|Big Old Houses: Ars longa, vita brevis
by John Foreman
You've probably wondered for years how the Main Line suburb of Bala Cynwyd (pronounced 'BAL-uh-KIN-wid') got its name. Well, maybe you haven't, but I have. Bala and Cynwyd started out as separate hamlets, their names conjoined long ago, a la Buda and Pest or Peapack and Gladstone. They were located in the easternmost part of the so-called "Welsh Barony." In the late 17th century, William Penn sold 40,000 acres bordering the Schuylkill River just north of Philadelphia, to a group of Welsh investors, one of whom was named John Roberts (1683-1724). Together with his land-subdividing descendants, Roberts had a penchant for Welsh names. This is where Bryn Mawr and Bala Cynwyd come from, not to mention streets like Llandrillo, Clwyd, Rhyle, and Llanberris, all of which surrounded Pencoyd, the ancestral estate of clan Roberts.
Just as Abraham begat Isaac, who begat Jacob, who begat Judas, etc., etc., so John Roberts begat Robert, who begat John, who begat Algernon, and so forth, eventually creating an immense Roberts family tree. In 1871, on one the many limbs of that tree, the artist Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, seen in the photo above, was born to George Theodore Roberts (1838-1921) and his wife Sarah Cazenove (died 1900). Clan Roberts was not simply land rich. In 1852, George's father Algernon, together with his Uncle Percival, founded a specialty iron works called the A & P Roberts Company.
|The firm soon morphed into the Pencoyd Iron Works and Bridge Company, a leader in the design and construction of iron bridges. United States Steel absorbed the firm in 1902, making members of the Roberts family even richer. George Roberts probably had a trust or two of his own; certainly he lived like a trust fund kid. Part of that life was spent in New York, but in the summer he and his wife removed to the fashionable Catskill Mountain colony of Onteora Park. Roberts hired a Renaissance man named George Agnew Reid (1860-1947) to design the highly picturesque house seen in the images above and below. It was finished in 1892.|
|George Reid was a Canadian citizen who painted murals in public buildings, won medals at World's Fairs and Exhibitions, chaired Ontario College's art department, and was a founder of the Toronto Art Gallery. Somehow or other, he found time to design the occasional house, two of which are in Onteora Park.|
|Onteora — a lovely sounding word, isn't it? — was, until our Dutch cousins came along, the Native American name for the Catskills. Onteora Park was organized in 1883 on a picturesque mountainside immediately north of the fading village of Tannersville. It was intended from the start to be an artists' colony — not for starving artists, either.
Founder Candace Wheeler (1827-1923), the feminist power behind the Society of Decorative Art, and her rich wholesale grocer brother, Francis Thurber, built picturesque summer places, founded a swell club — the still extant Onteora Club — and basked together in the companionship of a literal "Who's Who" of the era's artistic types.
Do you know who Richard Watson Gilder was? or Carroll Beckwith? How about Mary Mapes Dodge or Maude Adams? I didn't think so. OK, Mark Twain visited too, and I know you've heard of him. The others, plus a score more, spent mornings at Onteora busily creating, and evenings busily schmoozing with one another. If Tuxedo Park was a place for the very rich, Onteora was supposedly for the merely rich. It was and still is remote and beautiful, and has always had about it a whiff of the exquisite.
|The Roberts house used to be called Napeena. It is today called Nehapwa, a name derived, according to the owners, from Iroquois words meaning "to find again." I'd call the name change an improvement. In the wake of George Robert's death at age 83, the advertisement below appeared in a 1921 issue of Country Life. The studio building, illustrated adjacent to the text at lower left, was purposely built for Roberts' artistic daughter Elizabeth, or Elsie as she was known.|
|In 1889 at the age of 18, Elsie Roberts left New York to study painting overseas, first in Paris, then in Italy. No doubt she periodically visited her parents and used the elaborate Onteora studio, however, she was a permanent resident in Europe until 1899. Her name inevitably appears on the list of Onteora luminaries you've never heard of, but truth be told, she didn't leave much of a mark here. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that in 1900, the same year her mother died, Elsie fell in love with Grace Keyes, a Massachusetts golf champion with whom she spent the rest of her life. Grace's extended family welcomed and encouraged the relationship, but Elsie's own father did not. Grace and Elsie spent summers at a New Hampshire farm Elsie inherited from her late mother. Other artists used the Onteora studio; Elsie apparently did not.
Jeff Summer and Tom Uberuaga operate Nehapwa, which is in what we call "mint condition," as a romantic 4-room inn. Let's take a look inside.
|The heart of the house is beyond these doors — a sort of triple hall, double height in the center, flanked by a pair of lower-ceilinged spaces north and south, all of which open onto a long porch overlooking the mountains.|
|Jeff is on the left, Tom is on the right.|
|The view below looks south from the center hall. The glass door from the southern hall is one of several that opens onto the porch.|
|A door from the southern hall leads to a library on the southwest corner of the house. This is a summer house in the mountains, full of simple brio in lieu of serious woodwork.|
|The open door from the center hall leads to the porch. How about that view?|
|Inside the porch door to the right is the northern hall, connected by a swing door to the kitchen.|
|The original kitchen suffered successive "improvements" during the darkest days of American architecture — namely the '60s, '70s and '80s. The kitchen today, though entirely new, is compatible with the house's original architecture.|
|Jeff is in the adjacent pantry, also new, also compatible.|
|Let's return to the entrance hall and take the stairs to 2.|
|A gallery surrounds all four sides of the center hall. A corridor leads south to a pair of guest bedrooms.|
|Every bedroom has it own fireplace, access to an outdoor porch, and a modern, faintly European looking bath. The minute I saw these guys, I knew the rooms would be tastefully decorated.|
|A den borders the eastern side of the center hall gallery.|
|From the den on the east, the gallery leads to a pair of bedrooms on the north.|
|Between the north bedrooms is a service corridor that connects stairs from the kitchen to a flight leading to former maids' rooms on 3.|
|The top floor is Jeff and Tom's apartment; the old trunk room is a walk-in closet, the porch is private.|
|Time to head outside and explore the studio.|
|The image above shows the studio during its salad days in the early years of the 20th century. The image below shows it today, midway in an architectural rescue operation. Studio or no studio, Elsie Roberts had little interest in her late father's Onteora estate. The property was sold after his death to New York Times managing editor, Carr van Anda. After he died, a New York City sleepwear czar named Elias Seyour bought it. Seyour is the man credited with popularizing the sweatsuit. The present owners bought it from Seyour heirs in 1999.|
|Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts was a prolific and widely exhibited painter, co-founder with Daniel Chester French of the Concord (Mass) Art Association, and lifelong sufferer from depression. After being diagnosed with "melancholia" in 1925, her doctor recommended she give up painting, advice that led her to hang herself in 1927. She was 56 years old.|
|Pencoyd Iron Works, which so enriched the Roberts family, didn't survive the Great Depression. The ancestral Pencoyd mansion, however, lasted until 1964, when it and its entire superblock lot were leveled and entirely paved over for the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center. The adjoining Church of St. Asaph, dedicated, according to wags of the past, "to the glory of God and the convenience of the Roberts family," still stands. So do many fine old neighborhood houses, at least once you get a little off City Avenue.
Onteora Park is, as of 2003, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Would that I had someone to spend a weekend with at Nehapwa; it's a really romantic place. The link is www.nehapwa.com.