Past Perfect

Profiles on some of the more compelling players in the ongoing battle to keep history alive on the Main Line.

(page 4 of 8)

Ardrossan for the Ages

The majestic estate is the subject of an upcoming book.

Around here, eyes have always been on Ardrossan. Then. Since. Now. Forever, perhaps. Maybe more than any other, the iconic mansion and bucolic estate is the epitome of the Main Line. 

The 50-room Georgian Revival manor was named after the Montgomery family’s ancestral home in Scotland.Although nearly half of its original expanse of some 750 acres has been sold or donated in recent years, what’s left remains the largest contiguous block of undeveloped land in Radnor Township’s 14 square miles. An oddity, Ardrossan remains a rarefied retreat symbolic of the region’s slackening hold on open space.

“If a person had a boundless amount of money, could they recreate Ardrossan?” asks Media’s David Nelson Wren, an independent scholar and writer. “Maybe you could rebuild the house, but you could not recreate the land.”

Aside from the 50-room Georgian Revival manor named after the Montgomery family’s ancestral home in Scotland, Ardrossan was once a working dairy farm. The estate included 28 structures, many of them historic. During World War II, it was even outfitted for air raids. “It was a place you could head if the Nazis bombed,” says Wren, who recently finished a manuscript about the estate and its owners—the high-society family made famous in the Oscar-winning 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. “It’s quite phenomenal.”

The estate’s first occupant was Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery, founder of the renowned investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott. After he married Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery, he hired architect Horace Trumbauer, who designed many of the region’s famous estate homes, along with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When work was completed at Ardrossan, the ceilings were 13 feet high, a foot taller than similar-period Main Line homes. The dining room easily accommodated 30 guests.

“It’s so very rare to see a place so perfect, so preserved. The furniture is all still in the same places from when Mrs. Montgomery died in 1970. Her china is still in the cupboards,” Wren says. “I’ve tried to capsulate this before it could possibly be lost. Hopefully, it won’t be. The family wants to maintain it—but how?”

Ardrossan was left in trust to four Montgomery children. Since then, those families have grown. “It’s a lot easier to preserve something when there are four people involved rather than 50,” says Wren. “The family is together, and they’re very amenable. They’re not arguing, but they still have to pay taxes. And the upkeep is incredible.”

The family was supportive of Wren’s book, particularly the venerable Bobby Scott. But when he took ill and died in 2005, Wren thought the book would die, too. “It was at his funeral where I was cornered by several family members, who said the book had to be finished,” he says.

Wren socialized with the family, earning unfettered access to its records. What began as an architectural digest quickly became a social history. “I sat in that third-floor [linen room turned family archives] and fell madly in love,” he says.

Bryn Mawr photographer Tom Crane is still shooting all-season images for the book, but the recession has kept publishers away from what figures to be an expensive and glamorous project. “Not glamorous because of all the parties held there, but because of the landscape,” says Wren, who is scheduled to speak on Ardrossan at the Radnor Memorial Library on March 16. “You can’t help but see the glamour—even if it’s just the cornfields. Ardrossan always had the highest and best corn.”

In 2008, Villanova painter George Rothacker spent the summer at Ardrossan creating nine pieces as part of a Radnor Conservancy art auction event. Living less than a mile away, he’d painted the estate before, but only from the road.

The owner of an advertising agency and design studio in Media for 30 years, Rothacker began to focus on Radnor Township in 2000 and has since amassed 120 works. He’s just finished a likeness of the Narberth Theatre in time for the monthlong Preserving the Heart and Soul of America show that opens Jan. 4 at the Shipley School’s Speer Gallery.

Edgar “Eddie” Scott III, a ninth-generation scion of the Montgomery, Scott and Wheeler families, wouldn’t discuss the property’s future for this story. But slowly, over the decades, the property has been subdivided. In 1970, Radnor Township used $300,000 in grant money to buy 93 acres for what became Skunk Hollow Park. More recently, two parcels totaling 293 acres were sold to individual owners as lots ranging from 10 to 25 acres. Chanticleer Garden also bought a chunk to protect its views. Various other proposals have come and gone, or lie dormant as a result of the economic downturn.

“I’m sure [Ardrossan] will continue to have a presence in some form,” says Ted Pollard of the Radnor Community Preservation Coalition. “It forces everyone to be real creative, but will the decisions be in the best interests of everyone? It’s such a large tract that bad decisions could have a disastrous effect.”

In size and prominence, Ardrossan is the Titanic of Main Line real estate. The original structure—Orchard Lodge on Abraham’s Lane, the wedding-gift home of Edgar and Hope Scott—dates to 1720. Col. Montgomery’s granddaughter Joanie Mackie’s Godfrey Farm on Godfrey Road includes one structure dated 1689 and another built around 1742.

“Let’s just hope it all doesn’t end up at the bottom of the ocean,” Wren says.

Inside Ardrossan

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