The Local Lens: Old Money Mansions
The life of Philadelphia’s wealthy and privileged classes can be fascinating to study. Take for instance one of Philadelphia’s most famous mansions, Ardrossan, the 50-room Georgian Revival estate in Radnor that was designed by Horace Trumbauer. The mansion was built for Colonel Robert Leaming Montgomery and his wife, Charlotte Hope Binney (Tyler) Montgomery, The couple moved in at the end of 1912. The home was named after the family’s ancestral Scotland home.
Built between 1911 and 1913, the estate became the inspiration for the 1930 Philip Barry comedy, “The Philadelphia Story”, later adapted to a film by the same name in 1940 starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Perhaps an even greater inspiration for the play and films was the personality and character of the Montgomery’s first daughter, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, who became what Vanity Fair Magazine called “the unofficial queen of Philadelphia’s WASP oligarchy.” In “The Philadelphia Story”, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott inspired the character of Tracy Lord, played by Katherine Hepburn.
The move of old Philadelphia moneyed families from the city to the suburbs had its start in the 1920s, according to Nathaniel Burt (The Perennial Philadelphians), who wrote: “The last Old Philadelphian townhouses were built around 1900, and from then on, fashionable city life was doomed. The 1920s saw the almost complete removal of upper- and middle-class Philadelphia from the city to the suburbs. … Meanwhile, in the bosky bumps and dells of the Pennsylvania countryside, up the rushy glens along the west bank of the Schuylkill as far as Valley Forge, out along the railroad tracks to Paoli, up the Wissahickon to Chestnut Hill…. Philadelphians from 1880 to 1930 built up their private dream world, a rural fantasy … of vast estates surrounded by miles of walls, with miles of driveway leading to great craggy mansions. …”
Ardrossan was one of those mansions. Colonel Montgomery was also a dairy farmer who raised a prized herd of Ayrshires. Later in life he took up aviation and had a hand in the development of a plane called the autogiro that he often flew to England.
Historians like to say how the family was always Episcopalian and “Republican by herd” but that they had “Democratic tendencies” in the arts. Colonel Montgomery was against prohibition. “The colonel was for drinking parties. To him, it was the equivalent of taking away his foxhunting,” wrote J. F. Pirro of the Main Line Times.
The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported in 1922 that “Miss Helen Hope Montgomery [later known as Hope Montgomery Scott], the very pretty daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Leaming Montgomery, is the one debutante who defends bobbed hair. … And when it comes to a question of husbands, the ideal HE must be tall, good-looking, good-natured; he must have a million. Breathes there such a man?”
Can you imagine such personal aspirations in the Riverwards?
At her coming out or debutante parties, Helen Hope Montgomery received a number of marriage proposals but rejected them all. Later, she would meet Philadelphia investment banker Edgar Scott.
Hope was a dazzling figure who danced with royalty and with Josephine Baker in Paris. Her society parties at Ardrossan were legendary. She also had another form of the Philadelphia accent, but hers was the upper class “lockjaw” manner of speaking that you’ll rarely hear being spoken under the Frankford El.
Thatcher Longstreth, in his autobiography, “Main Line Wasp”, recalls that “in the mid-to-late 1930s, I found myself plunged into an awesome — and, in retrospect, ludicrous — round of debutante parties. … During the year that a girl ‘came out,’ she and her friends might be invited to a hundred parties. That’s no exaggeration: A single wealthy debutante like Frances Pew, the daughter of Sun Oil’s chairman, J. Howard Pew, might be the guest of honor at four or five different parties…”
Another famous Philadelphia mansion, La Ronda, could easily be the title of an opera or symphony, or even a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. There’s certainly no foreboding element in the name, although the sad ending of the estate in 2009 when it was demolished by a developer was a tragedy that many preservationists attempted to prevent.
The story of La Ronda begins with the Foerderer family.
Robert Foerderer was an enterprising gentleman who invented a tanning process using chrome, which transformed goatskin leather into a soft and supple material. Robert married Caroline Fischer in 1881. The couple had two children, Florence and Percival Edward. At that time the couple lived on North Broad Street in North Philadelphia. In 1893 the family moved to a large estate in the city’s Torresdale section, formerly owned by Charles Macalester, a banker and close associate of Abraham Lincoln. The Italianate mansion, built in 1850, was once called “Glengarry” until the Foerderers renamed it Glen Foerd. Glen Foerd, unlike La Ronda, is still standing. At this time there are no developers with an eye to demolishing this beautiful estate on the Delaware.
Robert Foerderer’s tanning business continued to be successful until the onset of an illness, which made it necessary for young Percival to leave medical school and work for the family at an entry-level position. In 1908, Percival became president of the company. Percival married Ethel Brown (1885-1981), who hailed from a prominent Philadelphia textile manufacturing company, and they had three daughters, Mignon, Florence and Shirley. During the first year of their marriage the couple lived in Rittenhouse Square, but in 1929 they were ready to move into their Addison Mizner designed La Ronda in Bryn Mawr.
“In the 1900s the daughters of wealthy, influential and powerful Main Line families often spent their time being educated at prestigious private schools, entertained at swanky soirees and dazzling debutante parties and showcasing their equestrian skills at events like the Devon Horse Show and the Radnor Hunt,” wrote Kathy O’Loughlin in Main Line Media News. “As a successful leather merchant, Percival Foerderer was more than wealthy enough to provide all that and more for his three daughters. But they actually knew little of that opulent lifestyle, living an almost cloistered life, often hidden behind the gates of their magnificent Bryn Mawr estate that was home to the palatial 51-room LaRonda mansion.”
The Foerderers’ family life was not perfect because their daughter Florence was born with a form of dwarfism, which caused her parents a lot of embarrassment. Florence was just three and a half feet tall.
A doctor, who treated the Foerderer family, wrote that Florence’s arms and legs were very short. “She had a normal torso. Because of that, her parents were embarrassed about her and she grew up in isolation until she went to college. In fact, her sisters were also home-schooled and not allowed to have playmates to their house. With that large an estate, it was possible for the family to keep Florence hidden. The daughters were raised there and kept secluded from the world.”
Money, of course, cannot buy health, happiness, or even great height, although many believed that Florence was the brightest of the three daughters.
When Percival died in 1969, his family sold the estate to Villanova University. In March 2009, La Ronda was sold for six million dollars to an anonymous owner who had the estate demolished. The anonymous owner was later identified as Joseph Kestenbaum, president and chief executive of ELB Capital Management. Sadly, the Lower Merion Historical Commission could not raise the funds to save the building. Preservation efforts were so intense that Benjamin Wohl, a Florida real estate developer with an appreciation of Addison Mizner’s work, offered to buy La Ronda and move it to Florida, saving Kestenbaum some $300,000 in demolition costs. The deal was rejected, and La Ronda was destroyed on October 1, 2009.
The destruction of La Ronda remains one of Philadelphia’s major historical preservation tragedies.