A Philadelphia Classic Architect George Howe's High Hollow In Chestnut Hill Helped Change The Form And Design Of Suburban Living In 1914. Adapting It To Today's Lifestyle Is Another Story.

Posted: February 26, 1993

High Hollow has been called the most beautiful of Chestnut Hill mansions.

Its circular, cobbled drive, stepped garden terraces, imposing stone structure in mottled purples and reds and elaborate brickwork created a new standard for the picturesque stone houses that proliferated on the Main Line and in Chestnut Hill in the early 20th century.

Now occupied by an active family of five, the grand first-floor spaces are

rarely used, mainly for charity benefits and large parties; the pool and the yard have become the province of teenage parties; the second floor has turned into the retreat for everyday activities, such as television and reading. As such, the house tells something about the way that domestic life has changed

from the turn of the century.

But High Hollow also occupies an important place in the history and evolution of American architecture.

With its formal spaces and composition around a central hall, High Hollow reflects architect George Howe's early training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, at the time the leading school of architecture; it emphasized classical design, symmetry and formal composition. The house, according to Howe's biographer, Robert Stern, shows such "restraint, sensitivity and strength that it established the standard for fashionable country-house design around Philadelphia for the next 20 years. Often imitated, this beautiful house, certainly a minor masterpiece, was never surpassed by Howe or by the many architects who came to design in his manner."

Although romantic and vaguely French or English with its dramatic turret and arches, the house has no specific historic detail from a particular period.

Howe later called the style of the dozens of houses designed by the society firm of Mellor, Meigs & Howe as Wall Street Pastoral after the stockbrokers who commissioned them.

When we know that Howe later became a modernist pioneer, High Hollow takes on a double import, both as a prototype of the elegant Philadelphia country house and as a precursor of modernism in this country.

By 1930, Howe had become a leading American proponent of the radical new European style that came to be called Internationalism. He designed the PSFS Building at 12th and Market Streets, the first skyscraper in the United States in the stark, modernist style. The building still is regarded as a towering achievement that helped change the face of urban American architecture.

When High Hollow was built in 1914-1917, it was noted for a certain degree of breakthrough design. The house was an initial demonstration of Howe's mastery in using Philadelphia materials with simplicity and directness. Stone of purplish hue came from an abandoned quarry that was specially reopened for Howe. Elaborate red brickwork outlines the round arches and doors. Brick stringcourses detail the floor levels and differentiate between bearing and infill walls to clearly express the building as a constructed object.

The house was carefully sited in a hollow on a steep slope overlooking Fairmount Park. This simple and solid massing of local materials combined with artful siting in a natural setting became an important contribution to domestic architecture that reflected a growing informality in American life.


Although the house is a Philadelphia classic that was instrumental in changing the form and design of suburban living in the early part of the century, adapting it to contemporary life was another story.

Robert and Winifred Lear were attracted to the house in 1979 because of its drama, beautiful spaces and fine materials of marble, brass and wood. Although they have undertaken extensive renovations of the original wiring, heating and plumbing, they were careful not to alter any of the essential elements of the house.

"What struck me was that the rooms were beautiful, even with nothing in them," says Winifred. "The design is so perfect I had no desire to change it, just to make it more liveable for people who don't have 30 people working for them."

The Lears have left the hall entrywall as bare as possible so as not to detract from the complex stairway. It is this dazzling, nearly spiraling stairway that is cited as a precursor of Howe's transition to emerging modernism. The cantilevered landing at the halfway level above the main floor forms a bridge as it crosses the hall, allowing one to see two levels up from the entrance hall. The eye is also drawn downward to another level at the end of the hall, where an arched window looks out on a wooded vista.

The 55-foot-long living room is pierced with four pairs of tall, rounded- arch windowed doors. When open, they slide into the wall, admitting a great amount of light and allowing ease of access to the outdoors. Howe designed the room to allow an openness to the outdoors in the manner of an Italian villa - an engaging idea that is not indulged in by the Lears, for fear that bugs, squirrels and deer from Fairmount Park would become visitors.

Half-circle balconies at the rear of both living and dining rooms offer views of the terraced grounds and a tiled reflecting pool.

Howe had left the rooms devoid of ornamental detail, although elaborate plasterwork moldings and ceiling medallions were added in the 1930s by another owner. The Lears decided to accentuate the graceful scale and proportions of the room by deliberately not filling the rooms with quantities of furniture.

Both the Lears - he is assistant general counsel to the Philadelphia School District; she is an assistant teacher for Germantown Friends - are active in charity work, and have frequently lent the house for charity benefits. Parties for 300 are not uncommon. "Because we always have the biggest house, we always have school events - the graduation party that no one else wants," she says.

But such grand spaces are a bit daunting for everyday use.

"We don't have a first-floor room where anyone wanted to be for long," she admits. Instead, the family spends time on a typical weeknight in one of the two second-floor master bedrooms. It has been converted to a sitting room with woodstove and television. The maid's dining room off the kitchen was remodeled into a play and television room, and the dingy, stainless-steel servant's kitchen was remodeled, its walls covered with white tile.

Another problem has been in adapting the frighteningly large house for small children. When the Lears moved in, their daughters, Mary Ellen and Kathrina, were 6 and 3. Their son, James, is now 7.

A maid's quarters above the kitchen was remodeled for live-in baby sitters. The staircase had spaces between the spindles large enough for a child to fall through. Plastic sheeting fastened to poles extending 3 feet above the bannisters had to be erected as a safety device when the children were small.

High Hollow was adapted from the final project Howe had drawn at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts before returning to this country from Paris. For a short time he worked for Furness, Evans & Co.

At Mellor, Meigs & Howe, the architecture reflected a mood that oozed ease and gentility: nostalgic versions of Norman farmhouses, made of native stone and with steep roofs, terraces, walled gardens, cobbled forecourts and other nostalgic Europeanized detail. The overall sensibility was well-bred, nice, graceful, cozy, rambling and roomy, reflecting an atmosphere sought by the secure upper-class and fundamentally conservative social world of Chestnut Hill.

The apotheosis of this sense-soothing style was the best known of the firm's designs, the estate of Arthur E. Newbold Jr., at Laverock, built from 1921 to 1928. Now demolished for tract housing, it was a gentleman's farm on an enormous scale, complete with sagging roof lines designed to look as if they had been there for centuries.

In later years, Howe was to call this culmination of architectural romantic fantasy his last "Jumbo, Anti-Economy, Romantic Country-House Package, complete with sheep folds, duck ponds, dovecotes and immemorial elms, transplanted at great expense."

The Newbold estate drew on peasant architecture from the Normandy region of France, but came to define a new kind of elegance that combined artificially created simplicity and grandeur at the same time.

In 1925, the estate won the highest award for architecture in America at the time: the Gold Medal for Excellence in Design by the Architectural League of New York. But it also engendered a stinging review in the New Republic by Lewis Mumford, who called it an example of the architectural sickness of the time, which he called "architectural anesthesia."

The "malady of the unreal" was based on "the desire to recapture the past; the desire to create more permanent homes than our metropolitan rent warrens," wrote Mumford. "The critical weakness of the romantic architect is that he is employed in creating an environment into which people may escape

from a sordid workaday world, whereas the real problem of architecture is to remake the workaday world so that people will not wish to escape from it."

The criticism seemed to have stung Howe, who already was experiencing a growing discomfort between the superficiality and materialism of his middle- class existence and the changing forces of modernism and social struggles in Europe.

Howe soon embraced the stark and spare style that would be called Internationalism, and became one of its leading proponents in America. Later, in a lecture at Harvard, he described this transition:

"I resigned from my firm, sold my house, the badge of my servitude to romantic-classicism . . . moved into an innocuous nonstylistic relic of evolution, and set myself up, with two draftsmen, as a priest of the Modern Faith."

In truth, the change was a bit more gradual and unfolded through a series of transitional branch offices for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. In 1932, with Swiss partner William Lescaze, Howe completed the PSFS building, giving Philadelphia and the world the model for a new style.

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