Recalling Mansion's Palmy Past

Posted: September 01, 1991

Jim Sinnott doesn't remember much of the Rosemont mansion. He was there only once, sometime during World War I he thinks, although the exact date has faded from his memory.

What he does recall clearly, though, is the stable.

"It was huge," said Sinnott, of Ontario, Calif., who turns 79 today. ''The carriage room was upstairs and they took the carriages up on the elevator. There were about 40 acres of land at the time."

The stable - a contemporary newspaper called it "the most complete in its appointments of any in which fine horseflesh is well cared for" - is long gone. But the mansion remains, retaining much of the look it had when it was completed 100 years ago.

It is called Rathalla, a Gaelic word meaning "home of the chieftain upon the highest hill."

For many years it was just that, the country residence of wealthy Philadelphia merchant Joseph Francis Sinnott, Jim Sinnott's grandfather.

For the last 70 years it has been the centerpiece of Rosemont College, having been purchased in 1921 by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which established the college that year with seven students.

For nearly three decades - from 1891 until the death of Joseph Sinnott's widow in 1918 - it was one of the Main Line's private showcases, a French Gothic chateau with a wraparound porch, an eight-foot-wide oak staircase and gargoyles guarding the entrance.

Even before it was built, Rathalla made the newspaper.

"One of the handsomest residences of the country is to be erected this summer by Mr. John F. Sinnott, one of Philadelphia's prominent merchants," wrote the anonymous author, who got Sinnott's first name wrong, in the June 27, 1889, edition of The Inquirer.

"Mr. Sinnott will spare no pains or expense in the construction. . . . Every known modern appliance for convenience will be supplied throughout the house, and the building alone will cost over $150,000."

All this for what was essentially a summer home.

While the men commuted on the Paoli Local to conduct their business in Center City - the Sinnotts also had a home on Rittenhouse Square - their

families remained free of the summer heat in their Main Line mansions.

Joseph Francis Sinnott was one such man.

He arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1854. Seventeen at the time, his plan was to join his grandmother in Charleston, S.C., but when he reached Philadelphia, he learned of her death in a yellow fever epidemic.

He remained in Pennsylvania, working first as a clerk for a customs house broker. (A brother who came to America earlier did settle in the South; during the Civil War, the Sinnott brothers fought on opposite sides.)

At 19, Sinnott joined the distillery company of John Gibson's Sons & Co. as an assistant bookkeeper at a $250 annual salary. He rose rapidly in the company, opening a Boston branch in 1861 after serving briefly in the Union Army. In 1863 he married Annie Eliza Rogers; the couple returned to Philadelphia three years later when Sinnott was made a partner in the company. Both his fortune and his family - he had nine children, one of whom died as a toddler - expanded over the next two decades.

He and Andrew Moore took over the company in 1884, renaming it Moore & Sinnott. In 1888 Moore died and Sinnott became sole proprietor of one of the biggest distilleries in the country.

A year later Sinnott approached the architectural firm of Hazlehurst & Huckel about building a mansion. The result was the gray-stone, four-story, 32-room Rathalla.

"The entrance to the mansion will be very imposing," The Inquirer said. ''From the gravel walk a flight of stone steps will lead up to a terrace of stone with an ornamental front. From this terrace another flight of steps in the plans leads to the large hall, into which open the various rooms on the first story. The second floor will be reached by a grand staircase. . . . At the head of the stairway there will be another large hall, into which many of the various rooms open.

"In addition to the house Mr. Sinnott will build a stable to cost $25,000."

It was that stable that stuck in Jim Sinnott's memory. His father, Clarence, was Joseph and Annie Sinnott's youngest son. Unlike his brothers, Clarence didn't enter the family business, preferring travel and adventures, and eventually settled in Montana, where Jim Sinnott was born in 1912. That was six years after the death of his grandfather Joseph.

"My grandmother came and stayed with us one summer," said Jim Sinnott. ''She was a very small woman. Very, very religious. She originally had been a Quaker, but converted to the Catholic faith. In fact, she endowed a church in Clancey, Montana."

When Annie Sinnott died in 1918 at the age of 76, Rathalla was abandoned, considered too expensive by the sons and daughters to maintain.

"It was an enormous piece of property with enormous overhead to keep up," said John Sinnott, 73, whose father, also named John - Joseph and Annie's second-youngest child - ran the New York branch of the distillery. John Sinnott, a retired physician in Little Silver, N.J., also alludes to an embezzlement scandal that affected part of the estate.

"The estate had to be divided many different ways. My grandfather had money, but none of the (heirs) were making that much."

Then, in 1920, Prohibition effectively ended the cash cow that had brought the family fortune. Rathalla was put on the market for $250,000.

In 1921, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus began negotiations for the property, and on Aug. 1 of that year took it over. The next month Rathalla housed a dormitory, nuns' living quarters, offices, a dining hall and classrooms. The billiard room became a chapel.

As the school grew, Rathalla took on different functions. Today, filled with period furniture, it is often the site of dinners and receptions and provides accommodations for overnight guests - functioning, a century later, just as Joseph Francis Sinnott would have wanted.

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