British royals, the contract to decorate. And it's all still here, the last of the truly great Main Line estates still intact and in private hands.

It is the genius of the American social system that our social classes are so navigable. Col. and Mrs. Montgomery's daughter, Hope Scott (1904-1995), seen below at a party in Palm Beach dancing with the Duke of Marlborough, became the embodiment of "old money." But that money was actually only one generation old, having been made by her investment banker father. Mrs. Scott's mother, nee Charlotte Hope Binney (1881-1970) was a banking heiress, which didn't hurt. But American money doesn't really have to be old to ensure advancement on an accelerated schedule.

And they advanced with such good taste, and so photogenically too. Here is Col. Montgomery in his middle thirties, posed in hunting clothes in the ballroom of his new house on the Main Line. The English themselves couldn't have been more English than the grand folk of the Main Line which, as many of my readers well know, is that lapidary string of suburbs extending west out of Philadelphia along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Clubs, boarding schools, fox hunting, debutante balls, houses in town, plantations down south, they checked all the boxes. Who originally cooked up the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)? Answer: people describing the Main Line.

Hope Montgomery Scott, posed below in her father's ballroom beneath a portrait of herself by Augustus John, was a firecracker. She led a full and fabulous life, madcap and responsible by turns, but is best remembered as the inspiration, if not the exact model, for Tracy Lord in "The Philadelphia Story." Before it was a movie, "The Philadelphia Story," by playwright Phillip Barry, was a hit on Broadway. Scott's husband Edgar (1899-1995), grandson of Pennsylvania Railroad President Thomas A. Scott, was an aspirant writer himself. He and Barry met as young men at a summer writers' workshop and became lifelong friends. (Barry was a groomsman at Scott's wedding; Scott was a pallbearer at Barry's funeral). That friendship had inspired Barry's play, which led to Katherine Hepburn's purchase of screen rights (funds provided by boyfriend Howard Hughes), then Scott's offer of Ardrossan as a film location, and finally Cukor's amusing refusal.

I wish people would let ivy grow on houses the way they used to. I do not buy into this nonsense about houses falling down because of an ivy-precipitated lack of mortar between the bricks. Col. Montgomery lived in this house until 1949, and his widow until 1970, but it is their daughter Hope, dubbed by "Vanity Fair" as "the unofficial queen of Philadelphia's WASP oligarchy," who is most associated with it. Interestingly, Hope and Edgar Scott didn't live in it at all. Like many estates, Ardrossan (the name comes from an ancestral village in Scotland) had many other houses on the property, among them Orchard Lodge, into which the newly married Mr. & Mrs. Scott moved in 1923. Even today, encompassing only 350 of its original 750 acres, the Ardrossan estate still contains thirty separate residences of varying grades of elaborateness, occupied by descendants of Col. & Mrs. Montgomery and employees on the property. Also onsite are a dozen carriage houses, six barns and a garage designed by Horace Trumbauer. When the colonel's widow died in 1970, Hope & Edgar Scott were disinclined to leave Orchard Lodge, where they'd lived for almost 50 years. A younger sister, who lived with her mother during the latter's last years, stayed on in the big house until her own death in 1981. A cousin lives on the second floor today.

Here I am at the main gate to Ardrossan. I wouldn't call my own circumstances humble, but they are certainly not in this league. It is refreshing to learn - not just from what I read, but from personal, albeit brief, experience - that Ardrossan's architectural splendor is associated with a very nice group of people. On the Main Line, the Scotts entertained everyone from Averell Harriman to Cole Porter. Elsewhere on the globe they partied with princes, danced with cabaret singers and dined aboard yachts with heads of state. Mrs. Scott, a perennial on New York Couture's "best dressed" list, was a major fund-raiser for the Bryn Mawr Hospital. At her husband's 95th birthday, his mind and body failing fast, she toasted "the man who made me shine."

Ardrossan, while not as big as Whitemarsh or Lynnewood Halls, Trumbauer's Philadelphia area palaces for E.T. Stotesbury and P.A.B. Widener, has the virtue of still standing (unlike the first) and (unlike the second) possessing its original furniture. Ardrossan is administered by bankers on behalf of a family trust and used, as far as I can tell, as a sort of family club for private events and celebrations.

The south facade enjoys a fantastically bucolic view, unexpected to say the least, since we are exactly ten linear miles from 30th Street Station in downtown Philadelphia.

The kitchen/service court is at the western end of the house. That ungainly modern addition on the left, constructed in the early 1980s, is a private entrance to the second floor, which hasn't been structurally converted into a separate apartment but is used as one.

Time for a look inside.

The first floor plan is similar to what you'd see in many big old houses, the difference being scale and the addition of various bells and whistles, notably a ballroom. The Hall, not to be confused with the Long Hall, is really a drawing room, but one of such scale that I'd assume less formidable visits would take place in the library. The Hall, interestingly, is bigger than the Ballroom which, in between big dances, is furnished like another grand drawing room.

Here's the Long Hall looking east to west. The door on the left goes to the dining room, which we'll visit in a moment. The next door leads to our next stop, the Hall, notable for a footprint the size of a suburban house and twin marble fireplaces ornamented respectively with portraits of Col. and Mrs. Montgomery.

How nice to see an old library in a grand private house - no ropes, no "interpretative" plaques, no well-intentioned but faulty furniture placement, no misfires on replacement curtains or rugs. This one is just the way Mrs. Montgomery left it - glass-doored bookshelves, damask wall coverings, bronze statuettes, portraits of ancestors, silk lamp shades, silver framed brides and all. The needlepoint upholstery on the very good looking furniture was done by the lady of the house herself, a veritable Penelope awaiting her Odysseus.

A door on the library's north wall leads to the Ballroom, photographed by Mattie Edwards Hewitt in the 1930s, and by John Foreman in 2015. We have two different styles, Mattie and I. You could easily be dizzied by the catalogue of important portrait artists whose works adorn these wall, so I shall simply dispense with them all. The Ballroom at Ardrossan brings to mind a Christmas party I recently attended at the Russian consulate in New York. The Russians own a house designed in 1903 by Carrere and Hastings for a Vanderbilt husband named John Henry Hammond. The piano nobile was recently restored with impressive workmanship by imported Russian craftsmen, coupled with a wild misunderstanding of the dangers of excessive gold leaf, courtesy of an Auric Goldfinger from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. The point being, a little gold goes a very long way and informed restraint, as illustrated in the images below, is so much more elegant.

My very hospitable hosts were David Nelson Wren and Joan Mackie. Ardrossan was Joanie's grandparents' house.

Just outside the Ballroom is Col. Montgomery's study, a small room to which Trumbauer has infused architectural largeness. Besides cranking out money, hunting foxes and developing one of the finest country estates in America, Col. Montgomery was an aviation buff. Each season his private plane ferried the family back and forth between Ardrossan and a South Carolina shooting estate called Mansfield Plantation.

The view below shows the Long Hall, this time looking east. That's the entrance to the front vestibule on the left. We're headed for the dining room at the end of the hall, detouring first into a small powder room located beneath the main stair. The toilet here bears a most discomfiting brand name. Outside the powder room is a pivoted bullseye window with convex exterior ironwork, the sort of detail that makes me love old houses.

According to photos in a 1915 issue of "Country Life in America," the floor to ceiling mahogany paneled dining room hasn't really changed in a century. The elegant bell pull, unlike so much else in the house, doesn't work.

A stone porch immediately east of the dining room functioned as a breakfast room. The mirrored doors were originally glazed, providing a second exposure and 100% more light. They were blocked by construction of the exterior staircase which, in a perfect world, would be demolished sooner rather than later.

The porch and the dining room are both connected to the serving pantry, which is connected to the kitchen, which is connected to the servant hall, all of which are in thrillingly original condition. The kitchen walk-in is comprised of several chilly little rooms.

Down a short flight, opposite the main stair, is a men's shower and dressing room, in case you got muddy chasing the fox.

Here I must make a departure from my normal Big Old Houses tour. The second floor of Ardrossan is a family member's home, full of dogs and children and personal clutter which I was asked not to photograph. There have been a few changes to the plan - a pair of guestrooms combined, a bathroom glamorized in the 1930s - but overall it remains essentially as built, with grand rooms and lots of heavy moldings.

Out of delicacy, we took the service stair to the third floor, threaded our way through a coil of corridors, admired superior servants' rooms, and emerged finally on the family landing.

Ardrossan is big on long halls and here's another, running down the spine of the children's floor on 3. There have been times in the past when people lived up here too, much as they do on the second floor today.

There is an elevator (of course) and a main stair (not taken), so it's back to the servants' stair.

I couldn't leave without looking at the basement, which was vast and clean and contained a very large wine cellar without a single bottle.

After her mother's death in 1970, the irrepressible Mrs. Scott took over the operation of Ardrossan's dairy farm which, until 1952, had had its own local milk route. After that the farm sold direct to Wawa, a convenience chain whose odd name won't ring bells outside the mid-Atlantic states. Mrs. Scott was chairwoman and/or honorary chair of the Devon Horse Show and County Fair until the end of her life. She is seen below astride a bull on Opening Day. She died in 1995 after a crack on the head suffered in a fall at Ardrossan. She got right up, refused medical attention, and died a day later as a result of bleeding in the brain. Her husband of 72 years died four months later.

What can I say about change that isn't a cliche? When Mrs. Montgomery died in 1971, about 400 acres of the estate were sold for residential development. The aesthetic impact was ameliorated somewhat by the size of the lots, all of which were over 20 acres. Mrs. Montgomery left Ardrossan to her 4 children, but since that date there have been children of children, and more children of children's children. Some of the heirs live on the property, but many more watch from other places as proceeds from trusts in which they participate disappear into the ravening maw of Ardrossan. Happily, all concerned agree the place is too valuable to perish. The solution appears to be more minimal development on the perimeter of a large protected acreage, the main house remaining in family hands on 10 acres. We've all seen fine old houses with hideous McMansions flanking both sides of former driveways, squatting in former gardens, sometimes spang in the middle of former front lawns. I don't think that'll happen here, but I was grateful to have seen Ardrossan before anything happened at all.


  1. "Knick-knacks, grimcracks, signed photographs. Wouldn't you know you'd have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this!" - Ruth Hussey in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940).

    Absolutely fascinating! Thank you, John.

    Hope Montgomery Scott was indeed a "firecracker". She always gave good press to the Philadelphia media. I remember an interview with her during which she was wearing a sweater festooned with large, plastic flowers purchased at J.C. Penney or some such.. It turned out the teller at her local bank branch was wearing the same sweater one day and Hope admired it. The teller purchased one for Hope, which delighted her, and she proudly wore it. The lady was no snob.

    I hope the family continues to find a useful role for such a storied house.

  2. That kitchen. Oh, that kitchen. Even in the 21st century, that kitchen (for me) is the stuff of dreams...

  3. another great tour, thank you! my first apartment (on beacon street in brookline) had a bathroom not unsimilar to the loos shown here. though my toilet wasn't labeled, "prompto" it could've been.

  4. I really do admire the Servant's Hall. It's tall windows are outstanding. What a grand room and it's location affords a commanding view of the main entrance to this magnificent egalitarian home. Many a servant's hall are tucked away as an afterthought attached to the kitchen but not this one, its front and center.

    The fact of family living ''upstairs'' is both interesting and unusual. If I were visiting this home, I would want to be quiet and tippy-toe around so as not to disturb the family above. Its one thing to visit an empty house but something quite different to visit a home where people are actually living.

    Overall this home is magnificent in all ways. Add to that the fact that the main house is more or less surrounded by genuinely occupied ancestral homes gives the whole estate an atmosphere of real warmth.

  5. what a GREAT house-! :-) i want to move into that blue-papered room with the fireplace on the third floor.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. We lived in Devon in the 1970s, and I was in awe of this place even though you couldn't really see the house from the road. We'd drive around the roads on the property perimeter, marveling at the beauty and wondering about the houses within. By then, much of the Main Line land had been subdivided into individual lots and the grand old landscape was mostly gone. It didn't last long, did it? A few decades, really. Today, very little remains and I know Androssan acreage is being chipped away even as we speak. I've so longed to see the grand house and am so grateful for you providing this tour.

  7. What can I say, stepping inside these beautiful homes is my idea of heaven. And to see one "in situ" so to speak is really a treat. It's astounding it's lasted this long. Someone made some smart investments somewhere. Thank you John for another great post. See you next Thursday!

    1. Its so cool that John gives us entre to homes, many of which, we would never get to see in a hundred lifetimes. Sometimes I would love to feel the carpets beneath my bare feet.

  8. This building is crying for it's cloak of ivy back…Thank you for the tour!

  9. I loved "Philadelphia Story", not least because Henry Daniell, a favorite character actor whose own pedigree made him at home in the clothes and sets as well as the role, appears in it at his sneering, snobish best. In real life he loved dogs, and one is certain he would have cheerfully shared the chairs and sofas with wooly canine friends. This wonderful survival has a happy atmosphere of "children, dogs and clutter" one would expect of the real Tracy Lord and her tribe. How good to know she and her beloved husband enjoyed it together for so long, and that their legacy of love for the place endures.

  10. Amazing blog and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!

  11. How refreshing it is to see a Trumbauer design not adulterated by neglectful owners or damaging renovations. The fact the original family still owns the property is a minor miracle. Hopefully they continue to tenant and curate the residence and grounds for years to come; it would be a tragedy to lose such an architectural gem. Thanks for sharing your tour of it with us!

  12. One minor error: the main train station in Philadelphia is 30th St (recently renamed " William H. Gray III 30th Street Station" after a location politician) not "Union."

  13. At hat indoors? Amazing

    1. Not to do with content here, but hopefully a way to get your attention.... If you look down beyond the last legitimate content, you will find about 10 spam entries from people who don't care about your article as I do, but just as a place to find space to push their spam and scam sites.
      Just as I find it offensive to see beautiful, historic home sites cluttered up with those grotesque McMansions, I definitely find the tail end of entertaining and informative comments cluttered up with this nonsense. I'm sure once you read this, you will deal with it appropriately, and remove them!
      Thank you so very much for this wonderful home tour, with its link to my favorite 40s movie!

  14. How can I follow your blog. It is fantastic. Help.
    Melinda Bennett

  15. "the last of the truly great Main Line estates still intact"
    Hardly. The estate was approved for subdivision last year, with the family selling part of it to the town for $15MM, and 70 lots for McMansions. The scheme allows the family to keep their houses while being paid to preserve their views. Nice.

  16. My one complaint is that they've knocked down walls on the second floor. I know it probable does make for easier living, but I'm a huge Trumbauer fan and that just seems sacrilegious...

  17. I definitely dream about going to this party place again. The live music at party halls in Bay area was an added bonus, providing a backdrop for the fun hours spent imbibing, tasting, and chatting up with the breweries and beer distributors.

  18. I think my one complaint (besides knocking down the second-floor walls and that awful modern addition; those just shouldn't have happened) is that they've replaced the arched windows on the first floor with those flat ones with the white strip filling in the extra arch. That just doesn't look right.

  19. What a splendid tour of a spectacular home. I knew Mrs. Scott for about four months at the end of her life and when I read her obituary, I cried. She had an ability to make you feel like she was telling you a state secret when touching your elbow and sharing a bawdy joke. She once told me that every morning "Before my feet hit the floor, I ask myself; How much fun can I have today?" Thank you for the wonderful tour as well as your terrific blog. KH

  20. Thank you for this tour. I worked for a catering company the summer between high school and college (1985) and we did a KY Derby fundraiser for the hospital here. I have very strong memories of the living room/hall and the half bookshelves in the library where the party was staged and spilled out onto the terrace and lawn, where we'd set up tables. At that time everything was in a state of genteel shabbiness. I also remember the dining room where we had our pre-party meeting and learned of the connection with Phila Story, the butler's pantry where we staged hors d'oeuvres, the stone breakfast room, the powder room under the stairs, the main hall and the basement dressing room where we ate before the party. Mrs. Scott sat on the lawn in a folding chair overseeing everything, but not participating. I think of it almost every year at derby time and just bought the book. Nice to see it restored, hope it will be a museum some day. I wish I could say I remembered the needlepoint Mrs. Montgomery stitched and the paintings.

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