Tour A Captivating Masterpiece

Posted: April 29, 1990

Ginny Shihadeh of Villanova first saw Dolobran last July when she went to a garage sale held on the property. She went there looking for a chandelier for her home and ended up buying the mansion.

"I didn't find a chandelier there, but as soon as I saw that house in such a deplorable state, in such a wonderful neighborhood, I knew if it was restored to its former glory, it would be a terrific investment," said Shihadeh, who owns the home at 231 Laurel Lane in Haverford with her husband, Peter.

"I immediately got on the car phone to the Realtor and asked for an appointment" to see the house, she said.

The Shihadehs plan to sell the mansion for $3.7 million after renovating it.

They hired restoration architects Craig Morrison and James Garrison to rehabilitate and modernize the mansion.

"Not only was that (the restoration) a huge potential problem, but we got connected with Vassar (the house show), which meant we had to make it happen within three months," she said.

Beginning May 5, Dolobran will be the site of the 1990 Vassar Show House, which finances scholarships to area students attending Vassar College.

Dolobran is one of the few remaining country estates designed by Frank Furness, Philadelphia's renowned 19th-century architect.

The mansion has been submitted for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Ginny Shihadeh.

Dolobran was designed by Furness and his partner Allen Evans. It was built between 1881 and 1894 for Clement A. Griscom, a world traveler, art collector and steamship owner who worked closely with Furness on the design.

"We didn't know there was so much notoriety about the house before we bought it," Shihadeh said. "It is considered to be the best example of Frank Furness' work. . . . He did a lot of institutional work, but as far as country estates, it is probably the only one left.

"The BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) has contacted me, because they are doing a documentary of American architecture, and they want to preview this," she said.

"This house is supposedly (where) McKinley was nominated in the ballroom for the presidential candidacy," Shihadeh said of the rumored agreement between influential Philadelphia politicians and William McKinley, the 1896 presidential winner.

The Shihadehs discovered a hidden wine cellar that had been boarded up. It still contained handblown light bulbs. "They think it was boarded up because Prohibition came in. It was as if somebody just closed the door and walked out."

The cellar also contained wine, which the Shihadehs had evaluated by a wine expert. The wine is all from the 1920s, but much of it was destroyed through improper handling, Shihadeh said. "There's only a little bit of claret and Madeira that's drinkable, nothing priceless."

A total of 35 designers, exhibitors and landscapists - about half are from the Main Line - will decorate the 36-room Victorian-era mansion.

There is no decorating theme that the designers, who are donating their time, must follow. They will create the interiors of their assigned rooms using their style and imagination, said Sarah J. Warden, publicity coordinator for the event.

Warden said the owners and the Vassar committee agree beforehand which expenses will be shared and which will be paid by the owners or the show-house committee.

Last year, 16,000 people attended the showcase at the Carter House in Bryn

Mawr owned by The American College.

Donations from previous Vassar show houses passed the $1 million mark two years ago, and annual contributions total about $100,000. More than 500 Delaware Valley students attending the college have been given scholarships since the event began 24 years ago.

Decorator Elizabeth Bater of Bryn Mawr gained access to Furness' unpublished sketches for the home through Charles Savage, the great-great- grandson of the architect.

She has taken one of his designs and incorporated it in the draperies and ceiling border of a large, square vestibule leading to the grand ballroom.

"We found most of the designs too ornate to reproduce. But there was a simple, geometric floral with a big leaf, almost a deco look, that we decided to use," Bater said. "We did research and found a book of colors, which we matched . . . teal and burgundy. It's a pretty authentic match."

Bater will try to re-create the historical moment as "an evening with political heavy-hitters in a big smoking room." She plans to have stamped-out cigars in the ashtrays and partially filled liquor decanters to effect an atmosphere of McKinley gaining the support of Philadelphia politicians for his 1896 presidential bid.

"We heard this and read works on McKinley (enough) to believe" the rumor was true, she said.

In a small room off the center hallway, Judilee Bennyhoff of Strafford created an English evening room. The room has a fireplace with carving resembling grapes and vines on the mantelpiece and the brickwork.

Continuing the pattern, Bennyhoff and stencil designer Dee Keller of Bucks County have applied grapes, pomegranates and leaves on wall coverings and over the mantel and doorway. The wall covering is a teal-on-teal stripe and matches the carpeting, and swag and jabot draperies. "It's a place to come and have port wine, talk or read a book," Bennyhoff said.

Three decorators from the Haverford firm of O'Neill & Bishop are working on the living room, which has 12 large ceiling panels with hand-painted peacocks. Douglas Martin, one of the designers, said, "We will use fabrics that will be very rich and in keeping with the tones and feeling of the ceiling murals."

The 1990 Vassar Show House will be on view from May 5 through 28, and tickets cost $12. For more information, call 527-9717 for a recorded message.

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