In 1911, Robert Montgomery, a wealthy Philadelphia stockbroker, commissioned the architect Horace Trumbauer to build his family a home. He chose 300 acres of rolling pasture in an enclave northwest of the city called the Main Line, where, beginning around 1880 and lasting until after World War II, a portion of the American aristocracy lived out a version of English manor life on gentleman farms and large estates.
The Montgomerys may have been just another Main Line family saddling up for the Radnor Hunt and hosting parties for the Social Register set in the ballroom of their estate, Ardrossan. But they achieved a degree of fame beyond this clubby realm as the family that inspired “The Philadelphia Story,” the play and movie starring Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, an irrepressible society girl (and proto-feminist) sorting out romantic entanglements on the eve of her wedding.
The real-life Tracy was Mr. Montgomery’s eldest daughter, Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. Her husband, Edgar Scott, was friends with the playwright Philip Barry, who visited Ardrossan many times and drank cocktails and was charmed by “the golden girl” who “rode to the hounds and was bright, witty and beautiful,” as Mr. Barry’s wife, Ellen, later remembered her.
The movie lends a mystique to the Montgomerys and the place where they lived and entertained, though since it’s been nearly 80 years since Hepburn won an Oscar for her role, that aura, like the blue-blooded dominion of the Main Line, is receding into history. A new illustrated book, “Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line” (Bauer and Dean), by David Nelson Wren, tells the story of the family and home in forensic detail.
We’re shown architectural drawings and old photographs. We learn that “an extensive selection of trees and shrubs” was “delivered and planted between May 15 and 18” of 1912. An entire drama, replayed in letters between Mr. Montgomery and the London-based decorating firm White, Allom & Company, is made of the delays in furniture deliveries. The whole thing boils over one day when Mr. Montgomery comes home and discovers yet again there is no hall table upon which to set his hat.
More than an estate, Ardrossan was a fief: At its peak it comprised roughly 760 acres, with several barns, outbuildings and a tiny village called Banjo Town, while the Big House, as the main residence was known, contained 14 bedrooms, nine bathrooms and 18 fireplaces spread over 33,000 square feet. The Montgomerys’ grown children lived in smaller houses on the property, as did the workers and their families who ran the estate’s dairy operation.