House so grand, even Tinseltown had to tone it down

Posted: May 06, 2007

We will not see the likes of Hope Scott, or Ardrossan, again.

Tall and thin, aristocratic but free-spirited, Scott was the star of Philadelphia's high society for most of the 20th century.

And Ardrossan - her family's vast Radnor estate, with its 50-room manor house - was her playground.

She and her husband, Edgar, rode horses; hunted foxes; dined with dukes, millionaires and movie stars; and threw some of the swankiest parties on the Main Line.

So fairy-tale glamorous was Scott that playwright Philip Barry used her as the model for Tracy Lord, the central character of his 1939 Broadway hit, The Philadelphia Story, played by Katharine Hepburn.

But when MGM went to turn the show into a movie in 1940, the producers took one look at Ardrossan - and froze.

Moviegoers, MGM realized, would never believe that an American socialite, even fictional, lived on so grand a scale. So the sets were modeled instead on an upper-middle-class home on Merion Avenue in Merion.

"I've had the most wonderful life," Scott marveled in April 1994, shortly before her 90th birthday. She had lost some of her vision, though not because of age. "I hit myself in the eye with a champagne cork last year," she said with a laugh. "Can you believe it?"

Scott, who died the next year, grew up Helen Hope Montgomery, one of four children of socially ambitious investment banker Robert L. Montgomery.

As a teenager he had resolved to restore the once-prosperous Montgomerys to prominence. By 30, he was acquiring land in Villanova and Radnor. He named his tract for the town in Scotland from which his family hailed: Ardrossan (accent on the dross).

In 1910, the elegant height of the Edwardian Age, Montgomery turned to architect Horace Trumbauer for an appropriately majestic manor house.

Trumbauer, who later designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art, created a Georgian-style brick edifice with marble staircases, balustraded terraces, and a main floor of foyers, dining rooms and a ballroom that all opened onto one another.

"It was a big, friendly house," Scott recalled 12 years ago.

Although shy as a child, she blossomed in her teens, and had to fend off four offers of marriage at her debutante ball. At age 19, in 1923, she married Edgar Scott, heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune, in what the newspapers called the "society wedding of the year."

Edgar was soon a partner at his father-in-law's brokerage firm, renamed Montgomery & Scott. The couple made their home in one of Ardrossan's 35 buildings: a handsome 1720 stone farmhouse called Orchard Lodge.

Although modest compared with the manor house, it had six bedrooms, staff quarters, a drawing room with a massive fireplace, and a dining room lined with some of her many riding trophies and a painting by Edouard Manet.

It was there, during a now-legendary dinner party, that one of the staff whispered to Scott that the butler had just committed suicide.

"Has everyone been served?" she whispered back. Informed that everyone had, she politely excused herself from the table to attend to the matter downstairs.

For big parties, though, her family turned to the "big house," and after her father's death in 1949, she became its chatelaine.

It was costly to run, and the family eventually put some of the acreage in a trust to help with taxes. She and Edgar later sold off a Mary Cassatt drawing for $50,000 to pay for repaving the nearly half-mile driveway.

Still, they held on to Androssan, flinging open its doors most often for her charities, including black-tie dinner fund-raisers for the Devon Horse Show (she was its longtime president and director) and Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Scott, who stood ramrod straight even into her 90s, played hostess at the head of the receiving line, greeting the guests so warmly ("divine" and "marvelous" were among her favorite adjectives) that each was left feeling that, without his or her presence, the party would have been a flop.

Traversing Persian rugs once trod by the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, W. Averill Harriman and Hepburn, guests passed through paneled rooms illuminated by the glow of great art. In pleasant weather, drinks were served on a terrace surveying hills rolling to the horizon.

A visitor might have expected to hear a voice shout "Cut!" and see this dream scene end.

But it didn't.

Until now.


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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