Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Big Old Houses: The Public Won't Believe It

The Public Won't Believe It
by John Foreman


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 their home of almost 50 years, called Orchard Lodge. 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 Union 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 comprises 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.

Hope Scott astride a bull on Opening Day of the Devon Horse Show and County Fair.
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 here 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.
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