Like a crystal flute of Perrier Jouet, the gossip had bubbled on the Main Line for many years: Ardrossan, fabled estate of the high-society family that inspired
The Philadelphia Story
, was about to be sold.
Now the time has come to put an end to the vintage rumor.
Ardrossan, finally, is on the market.
For anyone interested in buying all or part of the spectacular 360-acre grounds, including the 50-room Georgian mansion, "now is the time to make the call," said Edgar "Eddie" Scott III, a scion of the Montgomery-Scott-Wheeler family and its spokesman for the sale.
"Let's be clear: Now's the time," he reiterated during an exclusive interview with The Inquirer at Ardrossan, in Radnor Township. "Let's not rest on rumor or innuendo. The whole picture is too important to be vague about it."
Nonetheless, Scott, a real estate broker, said it was too early to discuss what would be an acceptable offer. Land in the Villanova neighborhood has been listed as high as $900,000 an acre. Ardrossan's price, he said, would depend largely on what the buyer wanted to do with it.
The family, he said, would prefer "to see a significant amount of open space retained."
With the "For Sale" sign up at Ardrossan, four palatial homesteads of Philadelphia-area eminences are in play.
In Wynnewood in Lower Merion Township, the late Walter Annenberg's 13-acre estate of Inwood - with an 18-room house, elaborate gardens and greenhouses - reportedly is under agreement of sale with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.
Also in Wynnewood, Toll Bros. Inc. is expected to announce its development plans soon for Maybrook, the 42-acre manor of late art patron and developer John W. Merriam.
In Whitemarsh Township, the arrival on the market of part of Erdenheim Farm, philanthropist F. Eugene "Fitz" Dixon's 450-acre pastoral gem, has sent Montgomery County and private land-protection groups into a fund-raising frenzy. The 98-acre Angus Tract is valued at $14 million.
Ardrossan has spent almost a century as a rarefied retreat for the privileged. Led through most of its existence by the wildest social whirler of all, Hope Montgomery Scott, the burgeoning family and its friends partied - notoriously, it could be said - in the 1911-vintage "big house," beyond the iron gates and down the winding driveway three-tenths of a mile, past ponds and pastures.
But over the decades, as other estates fell under the jigsaw of development, Ardrossan also came to represent the region's tenuous hold on open space. Although nearly half its original expanse of close to 800 acres has been sold off or donated in recent years, Ardrossan is the largest contiguous block of undeveloped land in Radnor's 14 square miles.
"Ever since I was a kid, I drove by and admired the property," said Jason Duckworth, a developer based in Wayne. "I don't think anybody could feel good about developing it. It's one of the open-space gems on the Main Line."
Ardrossan is also its last working farm. The panorama - 70 black Angus cows and calves in verdant pastures, the crops of soybeans, corn and hay - is "an iconic landscape," said Molly Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust, a conservation group based in Media. It is "a remnant in both a physical and metaphysical sense," recalling "an era of sophistication and refinement that often seems absent in our culture today."
For Elaine Schaefer, executive director of the nonprofit Radnor Conservancy, Ardrossan offers "a relief from the density and sprawl" all around it.
When The Inquirer told Schaefer of Ardrossan's prospective sale, her first reaction was stunned silence. When she found her voice, she vowed to work to protect as much of it as possible from development.
That mission has long been under way, fueled by the relentless sale rumors over the years and the vision of Ardrossan as a giant subdivision.
"My grandmother used to make up the fact that it couldn't be subdivided until 21 years after her death, or something like that, just to try to get people to stop asking her," Scott said of the legendary Hope, the basis for Katharine Hepburn's character in The Philadelphia Story.
Unlike his mother, Robert "Bobby" Montgomery Scott encouraged speculation about the future of Ardrossan, named after the Montgomery ancestral home in Ayrshire, Scotland. In May 2005, he convened a five-day workshop in the mansion, where representatives of estates throughout the United States and England joined local elected officials and experts in tourism, marketing, the arts, agriculture and land preservation to brainstorm what Ardrossan could and should be.
Five months later, "Bobby died," said the Radnor Conservancy's Schaefer, who participated in the workshop. After that, "we didn't get very far with the family."
The report never was made public. It did, however, inspire the conservancy to campaign for a $20 million open-space bond issue - largely to preserve as much of Ardrossan as possible. Last November, Radnor voters overwhelmingly approved it.
Even that lordly sum would not buy much of Ardrossan. Family members have said they won't settle for anything less than fair market value for the land, according to Edgar Scott.
The property is held in two trusts, administered by Mellon Financial Corp. and Wachovia Bank N.A., that have represented the combined Montgomery, Scott and Wheeler families for six generations. Land-use experts said the two trusts had a legal obligation to base a sale decision on financial considerations.
Scott would not say how many family members would be beneficiaries of the sale, noting "some are not born yet."
His uncle Robert alone had three children and seven grandchildren. Eight Montgomery-Scott-Wheeler relatives "live on or very close" to Ardrossan, said Scott, who is 52 and lives in Delaware.
From the original parcel assembled by 1909, 293 acres have been sold to individual buyers since 1997; they have built 16 homes on lots typically 10 to 25 acres and put conservation easements on them. Three more houses are planned. In 1970, the family conveyed 100 acres to Radnor Township for what is now Skunk Hollow Park.
That shows, Scott said, a bent "toward creative solutions that tend to be preservation-oriented. . . . We'll rest on our track record."
There is some reassurance in that, said Morrison, of the Natural Lands Trust.
"My sense is that they are looking for the solution that will meet the fiduciary needs of the trusts and that will have community support," she said. "I think that is a solvable problem."
One option, she said, is to develop a portion of the property at a higher density - say, for age-restricted housing - in exchange for allowing a large percentage of the property to remain open space.
Duckworth, the developer with "real mixed feelings" about the prospect of carving up Ardrossan, said any development "would have to be done at a very high quality and in a very limited way."
The estate's zoning - agricultural/conservation - allows farming and low-density housing on minimum two-acre lots. It also permits a variety of open-space uses, such as a golf course.
Scott asserted that he had no plan for Ardrossan, and that he hoped that by putting the estate on the market, potential buyers would come forward with ideas - though not ideas that are "all about the past and all the memories."
"I think now is the opportunity to look forward, to not look back," he said. "We want to embrace the future and do something that is pretty neat."
For interactive aerial views of the Ardrossan estate,
go to http://go.philly.com/ardrossanEndText