It’s true that a great story often begins with a great story, and this one is no different—other than the fact that it’s taken two decades to be told. David Nelson Wren’s new book, Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line, chronicles the construction and furnishing of the early 20th-century country house, while illustrating the lifestyle of its famous family. It also embodies an author’s patience and perseverance.
Support for the book first came back in 1997, two years after Ardossan’s Helen Hope Montgomery Scott passed away. Her son, Robert Montgomery Scott, had invited Wren and some other friends to watch the Belmont Stakes at the “Big House.” There, Wren suggested that the last estate of a bygone era be documented. Bobby was skeptical, maintaining that the Villanova expanse was simply “home” to him. Then, someone who knew a thing or two about publishing chimed in. “No. Bobby, it should be a book,” said Walter Annenberg. “It should be recorded as a book.”
Eight years later, Bobby died. At his memorial service in 2005, others insisted that Wren, an independent scholar, finish what he’d started. “I said it was impossible—it’s a dead duck,” recalls the Dallas native, who relocated to Philadelphia in the late 1980s. “With Bobby gone, I thought there was no one to champion it, but then Joanie Mackie encouraged me to circle the wagons and keep going.”
Mackie is Hope’s niece. She still lives at Godfrey Farm on the fabled estate, which once encompassed 760 acres. After 20 years of starts and stops, the book finally came to be late last year, silencing endless talk and rejection letters from publishers afraid of high costs and limited broad appeal. “I’ve often wondered if we shouldn’t give some credit for the book to the horses, the hooch and happenstance,” Wren jests.
In the dining room, Ardrossan’s matriarch opted for wall sconces in lieu of a chandelier. Photograph by Steve Gunther.
At 368 pages and with over 450 photographs, Ardrossan has generated some buzz. The book’s distributor chose it as one of 18 books to bring to last year’s BookExpo in New York City. “That shocked me to pieces—but thrilled me, too,” says Wren, who’s done local signings at the Acorn Club, Radnor Hunt, the Radnor Historical Society, the Union League and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
Ardrossan‘s New York City-based publisher, Bauer and Dean, bills the Montgomerys as real-life American counterparts to the Granthams of Downton Abbey. Bauer and Dean also notes that Philip Barry’s 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, and the subsequent Hollywood film are based on the family. The latter, however, is “a generic version of the play,” Wren says. “With respect to all who love The Philadelphia Story, the family is a bit over it.”
In this ballroom alcove, the seat is one of an
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A wall in the stair hall features portraits of Montgomery children
The book’s publicity notes that the Montgomerys once “entertained in the grand manner, hosting fox hunts and dinner dances.” Still owned by the family, the home stands as “a glorious reminder of the halcyon days of the Gilded Age.” And Wren delivers plenty of Main Line lore. He covers the estate’s model Ayrshire dairy and the little house kept in Unionville for fox hunting. There’s also Ardrossan nuance, from the portraits by Gilbert Stuart in the dining room to the hidden World War II landing strip to the butlers who struggled with the women’s full names and so resorted to “ma’am.”
The 50-room Georgian-style manor house was designed in 1911 by Horace Trumbauer, one of America’s foremost classical architects. The first-floor rooms were decorated by London’s White, Allom & Company. Essentially unaltered since 1913, these spaces feature the family’s art collection, including ancestral portraits by Thomas Sully and hunt scenes on or near Ardrossan by Charles Morris Young.
The living room, with its portrait of Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery hanging above the fireplace. Photograph by Steve Gunther.
Mackie penned the one-page introductory letter about her days growing up with grandparents Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery and Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery. For her, the truthful tome corrects misconceptions and rumors, offers an impetus for helping preserve the house and estate, and provides a family history ending with her parents’ generation. “We’re lucky—we were, and still are, a close family,” Mackie says. “That’s important, too, and part of the whole story. I love this house and would like to protect it. It’s not an empty shell, and there’s nothing left like this house. It’s important for our community.”
Four days after Mackie gave Bauer and Dean publisher/editor Beth Daugherty an Ardrossan tour, Daugherty called back and said she wanted the book. “It’s beautiful,” says Daugherty, who was on-site one week for the photo shoot. “What’s most striking from the first to last impression is how comfortable it is. It’s a large, cavernous house, no question. But it’s happy and comfortable. It’s a museum—but it’s not a museum. The family lived in it, and lived very rich lives.”
Detail from a needlepoint by Mrs. Montgomery.
Mrs. Montgomery with her children,
Upon acceptance, Wren got cold feet. “At this point, you have to go forward,” Mackie said to him. “You have no choice. Sign, finish it, and let’s get on with our lives.”
It just never occurred to Wren that he’d ever be done. “I may have a little postpartum depression,” he admits.
Two intense years of editing followed. Wren’s manuscript was in excess of 100,000 words. Daugherty aimed for 40,000, then settled on 60,000. “It wasn’t too tangential,” Wren insists.
A view into the living room from the library. Photograph by Steve Gunther.
Beautifully illustrated, Ardrossan features never-before-published architectural drawings from Trumbauer’s office, including plans for a never-built gate lodge and interior photographs from the 1930s by Mattie E. Hewitt. The book also offers family snapshots and images by celebrated photographers Cecil Beaton and Toni Frissell, commissioned by Vogue, Country Life and Town & Country.
The 61-year-old Wren stays at Ardrossan when he’s local, but he’s gravitated toward the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. Also tied to Ardrossan is one of the reasons Trumansburg has become Wren’s home. He and his partner, David Blake, operate the Halsey House Bed & Breakfast, an intact 1829 Greek Revival home on the banks of Taughannock Creek. It’s the ancestral home of Edward “Ned” Halsey, who married Mary Scott Montgomery, a sibling of Col. Montgomery’s from his father’s first marriage. They lived in Radnor, where Ned was the church organist at Old St. David’s Church. Ned’s father was once rector there—but that’s another story within a story.