Recently, I've been commuting out to the Philadelphia suburbs two or three times a week for work. I loathe commuting by car, but the trip to the north suburbs is both blessedly and cursedly free of freeways, so most of the travel is on surface streets. My trip up Kelly Drive and through the Wissahickon is generally a pretty one, if not always pleasant. One of the unique little landmarks I pass each trip is a wildly out of scale entrance to a small neighborhood along Willow Grove Avenue in Wyndmoor. Two twenty-five foot tall, urn-topped limestone pillars flank a standard-looking suburban subdivision street.
I figured there was more to the story of these pillars than an overzealous tract house developer, but in the routine bustle of getting from here to there, I never took a chance to explore. The answer to this little riddle came to me in a rather roundabout way last night.
Perched on the couch a little after midnight, I was reading my current book, Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The book is a fairly manic one, framed as a history of the world told from within the author's home, and it pings among subjects, from rodent reproduction to a history of black pepper to a discussion of Victorian architecture in a single chapter. A number of the topics Bryson touched on have piqued my interest to the point where I've gone online to do more research, or seek out images. (This is one book where the reading experience is probably much enriched on a web-enabled e-reader) As I read last night, Bryson related the history of Eva Stotesbury, a legendary spender of her husband's money, as a way of introducing the tale of the fascinating architect Addison Mizner.* Mizner designed the Stotesbury's Florida home, but in the course of the introduction, Bryson briefly described their primary residence, Whitemarsh Hall in Philadelphia.
I'd never heard of Whitemarsh Hall, which Bryson describes as "a house so big that no two accounts ever describe it in quite the same way. Depending on whose figures you credit, it had 154, 172, or 272 rooms. All agree that it had fourteen elevators, considerably more than most hotels. It cost Mr. Stotesbury nearly $1 million a year just to maintain. He employed forty gardeners and ninety other staff there." Surely this was a house I should have heard of. Intriqued, I went to the net today, looking for pictures and history of Whitemarsh Hall.
I came across this great site that has a thorough history of the house and lots of great pictures (some of which I borrowed below). Long story short: the house was built between 1916 and 1921, as designed by Horace Trumbauer, the great Philadelphia Classicist architect who also designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the site of lavish parties throughout the 1920's though with the onset of the Great Depression and the death of Mr. Stotesbury, the house became less and less practical. The widow Stotesbury closed the house in 1938 and moved to Florida full-time. During World War Two, Whitemarsh Hall's two-mile long steel fence was dismantled and given to the War Department, providing the material for some 16,000 guns. The house was used briefly as a chemical research laboratory before being sold to a property developer who began the slow process of demolition by neglect.
Whitemarsh Hall during its deterioration in the 1970's.
In the end, Whitemarsh was demolished in April of 1980, and replaced by a townhouse development dubbed Stotesbury Estates. But the house wasn't eradicated entirely. Portions of its grand gardens, reminiscent of those at Versailles, were retained. A fountain or two, several pieces of statuary, the stepped garden wall, and the Classical Portico of the main house all remain, scattered throughout a vinyl-sided 1980's sub division.
Garden stairs and the original Ionic portico of the main house among their more modern neighbors.
This is why I love reading - one never knows when or how what they are reading will reveal some secret. Even if it's just the answer to the oft-wondered at pillars on the side of the road. So, as Bill Bryson wrote about the history of the rooms in his house in the English countryside, he's enriched my drive to work. One of these days, I'll have to make time to cruise through the neighborhood and see what remains.
*Mizner's story is a comical and fascinating one on its own, and as I researched this little piece, I found another connection to Philadelphia's great houses: Mizner designed La Ronda, the Mediterranean Revival tour de force in Bryn Mawr that had its own date with the wrecking ball on October 9th, 2009.