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The Ardrossan Estate: Last surviving gem of the Main Line, a 'Philadelphia Story' looking for a future

The old Main Line is almost all gone, but the Ardrossan Estate in Villanova, mansion of the Montgomery family, stands. The Main House is exquisitely preserved, and despite continuing development of the surrounding acres, both house and land have a pristine, inviting quality.

Joan Mackie smiles when recalling family stories in her late grandparents’ estate, Ardrossan, in Villanova.
Joan Mackie smiles when recalling family stories in her late grandparents’ estate, Ardrossan, in Villanova.Read moreMargo Reed

The Ardrossan Estate, in all its ironic beauty, hits you as you come up the winding drive.

The first thing you pass is a realty office and some model houses. That speaks of how this once-nearly 800-acre-plus estate has shrunk and been subdivided. Tastefully, but it's happening.

Then you clear a rise, are released into undulant hills punctuated with copses of native trees, and come at last to the main house, built by Horace Trumbauer (one of the architects of the Philadelphia Art Museum) and lived in by members of the Montgomery/Scott/Wheeler extended family from October 1912 right up to the present day.

This 50-room, 33,000-square-foot Georgian Revival manor home in Villanova has interior decorations by White, Allom & Co. (who worked on Buckingham Palace) and a treasure trove of art by Augustus John, Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, Sir John Lavery, and Charles Willson Peale.

At the front entrance stands Joan Mackie, 74, a granddaughter of the couple who built Ardrossan: Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery and Charlotte Hope Montgomery. Mackie still lives on the property, as does cousin Mary Remer. As Mackie brings us into the main hall, she says, "People come and say, 'It's a big house, but it doesn't feel that way.' There's warmth here; there's a lot of big houses that aren't warm. This house was always two things: a family house – with children, friends, guests, and dogs – and a real party house. It does parties very well."

That festive warmth, and this huge mansion's way of inspiring affection, may hold the key to its future, a subject of growing concern for friends, family, and community. In 2021, the family trusts that govern the house expire, and then what?

The old Main Line is all but gone, yet Ardrossan (stress the first syllable) stands. "It's the best-preserved of the great Main Line ancestral manses," says historian David Nelson Wren. "It's been beautifully maintained. The furniture is exactly where Charlotte Hope Montgomery left it when she died in 1970. And it's certainly the only old Main Line mansion with family still living there." It speaks of social ambition, a love of things English and Scottish, and, most of all, a family of charmers and party throwers.

It's a time to remember the old house. Wren certainly has. After a 20-year labor of love, last fall he published the sumptuous Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line (Bauer and Dean, $75). He'll be at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 28 (members free; nonmembers $10) to speak about the book, the house, and most of all, the Montgomerys themselves.

In sweet coincidence, the 1940 classic comedy film The Philadelphia Story plays in countrywide release on Feb. 18 and 21, part of the Turner Classic Movies' Big Screen Classics series. It'll be playing at about a dozen Philadelphia-area theaters, including the Cinemark University City 6, the Riverview Plaza Stadium 17, and the King of Prussia Stadium 16.

What's the connection? Playwright Philip Barry, a family friend, often hung out on Ardrossan's fabled terrace, where teas and discussions were daily occurrences. He based The Philadelphia Story on stories of the Montgomerys, and he based Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn in the film version, on Helen Hope, oldest Montgomery child and sparkling socialite. The house itself, alas, didn't make the cut: "The filmmakers thought the house was too big to be believed," Wren says. "So they shot it all on Hollywood soundstages." Hepburn eventually became part of the extended Montgomery circle.

Mackie has her own amazing story of how she came into that circle. Col. Robert Montgomery came from an august line of lawyers and founded the investment firm now known as Janney Montgomery Scott. Charlotte came from old banking money. You've already met their first child, Helen Hope, immortalized by Hepburn. Their second child, Mary Binney Montgomery, was Mackie's mother. "All she wanted to do was have children," Mackie says, vivacious eyes sparkling, "but as of age 34, she hadn't met the right man, so she said, 'I'll just adopt,' at a time when unmarried women just did not do that. I was one of the two daughters she adopted. And 2½ years later, she marries!"

Mary Binney was quite the whirlwind. "She had moved into Center City, rented a studio, lived above it, started a modern dance company, and lived a bohemian lifestyle," historian Wren says. An accomplished pianist, she had a longtime (and, to her dad, unwelcome) suitor in Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. "At a time when the Orchestra was concentrating pretty much on Bach and Beethoven, she fought for the inclusion of new music in their repertoire," Wren says. "This was a family that saw part of their social role as caring about the arts and supporting them."

As Wren's book Ardrossan delightfully documents, this family had gusty idiosyncrasies and ambitions. Dad flew airplanes and early helicopters (then called autogiros). He also founded Ardrossan Farms, an industrial on-site dairy that delivered milk around the area for more than 50 years; he began his herd by shipping 30 Ayrshire heifers over from his ancestral Scotland, and the herd at its height numbered 360 and more. Daughter Ives was an avid pilot and equestrian. And we've already met Mary Binney. "It was almost like a wealthy version of You Can't Take It With You," Wren says. "There's always somebody dancing across the living room floor."

"I've lived all but about 20 years of my life on the property," Mackie says. "Every member of my generation lived here, and at one time or another, every one of my children's generation." She takes us through the library and ballroom, pointing out her grandmother's remarkable needlepoint sofa covers and needlepoint vignettes of Ardrossan home life framed on the walls. "Of all the art at Ardrossan, I think those are the best," Wren says.

Much has happened to the land. About 160 acres are now part of the Radnor Township park system. About 300 more are under conservation easements. As for the rest, Edgar Scott III, an heir, has superintended development of select custom housing lots on the property. "He has done a wonderful job," says Mackie, his cousin. "It was a little shock to see houses here at first, but the way it's been done has been so tasteful. And people who live here seem so happy."

But what will happen to the main house? Several meetings and reports, involving Radnor Township, the families, and interested institutions such as the Philadelphia Art Museum and Winterthur, have floated ways to preserve and maintain it. "That's why the book is so important," Mackie says. "It might get people to think about the house and what it really means, help us see how much interest there is in helping it be preserved."

She would be encouraged to hear Wren say, "We've had a huge outpouring of interest in the book. This was not an easy book to produce, big, with full-color illustrations, but we sold out the first printing, and the second printing is on back order. Half are already sold. It may get to a third. There is a lot of interest in Ardrossan."

"It's hard to know what we can do with the house," Mackie says. "Now its best future may be as a place for entertainment, a place to throw really wonderful gatherings."

Mackie recalls a treasured family ritual: grandmother Charlotte's tea every afternoon, "for everybody, family, friends, whoever showed up. I loved them. We all did. And she knew what she was doing: cementing the family, bringing everyone together." That's always what the family – and the house – did best.