In this day and age (read: lean economic times), how do you sell a Main Line manse?
Well, by invitation only, and with $1,800 worth of finger food. And make sure to hire valets to park everyone's car so an impatient agent doesn't drive across the freshly seeded lawn - which is just what happened one Wednesday in October at the first open house for the estate in Wynnewood called Pen y Bryn, for "top of the hill."
Craig and Mac Brand, the husband-and-wife real estate team showing 212 Cherry Lane, went all out for the reconstructed estate's debut.
Each handpicked agent was given a bottle of chardonnay and cabernet from Sonoma Valley, Calif., where the property's owners have developed 10 homes.
The Brands hired Le Petit Chef in Ardmore to feed croissants, salads, and sandwiches to an expected 100 guests.
Twenty-five people showed.
"We've been eating the food ourselves," Craig Brand said the other day, sitting in the mansion's foyer, looking through leaded glass windows onto a fresh blanket of snow.
Six homes worth $2.8 million or more sold last year in Lower Merion. That left 17 on the market.
"I'm very confident in this product," said Brand, tall and gray-haired in tweed and khakis, a former nationally ranked badminton player. "But it takes a special buyer."
He shows the 9,000-square-foot home once every week or two, arriving a few minutes early so he can illuminate the seven gas-fueled fireplaces. The property has been on the market 31/2 months.
Asking price: $4,185,000.
"The air is pretty rare up here," Brand said.
He had no appointments Thursday, so he agreed to show me the property, which has undergone a massive reconstruction.
Long before that, though, Pen y Bryn was the talk of the neighborhood.
For years, it was what you'd call eccentric.
Railroad memorabilia seemed to sprout from the lawn like onion grass: switches, bells, lights, tracks, signs collected from around the world by owner Richard L.W. Reuss. Reuss' father, a mechanical engineer who founded the Philadelphia Steam Co., had bought the place in 1946.
Reuss and a niece lived in the place, sharing 20-plus rooms with nearly three dozen stray cats and dogs, until selling it three years ago. The two moved next door, into a carriage house that's been subdivided from the property.
When Scott McClain, owner of Artisan Builders, saw Pen y Bryn for the first time in 2008, he was both saddened and inspired.
"There was so much structural damage," he said. The place had to be gutted.
His goal is for no one to be able to walk into the grand entrance, with its quartersawn tiger oak paneling, and tell what is 100 years old and what is 100 days old.
The mansion dates to 1906, when Frank Calvin Roberts, a Princeton-educated civil engineer, envisioned an estate formidable enough for a man who built blast furnaces. His architect, Edgar V. Seeler, would go on to design such Philadelphia landmarks as the Curtis Publishing Building.
They built a monument to gracious living in the American Beaux Arts style, distinctive for its Grecian-style quoins set into the stucco facade.
Reconstruction of the property took two years and four months, with an eye to restoring the special elements and updating everything else unobtrusively. Each of the original leaded and stained-glass windows was reglazed and releaded, then put back in place. All of the staircases - steps, banisters, and spindles - were taken away and rebuilt.
Workers built six bathrooms, each with different fixtures; installed a country kitchen with stainless-steel appliances; and blew open the garage into an even vaster space - a great room with cathedral ceilings.
During the work, McClain kept thinking of those craftsmen who had labored before him.
"We were doing this all with nail guns and modern saws. A lot of the time we'd have to whip out old hand tools. At the end of the day you'd be shaking your head in awe: How did they do this back then?"
A lot more slowly.
"A century ago, I'll bet, there were 200 workers all over the place, as if it were an ant colony, doing the cutting and milling on site. It would take weeks for materials to arrive by horse and wagon and train. Today, I make a phone call and order 500 tons of schist from Media, and three days later three flatbed trucks show up."
Brand acknowledged that the owners, Bob and Carrie Crudup, were paying for having spared no expense. "If they sold this today, they'd lose money," he said. "You get carried away."
Plans have been drafted for a pool, a pergola, and an outdoor fireplace. Space over the four-car garage can be tailored for in-laws or au pairs.
"They're willing to do anything for a buyer who makes a reasonable offer," Brand said.
He mentioned one last detail, taxes. The amount is to be determined.
Ballpark figure: as much as $50,000 a year.
He took note of my expression.
"If the reason you can't afford it is taxes, you cannot buy this house."