Jeffrey A. Cohen considers himself “a curious visitor” on the Main Line, if not a distracted driver. He can’t help but admire and study the area’s array of architectural wonders, particularly between Lancaster and Montgomery avenues, as he travels from his home near Philadelphia’s Italian Market to work at Bryn Mawr College.
It’s what Cohen does best. In addition to dozens of publications and presentations, he’s co-authored Frank Furness: The Complete Works, The Architectural Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Drawing Toward Building: Philadelphia Architectural Graphics, 1732-1986. He’s currently the term professor of architectural history and urban form in Bryn Mawr’s “Growth and Structure of Cities” department.
One of Cohen’s current research projects focuses on the urban center, specifically the panoramic street views and cadastral maps of major 19th-century cities. A second looks at residential architecture of the emerging Victorian suburb. He also leads a project called “Places in Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia,” an iconography and tool kit designed “to better connect people with the history of their environment.” Bryn Mawr and Haverford College students are working together to build the online resource.
For this month’s story, Cohen initially begged off, explaining that his eye is usually tuned to the 19th century more than the 18th or 20th, and that he still clings to “the crooked ladder of Lancaster and Montgomery avenues like an uncertain swimmer keeping close to the line of buoys.” He calls his route to work a journey through “an alien, disorienting land of disconnected roads,” versus “the gridded regularity of the city.”
Ultimately, curiosity got him. “This is something I like doing, noting places that visually engage one’s curiosity, prompting questions,” says the Boston native. “This is my journey to work, so it’s pretty easy to be curious.”
And fat chance we were letting him off the hook without sharing his picks for the Main Line’s most eye-opening architectural gems.
But first, some historical background: A half-century after the “Main Line of Public Works” legislation of 1826 reached westward from Philadelphia, suburban settlement began in earnest. The Pennsylvania Railroad-built hotels attracted the city’s elite in summertime, and clusters of vivid cottages started to dot the areas near the stations. The latter soon became year-round suburban homes for commuters. Toward the turn of the 20th century, many grew to a manorial scale and adopted a fictive venerability, as if clients were telling architects, “Make my money look old,” says Cohen.
That generation imagined and commissioned large country houses on expansive acreage for future generations of family. But by the Depression, the families had mostly demurred and moved—often to Chester County. “This place became too close to the city, and owners wanted to be even farther out,” Cohen says.
Many of these now “white elephants” were sold to schools, while others were razed and replaced with apartment complexes or parceled into speculatively developed subdivisions. Some survived. Even along Lancaster Avenue, Montgomery’s more commercial sibling, Victorian houses rise behind the shops and restaurants that have claimed former lawns.
Now, let’s take a (snowy) ride through time and place.
—By J.F. Pirro//Photos by Tessa Marie Images
27 Conshohocken State Road, Bala Cynwyd
As we begin our trek near City Line Avenue and head west on Conshohocken State Road, Cohen’s first recommended sight is St. Asaph’s. Here, the bounded churchyard frames a precinct, with church, rectory and cemetery. “St. Asaph’s presents itself like a transported vision of an imagined medieval Wales,” Cohen says. “I can’t help but see it through the architect’s compelling rendering, its rough stones composing a venerable outline, well anchored in the earth by the tower that seems to have reached down for bedrock to hold steady amid the tides of change.”
This was the church of the Roberts family, which owned one of the great early Main Line estates, extending almost to the Schuylkill. Their ancestral home stood northward for nearly three centuries, in a landscape that’s been totally recast since. There’s a gently contained spaciousness to the grounds of St. Asaph’s, designed by Theophilus Parsons Chandler. Chandler could brilliantly meld the evocative with the inventive and invest suburban rusticity with subtle branding of wealth and social position, distinguishing it from a more utilitarian rural vernacular.
“One feels an anticipation of things to come in the wonderfully intimate gateway, with its broad arch and crenellated crestings atop miniature defensive towers, presumably meant to protect tiny archers,” says Cohen. “The wide opening for vehicles contrasts with the one for people. This is the invitation to a route that circles back to the exit gate, with shorter, pointed elements marking another opening in the low wall.”
On the left, beyond the church, one spies a house offering an end gable and chimney to the avenue rather than the usual broad face. Below the chimney, an 1835 date stone marks a place far older than its neighbors. Now L-shaped, the structure seems to face eastward toward City Line Avenue instead of the skirting road. It greets the morning sun with a one-story porch and what appear to be Greek Revival columns, which lead to a semi-octagonal bay, a possible addition.
“It doubtlessly finds itself in rather closer company than it once had, and that’s where one’s curiosity might settle,” says Cohen. “For an answer, one would immediately turn to our great Rosetta stone out here: the 1851 Lower Merion map. This and the subsequent real-estate atlases show the size of holdings of some very fortunately situated farmers, just on the doorstep of a city of hungry people. Also, James Duffin’s reconstructed 1777 maps help one see the landscape in terms of property ownership then, and things hadn’t changed nearly as much by 1835 or 1851 as they would over the next 75 years.”
But if there was farmland here—and there was likely a lot of it—there’s not much acreage left for that. “What intrigues me is [the question]: What was the original setting?” says Cohen, who routinely knocks on private doors like this one. After all, he adds, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
On Montgomery, approaching Bryn Mawr Avenue, this property flips us into the 20th century and the mature suburb. But this house, circa 1915-20, is curious. The walls are of an iron-tinged orange stone, and a steeply hipped roof caps the long public face. The roof’s tall slate expanse is sparsely penetrated by small inset dormers, and the second-story wall below is spanned by an unusually patient rhythm of windows. In a decidedly informal gesture, the flanking slopes descend near to the ground. â€‹
“Broad arches celebrate the end bays more than the center, and the house doesn’t claim any lineage in the familiar nationalist identification of the Colonial Revival—whether red brick and white wooden trim or the more local gray stone and white woodwork— a language extremely popular for early-20th-century suburban houses,” Cohen says. “This front doesn’t offer the expected door to a central hall celebrated with a frontispiece on its axis. Nor does this face seem very medievalizing, demurring from the other great Main Line pose—that one’s family and social position go back even earlier than the Colonial era, back to an elite English background.”
Even so, there’s a touch of the medieval in both the asymmetric bay that animates the broad face and the gabled pavilion rising from the long slope that’s just around the right corner. The latter displays particularly thick half-timbering, hinting at an Arts & Crafts sensibility.
Here, as suspected, the wide front that stretches across the corner, addressing the homeward-bound traffic on Montgomery Avenue, isn’t so much the house’s front as its garden face. “We’re faced with what turns out to be the back of the house,” concludes Cohen, as he knocks on the door, though without answer. “I guess no one stays home on a Sunday on the Main Line.”
Before variants of Colonials and Tudors, what was a suburban house meant to look like? “Well, sometimes it can look like this,” Cohen says of this home just north of Bryn Mawr Station.
It represents a rare case where an architect and a client were in complete accord—as it should’ve been: It was architect Addison Hutton designing his own dwelling. The structure was built in the mid-1870s, not long after the railroad straightened its tracks and geared up more intently to serve commuters and sell property to them.
In its original incarnation, recorded in an 1879 photograph, the house faced Morris rather than Montgomery Avenue, and was subsequently reoriented and enlarged. “In that early photo we see a distinctly Victorian version of a traditional house in the countryside, with its oblong shape, long side to the front, a long front porch, and the entry between two front rooms,” Cohen says.
Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr
If you listen with your eyes, suggests Cohen, you might detect an engaging series of conversations among the structures at Bryn Mawr College.
Taylor Hall, an administrative and classroom building, is a Hutton design of the early 1880s. It adhered scrupulously to the tenets of what was then “modern Gothic,” with the identity and disposition of spaces signaled externally. You can recognize the forms of classrooms, with tall chimneys marking the fireplaces between their windows in the northern wall. Corridors and the former auditorium are indicated on the west side, and the bay windows of the administrators’ offices face south. Diagonals signify a staircase on the east. “It’s like reading an X-ray,” Cohen says. “The outside reveals what’s going on inside.”
At the same time, Hutton designed a neighboring dormitory, Merion Hall, with its own persona and a long western front that helps frame Merion Green, the campus center where graduation takes place. Merion’s play on American and local imageries offers an intentional foil to the Gothic modernity and even Welsh baronial suggestions of Taylor Hall. Both embrace the spatial and material expressiveness of the High Victorian, even with Quaker muting in shades of gray.
The suburban home as a summer cottage was still an experimental concept when Kingston was built for John W. Hoffman in 1885. Almost certainly designed by T.P. Chandler, it looks less like some invocation of history than most of the Main Line houses of this scale that would follow for the next half-century.
Instead, Kingston suggests the visual metaphor of a side-wheeler steaming northeasterly across suburban lawns, with its canted prow at left, an off-center entrance, and a cluster of spaces at right for stairs, dining and service—the home’s “engine room.” Recent development along New Gulph Road has blunted its implied journey, but its immersion in nature remains attractive.
Unlike Kingston, most summer cottages of the 1880s tended to a squarish plan, presenting modest fronts. The protocols of grandeur were initially relaxed, cultivating a sense of community for privileged urban refugees. But nearer the turn of the century, one found more formal country homes, with carved stone creating illusions of history.
Such a house was often impressively broad, a commanding frontispiece to a large estate or at least an expansive garden. The Maxwell Wyeth house was a work of 1903 by architect Wilson Eyre, one of the founders of House & Garden magazine, who was intently focused on the integration of these two design realms.
Eyre’s long façade offered a variation of the country house, diminishing its formality—as its name, Low Walls, suggests. He set the house well back on its nearly seven-acre lot, which presented a deep lawn facing Montgomery Avenue. The driveway approaches not toward the home’s center but toward its edge, and then turns to parallel its long front.
As in larger country homes, the wide structure controlled entry to the garden beyond. Here, Eyre finds a way to soften the academicism of the Colonial Revival with an emphasis on materiality, with its thick-mortared brickwork, and with a compositional freedom in the rambling main volume telescoping across the site. Animated by willfully placed gables, the whole is unified by the vivid reds of the brick and tile against the light stucco and the bounding green lawns.â€‹
The owner of this home shares that he’s just the third caretaker of this 1902 Will Price creation.
Cohen calls it “a stylistic label-defier.” The house embraced a vivacity that reigned a dozen years earlier, unique in its combination of elements such as Gothic diagonal buttresses and round-arched porch openings drawn from ancient Roman shop fronts.â€‹
“There’s a mix here of different things from different times,” Cohen says, “but they’re mixed with fluidity, freedom, and a love of asymmetry.”â€‹
Haverford College, Haverford
Hilles Lab sounds some unusual notes among campus buildings, with its lens narrowly aimed at a moment between the Collegiate Gothic and Georgian styles. Its bold moldings play against its spare, planar, disciplined and rational classical front. Given its function, one suspects that its architects meant to evoke 17th-century British science, the age of Isaac Newton and Oxford’s Old Ashmolean.
Built 1928-29, the structure’s architects—Mellor, Meigs and Howe—had just finished Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College in a completely different style. In both, there’s a confidence with historic forms noticeable in the simplicity of sharp-edged volumes, overscaled crafted details, and visible integration of reinforced concrete.
The A.E. Winn House of 1886 was likely designed by Frank Furness. The building is of a distinct suburban type, planned more as a modern cottage than a country home. “We first see a long front volume that appears, from the left corner, to be one-room deep, with a low-arched window and rising gable marking its center, but we quickly sense something unexpected,” Cohen says. “We catch the fundamental asymmetry of the third bay, to the right, diminished in scale and clapboarded below, as if a bluntly appended later wing, but this was design mischief rather than absence.”
A large chimney emerges at left, angled to the house exterior, purposefully offering a hint to the arrangement within. There, four ground-story spaces pinwheel around the chimney mass, each anchored on one of its canted faces. These spaces find their own identities, aggregating in plan into an untidy square. Starting from the entry and stair hall, with its tall arched front window, one moves clockwise to the left into a parlor, then to an intimate lozenge-shaped rear den shaded by a porch and, finally, to the dining room, appended to the service areas of the kitchen and pantry at right.
“In its more foursquare cottage form and proximity to other homes, this was the more common housing of the suburb,” Cohen says. “Whether sustained by streetcar commuting or clustering near railroad stations, such houses—often predicated on the gathering of neighbors—posited an approximate class-equality friendly to the notion of a community.”