The Story Behind Villanova's Ardrossan Estate

Yes, it inspired The Philadelphia Story, but it’s more accurate to say it tells a Main Line story, judging by its owners’ politics, lifestyle and focus on art and land conservation.

Photo by Tom CraneThere’s an unwound tall-case clock in the manor house of the fabled Ardrossan estate. Perhaps its enchanting denizens never wanted time to pass. It certainly looks like it hasn’t here.

The cut-stone walls that line the front of the Villanova property haven’t budged. Nor has the famous stone water tower on Newtown Road, or the stone balustrade surrounding the front courtyard. Inside, exquisite family portraiture is a testament to Ardrossan’s now-century-old history—and, frankly, to art history itself. There are six Thomas Sully portraits, two by Gilbert Stuart, and one each by George Healy and Charles Willson Peale. A 1776 George Romney work hangs in the library. There are also four landscape paintings of Ardrossan in the 1920s by Radnor’s famed hand, Charles Morris Young.

Related: New Book on Ardrossan Estate Offers an Unprecedented Look at the Iconic Home

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Renowned architect Horace Trumbauer designed the three-story, 38,000-square-foot, 50-room baronial brick Georgian Revival structure. The interior was the work of White Allom and Company (think Buckingham Palace).

Ardrossan was built between 1911 and 1913. Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery and his wife, Charlotte Hope Binney (Tyler) Montgomery, moved in at the end of 1912. They named the estate after the family’s ancestral home in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was always an event house—one designed for maximum guest appeal. “On the approach from the driveway, you don’t see Ardrossan at all—then suddenly you do,” says David Nelson Wren, Ardrossan’s leading historian. “Inside, only invited guests could see through to the backyard.”

By now, it’s a well-known piece of local trivia that the estate was the inspiration for The Philadelphia Story, the Philip Barry play that became a 1940 Oscar-winning film starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. It’s been said that Hepburn’s Tracy Lord was inspired by the Montgomerys’ first daughter, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott.

Founder of what is now Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, Col. Montgomery knew the property inside and out. At the time, it was connected to Radnor Hunt, which was founded by his father. He knew that Gen. Anthony Wayne’s mother was born there, in a home dating back to 1689. Its springhouse is still standing, as is the township’s first school.

Montgomery’s local landholdings totaled upwards of 1,000 acres. In 1931, he bought Mansfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., as a retreat. Today, about 350 acres remain of the original Ardrossan estate—the largest undeveloped tract in Radnor Township. Adjacent to Overbrook Golf Club, it stretches from Church to Godfrey roads, and from Abrahams Lane to Darby Paoli Road. Many structures, more than 100 years older than the manor house, remain. Black Angus cattle still graze the pastures.

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Montgomery served in the Spanish-American War, then worked in the War Department during World War I. Back then, the Montgomerys also owned a Washington, D.C., home that now houses the French ambassador to the United States. “They certainly lived in some extraordinary places,” says Wren.

At Ardrossan, Montgomery was also a dairy farmer, with a prized herd of Ayrshires. Toward the end of his life, he took up aviation and helped pioneer the autogyro, which he often flew to Mansfield. He died there in 1949.

While largely Episcopalian and “Republican by herd,” Wren says, the family was always interested in conservation and historic preservation, had “Democratic tendencies” in the arts, and opposed prohibition. “The colonel was for drinking parties,” Wren says. “To him, it was the equivalent of taking away his foxhunting.”

Or the equivalent of taking away Ardrossan from the Main Line. “That’s the thing,” Wren says. “This land can’t be replaced.” Today, the heirs continue to side with the status quo, even if the sale of the paintings alone could pay years’ worth of bills. 

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