Marsha Brown will always remember the first time her house spoke to her. Its message was hidden beneath the layers of dark paint that covered the original woodwork above an alcove in the foyer. Carved deeply into the wood was this passage from “The Rubáiyát” by 12th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyám:
Ah, fill the Cup: what boots it to repeat / How Time is slipping underneath our Feet / Unborn To-morrow, and dead yesterday / Why fret about them if To-day be sweet!
Fittingly, Brown’s nickname for her two-acre Bryn Mawr estate is “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler,” a popular phrase that defines the optimistic philosophy of her native New Orleans. “It means, ‘Let the Good Times Roll,’ and it seemed more than coincidental that this poem, which may have been here for more than 100 years, expresses the same sentiment,” she says. “To me, both are reminders to live life to the fullest every day.”
And Brown has certainly done that. The former banking exec now owns three Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations in Center City, King of Prussia and Long Island, N.Y., along with an eponymous Creole restaurant in New Hope. For her, the good times began in 1992, as soon as she began to restore the Main Line property, which she’d purchased from Comcast Spectacor chairman and Philadelphia Flyers founder Ed Snider. Made of stone, stucco and timber, the two-story, five-bedroom home was designed by renowned Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen for chemical entrepreneur F. King Wainwright. Keen’s other projects included the Willows in Radnor, Greystone Hall in West Chester, and the clubhouse for the Aronimink Golf Club. His best-known project outside the area is the Winston-Salem, N.C., estate built for the R.J. Reynolds family. It’s now a museum of American art.
Bryn Mawr is a long way from Brown’s Louisiana roots. Growing up in one half of a double shotgun house, she and her mother would take two buses and a streetcar to the Crescent City’s famed Garden District, with its magnificent 19th-century mansions and lush landscaping. “I knew I wanted to live in one of those homes,” says Brown. “My mother told me that, if I really wanted it, I could make it happen.”
When her chosen career brought her north 25 years ago, Brown figured she’d have to wait until she retired to live that way—that is, until she found herself on the Main Line during a restaurant site-scouting visit to Philadelphia. What struck her were the similarities to the Garden District. “Driving through little town after little town, with beautifully landscaped estates and gorgeous homes, reminded me of the New Orleans neighborhoods with their mansions,” she says. “I knew right away that I wanted to live here.”
Brown likens the first days of her home’s restoration to a TV sitcom. “I was living out of—and tripping over—moving boxes all over the place. There were no beds anywhere, just mattresses on the bedroom floors,” she recalls. “I had talked my painters into literally moving in for six months because I knew that stripping off the layers that hid the beautiful original woodwork and hardware was going to be such a massive job.”
Brown demonstrated her appreciation for her painters’ “exceptional work” by taking on the role of personal chef. “They saw me early every morning without my makeup, serving up typical, hearty Southern breakfasts that could be anything from simple eggs, grits and biscuits to really decadent Eggs Sardou (a Creole dish made with poached eggs, artichoke bottoms, creamed spinach and hollandaise sauce),” Brown says. “In the evening, I wanted them to feel like guests in one of my restaurants, so I prepared some of my favorite Creole dishes.”
During the renovations, the work team unveiled all kinds of “little treasures,” like the forged brass-and-bronze handles and hinges on the doors and windows, the wall sconces in the ballroom, and the architectural gates that frame its threshold.
To restore the damaged mythological frieze that had adorned the dining-room ceiling, Brown hired Jacques Brunet, former head of the prestigious French Ironworkers Guild of Paris. His intricate work can be seen at various locations throughout the City of Light, including the Champs-Élysées, the Grand Palais and the Pont Alexandre III bridge that spans the Seine. “Jacques built scaffolding and laid on his back for four months, repairing small areas of plaster to bring all the animals back to life,” Brown says. “Then, he hand-painted every detail and applied gold leaf to certain particularly decorative areas.”
Brown brought in Merion-born painter Lisa Dawn Gold to bring a bit of the outdoors into the foyer in the form of vines snaking up the staircase. Gold, who has worked in the homes of Tom Hanks and Ralph Lauren, also painted the walls of the library to mimic red leather.
Brown put her own inner artist to work hand-painting an elaborate dolphin design on the bottom of the estate’s Olympic-size pool. “Everyone thought I was crazy to take on such a huge project,” she says. “Well, it was big fun, but it ended up taking me a little over two months in the heat of summer. I did lose 12 pounds—and that was a nice bonus.”
For Marsha Brown, the kitchen has been the focus of her at-home activity, whether cooking small family dinners or hosting hundreds for charitable events for the Philadelphia Heart Institute and Big Hearts for the Big Easy (which she launched following Hurricane Katrina to support the only hospital that remained open during the storm).
To accommodate her cooking style, she had her home equipped with heavy-duty, professional-quality appliances—broilers like the ones at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which can reach up to 1,800 degrees and have a small commercial exhaust system.
A cozy sitting room allows Brown to mingle while she works. The format also gives her plenty of time to catch up while cooking for her son, Scott Roussel, his wife, Janice, and their 14-year-old son, Trevor, when they come to visit from San Diego.
Twice a month, Brown makes meals for her sister and nephew, both of whom are wheelchair-bound and living in New Orleans. “My sister is so courageous; she never gives up,” Brown says. “I cook about 70 meals at a time, pack them in ice chests, and take them with me on the plane to New Orleans to stock their freezers for two weeks at a time.”
In the spring, Brown spends a great deal of time working on her garden, planting crepe myrtle, clematis, geraniums, azaleas, daffodils and tulips, along with her favorite: fragrant gardenias. Weather permitting, she entertains at a dining table placed beneath cascading purple wisteria.
It took about 14 months to refurbish the first and second floors of Brown’s house, as well as the grounds and pool area. Originally, the Mill-Brook estate her home occupies was part of a 24-acre property owned by the Harriton, Morris and Pyle families, who operated gristmills, sawmills and plaster works.
The last mill on the property closed in 1901, and the house was built within about 12 months. Local architect John Irwin Bright designed the current ballroom, patio and pool a few decades later in 1926.
Brown enjoys the neighborhood that surrounds her property almost as much as the house itself. Though she has a fully equipped exercise room on her second floor, long walks in the neighborhood are her preferred way to power up for the day or relax at night. “There’s a quiet little street a few blocks away with a creek and waterfall,” she says.
Back in the 1970s, Brown had been enjoying her job with a major New Orleans bank, until she was promoted to manager of the lending division. “With the promotion came a beautiful office with spectacular views,” she says. “It also came with stacks and stacks of paperwork, which meant that I had to spend a lot of time at my desk. Being a people person, that made me totally miserable.”
One of her clients was Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House. “Ruth’s restaurant in New Orleans was always rocking with politicians, sports figures, celebrities and local regulars,” Brown recalls. “She knew everybody, and that’s what I wanted for myself.”
Fertel became Brown’s mentor in the restaurant business. In 1987, she bought her first Ruth’s Chris franchise in Center City, years before the Avenue of the Arts designation made South Broad Street a desirable destination. Eight years later, she opened a second location on Long Island, now one of the top-grossing restaurants in the national franchise. The third came along in 2001, across from the King of Prussia Mall. Two years later, she opened Marsha Brown Creole Kitchen and Lounge in New Hope, and she’s looking into a sister restaurant on the Main Line.
Brown says folks are often surprised that authentic Creole cooking isn’t super-hot like its Cajun counterpart. Unlike Cajun, she explains, it’s about blending spices, not necessarily about heat. Many of her recipes are family favorites passed down from or inspired by her mother and grandmother. “The Main Line has made me feel at home,” she says. “Now, I’d like to return the compliment with some real Southern hospitality.”