10 Architectural Wonders on the Main Line

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Jeffrey A. Cohen considers himself “a curious visitor” on the Main Line, if not a distracted driver. He can’t help but admire and study the area’s array of architectural wonders, particularly between Lancaster and Montgomery avenues, as he travels from his home near Philadelphia’s Italian Market to work at Bryn Mawr College.

It’s what Cohen does best. In addition to dozens of publications and presentations, he’s co-authored Frank Furness: The Complete Works, The Architectural Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Drawing Toward Building: Philadelphia Architectural Graphics, 1732-1986. He's currently the term professor of architectural history and urban form in Bryn Mawr’s “Growth and Structure of Cities” department.

One of Cohen’s current research projects focuses on the urban center, specifically the panoramic street views and cadastral maps of major 19th-century cities. A second looks at residential architecture of the emerging Victorian suburb. He also leads a project called “Places in Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia,” an iconography and tool kit designed “to better connect people with the history of their environment.” Bryn Mawr and Haverford College students are working together to build the online resource.

For this month’s story, Cohen initially begged off, explaining that his eye is usually tuned to the 19th century more than the 18th or 20th, and that he still clings to “the crooked ladder of Lancaster and Montgomery avenues like an uncertain swimmer keeping close to the line of buoys.” He calls his route to work a journey through  “an alien, disorienting land of disconnected roads,” versus “the gridded regularity of the city.”

Ultimately, curiosity got him. “This is something I like doing, noting places that visually engage one’s curiosity, prompting questions,” says the Boston native. “This is my journey to work, so it’s pretty easy to be curious.”

And fat chance we were letting him off the hook without sharing his picks for the Main Line’s most eye-opening architectural gems. 

But first, some historical background: A half-century after the “Main Line of Public Works” legislation of 1826 reached westward from Philadelphia, suburban settlement began in earnest. The Pennsylvania Railroad-built hotels attracted the city’s elite in summertime, and clusters of vivid cottages started to dot the areas near the stations. The latter soon became year-round suburban homes for commuters. Toward the turn of the 20th century, many grew to a manorial scale and adopted a fictive venerability, as if clients were telling architects, “Make my money look old,” says Cohen.

That generation imagined and commissioned large country houses on expansive acreage for future generations of family. But by the Depression, the families had mostly demurred and moved—often to Chester County. “This place became too close to the city, and owners wanted to be even farther out,” Cohen says.

Many of these now “white elephants” were sold to schools, while others were razed and replaced with apartment complexes or parceled into speculatively developed subdivisions. Some survived. Even along Lancaster Avenue, Montgomery’s more commercial sibling, Victorian houses rise behind the shops and restaurants that have claimed former lawns.

Now, let’s take a (snowy) ride through time and place.

By J.F. Pirro//Photos by Tessa Marie Images

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