Society in its highest sense
Place and family embodied our dreams of the possibility of grace and beauty.
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Ardrossan, the iconic spread that so splendidly evoked a bygone time, has already been downsized. Now, with the news that the rest of the property will be sold off, it sadly joins the list of other grand Main Line estates that have shut off the lights and packed up the silver and best linen.
A beguiling Philadelphia story is coming to an end, and so, predictably, is another chapter in the story of Philadelphia. Indeed, the penalty of being an upper-class Philadelphian, and Main Liner particularly, is having to suffer a steady and inexorable sense of decline and diminishment. As Nathaniel Burt wrote in his classic study, The Perennial Philadelphians, "Part of the very charm of Philadelphia is a perpetual feeling of nostalgia, loss and regret for the old days."
So why should we care about this latest development, and why is it important?
It's important because Ardrossan is special. It is special in size, special in lore and legend, and special in having endured. The Main Line is not so much a place as a state of mind, not so much a location as an aspiration. The special glory of Ardrossan is that it symbolizes that aspiration, reminding us, above all, of the possibility of beauty.
There is, to begin with, the beauty of the land itself - at one time nearly 800 undulating acres, encompassing several working farms, in the heart of Radnor's verdant estate country. As a young man, Robert Leaming Montgomery, known as "The Colonel," was foxhunting on these lands one day. At the top of a rise, his horse balked, throwing Montgomery to the turf. The horse and the hunt went on. Montgomery remained behind on his seat. With a commanding view, he surveyed the surrounding farms. So smitten was he by the gorgeous prospect, the story goes, that he vowed someday to build a house on that very spot. Years later, with a fortune gained from stocks and investments, he did just that.
To the beauty of the land he added the beauty of something man-made. Completed in 1911, the "big house" is a stately brick edifice that captures the local aristocracy's infatuation with life in the manner of the English gentry. While imposing and grand, the features of the mansion are also playful. It exudes "a domestic warmth often lacking in its English cousins," wrote architectural historian William Morrison in The Main Line: Country Houses of Philadelphia's Storied Suburb, and presents itself as "a place where people live, rather than a monument to imperial pride."
Its walnut-paneled rooms were furnished with exquisite antiques and adorned with family portraits and paintings. Outdoors, a herd of Ayrshire cows served as live props in a pastoral idyll.
But the real beauty of Ardrossan was neither natural nor material. It was human, the character of the family who lived there. Ardrossan would exert no magic or mystique at all had it been inhabited by mean-spirited snobs and miserly plutocrats who sought to keep the world at bay behind iron gates and stone walls.
For 15 years in the 1940s and '50s, Nancy Grace and her husband and four children lived on Ardrossan, in a stone house called Hickory Hall. She came to know the fabled family well.
The Colonel was "absolutely the most stylish man you could imagine," she says, a glamorous, dashing patriarch with cosmopolitan tastes. Instead of vacationing in the same WASPy haunts as other proper Philadelphians, such as Bar Harbor or Northeast Harbor, Maine, he took his family to Europe.
"They were not part of stuffy Philadelphia," says Grace, now 97 and a resident of The Quadrangle, an assisted-living facility in Haverford.
The "star" of the family, of course, was Montgomery's daughter Hope. Grace, who rode horses with Hope and attended many of her parties and suppers, calls her "a wow."
She was a phenomenon, brimming with the insouciance of privilege, an irrepressible party girl of impossible incandescence. "She was full of charm and affection for everyone, and everyone just adored her," Grace says.
Hope and her husband, Edgar Scott, were "a very swinging couple," Grace says.
"They knew everyone in New York, the smart set. People would come down here - Cole Porter and all the top playwrights - and you can imagine what a wonderful weekend they had. Hope would stage the fanciest parties. They were full of brilliant conversation. Everybody was very high style, beautiful clothes and dresses. And after dinner, Hope sang naughty French songs."
Grace remembers one party when the path to the front door of the Scotts' house was an "avenue of champagne." A foot of snow had inspired Hope to bury bottles of bubbly along the walkway. The snow brought the beverage to a perfect chill.
With her parties, Hope was a mistress of the art of making other people feel special, of putting others at ease. In other words, she was gracious.
She transmitted those qualities to her son, Robert "Bobby" Montgomery Scott, another person Grace calls "a wow."
"He did everything well and made everything work," Grace says, capturing the man with admirable economy.
Like the Rockefellers and the Kennedys, Bobby Scott had a sense of noblesse oblige. His contributions to the city's civic and cultural life were vast. Among many other things, he was a pillar of the Art Museum and the Academy of Music. An unpretentious booster who toodled around town on a bicycle, he opened Ardrossan to a wide array of worthy organizations and charities for parties and fund-raising events.
"The Montgomerys have always been very generous in letting people come here," says Charlie Grace, Nancy's son and the manager of an investment company. Grace, 73, and his wife are staying on the third floor of the "big house" while waiting for a new home to be completed nearby.
When Bobby Scott died in 2005, his daughter Janny spoke at his funeral. She praised her father for his "talent for living."
It is a marvelous phrase - talent for living - that encapsulates what made the Montgomerys generally, and these two "stars" in particular, so special.
"Hope's great charm was that she loved everybody," says Charlie Grace. "There was no snobbism. And Bobby Scott was the most outgoing, inclusive person I've ever known. He was always bringing people in and liking people and trying to get to know them." Not because it was the right thing to do but because it was just fun.
To a remarkable degree, Hope and Bobby embodied the traits of the WASP upper class at its best - service and generosity, style and grace, natural, authentic, effortless, before those qualities were commodified and turned into an image and brand by Ralph Lauren.
One of the latter-day laments of Digby Baltzell, the late University of Pennsylvania sociologist and chronicler of the Philadelphia upper class, was that people at all levels of society were "aspiring downward," emulating the bottom, not the top. The abiding beauty of Ardrossan is that it reminds us that high society was so called for a reason, and that we can aim our aspirations in a loftier, more noble direction.