Miniature mansions

They were gatehouses to the great estates of the wealthy, and some still remain, grand in a cozy sort of way.

Posted: March 16, 2007

If Hansel and Gretel had a place on the Main Line, it might look like this.

A dollhouse, really. No bigger than a cottage in the Black Forest. Steep, gabled roofs. Stout chimney. Stone-block sides.

Hardly big enough for two people and two dogs, is the way James Block tells it. He and his Swedish-born wife, Pia, live snugly behind a wrought-iron gate and a brown chunk of rock wall.

"People say, 'Oh, it's like a fairy tale,' " Block tells a reporter who stops for a look.

The Blocks live in a gatehouse. Philadelphia's railroad suburbs of the 19th century, especially the hills and glens of the Main Line, are sprinkled with them.

The structures are remnants of a time that lasted almost until World War I, when the wealthy - merchants, bankers and manufacturers - modeled themselves on the landed barons of Europe. They built sprawling, mostly English-style manors in what then was the countryside. And at the entrance roads, they put up gatehouses, where visitors in carriages or automobiles could be greeted and screened.

With the exception of some manor houses that have become colleges or other institutions, most are long gone - torn down or burned down.

Many more of the gatehouses - often scaled-down versions of the big house for the use of servants - have survived as orphans of the old estates.

"They're charming little things, like make-believe Disney houses or Seven Dwarfs houses," says William Morrison, author of the book The Main Line: Country Houses of Philadelphia's Storied Suburb, 1870-1930.

On Gulph Creek Road in Radnor, the Blocks have lived in their gatehouse since 1979. A Franklin Survey Co. atlas shows it was part of a 57-acre estate owned by the Mott family.

The dwelling, with three small bedrooms and one bathroom, sits in a tunnel of trees. Block calls it rough-hewn. It is perched with one long leg in the creek and a short leg against the road.

The fieldstone walls are 3 feet thick, which cuts down on the noise from what has become a commuter shortcut to Wayne or Villanova. A makeshift wood bridge replaces a stone bridge that was washed out in Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Over coffee in the tight kitchen, Pia Block says her son, Asher, now 23, often complained as a boy that his friends could have a lot more friends over.

"We just thought we were extremely lucky to get it," she says of the house. "But it's the kind of house that will appeal to just a certain kind of person."

On Old Gulph Road, less than a mile away, Annette Von Starck lives in what was once the gatehouse of Beaumont - the estate of William L. Austin, president of Baldwin Locomotive Works, one of Philadelphia's biggest industries, who died in 1932 at age 79. The manor house is one that survives, although it has been absorbed into other buildings of Beaumont at Bryn Mawr, a retirement facility.

The gray-stone gatehouse - an English cottage with chimneys and slate roofs going every which way - sits alone against the road in an area rife with beeches, oaks, and decades-old rhododendrons.

Few home buyers, even the very rich, would want a 19th-century manor these days. Too outdated. Too drafty. Especially, too much upkeep. You'd need the battalions of servants the old-time millionaires had. And even if you could afford them, you couldn't find them.

But the gatehouse - ah, now that's a manageable size, a manor in miniature.

Von Starck says the Beaumont gatehouse first caught her eye when she was a Main Line bride from Detroit in the 1940s.

"Everybody on the Main Line wanted to live here - everybody," she says. "And it was never available to rent."

Back then, she says, "most estates had gatehouses. It was a way of keeping track of people coming in and going out. They were a form of security."

On North Wayne Avenue in Wayne, the Church of the Saviour owns a gatehouse that is different from others: It is multicolored brick, not stone, and Dutch in design.

While English-style gatehouses are mostly muted in architectural tone, this one is loud and fancy. A white-faced gargoyle appears to shriek in horror or pain from a tower.

"It's like it's crying," says Mark Memoli, the church-grounds manager.

This is a remnant of Panhurst, the home of Roberts LeBoutillier, an importer who died at age 82 and left an estate estimated at $570,000, according to a newspaper account from 1933.

Miriam Epps, one of LeBoutillier's granddaughters, remembers living in the house, now gone, until she was in the third grade. Her dad, Henry LeBoutillier, owned the place at the time.

"He was what you would call a gentleman farmer," she says. "He had cows and chickens, and I don't know what else."

The gatehouse by the road, still handsome, is used by the church for offices. An ornamental finial was knocked from the roof in a storm, but was replaced just as it was.

Elsewhere on the Main Line, gatehouses can be seen in Bryn Mawr, in Gladwyne, in Haverford. They can be found in other old areas, too - in Chestnut Hill and in the Old York Road area of Elkins Park, north of the city.

"They're relics of another time," Morrison says. "The Main Line was always very keen on the English country lifestyle. They used to have polo up and down the Main Line."

For even a casual passerby, the old gatehouse at the ultra-busy intersection of Route 30 (Lancaster Avenue) and Route 320 (Spring Mill Road) is hard to miss. It looks like it might be an old library. But a sign identifies it as a branch office of Royal Bank America.

The building once stood as the gray-stoned, slate-roofed, multi-chimneyed entrance to Ashwood, the 61-acre Villanova estate of Jacob DaCosta. A leading physician of the 19th century, DaCosta had his portrait painted by Thomas Eakins - it still hangs at Pennsylvania Hospital.

The lettering over the gatehouse's steeply pitched roof carries DaCosta's initials and a date, 1892.

Inside, two tellers and a branch official work in what was the living room, with a fireplace. The house was by far big enough for a family.

"It's homey," says Yemi Aladetohun, the associate manager.

Several times a week, she says, people stop in to look around and ask about its history. The curiosity factor is good for business.

"If people are attracted to the building," she says, "they may open an account."


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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