Laverock Hill was demolished this week by developers. (Photo courtesy of WHYY)

by George McNeely

Another survival of the Gilded Age hits the dust. The large house known as Laverock Hill at 1777 Willow Grove Ave. has been demolished.

That house was only the most recent of several on that site. Into the 19th century, the area now known as Laverock was farmland and woods, with scattered buildings that included the house bought in 1892 by John Clark Sims, Jr. (1845-1901).

Sims was a lawyer who worked his way up to become the secretary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, that engine of prosperity for so many energetic Philadelphians.

He commissioned old-line Philadelphia architects Cope & Stewardson to create a Jacobean Revival-style country house on the crest of the hill looking northwest toward nearby Camp Hill and the Whitemarsh Valley. He called his new house Falcon Hill.

In 1915, that house was bought by Isaac Tatnall Starr (1867- 1930), a stockbroker, whose family has owned it until just recently.

Curiously, Starr had recently come into a huge inheritance from an unmarried lady, Julia Garrett. At the time of her death in 1913, she had no children and an estimated net worth between $6 and $20 million. (In current terms, $150 to $500 million.) In the type of unexpected good fortune usually found only in the novels of Charles Dickens, Garrett left her entire inheritance to Starr, her financial advisor.

She was one of four children of William Evans Garrett, Sr., identified in his 1885 obituary as a nationally-known snuff manufacturer in Philadelphia. Her father had been a generous supporter of the Baptist church and is buried with his daughter and other family members at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Some combination of her father’s business success and Starr’s financial guidance resulted in Garrett’s large fortune. As improbable as this story may sound, key specifics were reported in the San Bernadino (California) Sun on Feb. 19, 1914, when Starr settled a payment on a disgruntled distant California relation of Garrett, but apparently kept the remainder for himself.

With his good fortune, Starr expanded the main house and added or enhanced several clusters of outbuildings, both near the main house and elsewhere on the property. For that work, he chose the prominent New York architect Charles A. Platt (1861- 1933). Platt was popular for his large suburban houses around New York, Boston and Chicago, prominent Beaux Arts apartment houses in Manhattan for the Astor Estate and buildings at various boarding schools. Why Starr chose Platt as his architect is unclear. (Another Charles Platt lived across Willow Grove Avenue from Starr, but a family connection is uncertain).

Platt’s buildings here and elsewhere are handsome, restrained and accurately reference past architectural styles. (Any McMansion developers reading this might want to take note.) Platt’s buildings sometimes, however, lack emotion. The resulting house, with references to both Tudor and Georgian precedents, is certainly grand but also slightly institutional. Starr called his house Laverock Hill.

Platt worked regularly with noted landscape designer Ellen Biddle Shipman, who had been born in Philadelphia and was an early female pioneer in that field. Her work reflected the shift away from busy Victorian bedding schemes toward more sophisticated European-inspired garden designs. She and Pratt surrounded Laverock Hill with a network of walls, terraces, pergolas and gardens from which to appreciate the views.

After Starr’s death in 1930, his daughter, Hope, lived in the house with her husband, Morris Lloyd. They expanded the property to approximately 100 acres, reaching west toward Paper Mill Road and east across Willow Grove Avenue. They also bought the adjacent house, which had been built for the Krumbaach family, with its own estate buildings.

Over the generations, there were intermarriages between the neighboring families, creating an extended and comfortable community that is remembered fondly by descendants.

But suburban development encroached in the decades after World War II. To the west had been Laverock Farm, the gloriously romantic French Provincial house and farm created in the 1920s by Philadelphia architects Mellor Meigs & Howe for Arthur E. Newbold, Jr. That house languished after Newbold’s death in 1946, was torn down in 1956 and redeveloped with tract houses.

Along the north side of the Starr property had run the now-largely forgotten Fort Washington branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chestnut Hill West line. That spur line had turned off at Allen’s Lane station and ran north along upper Cresheim Creek, past Laverock and out to Fort Washington. Service stopped in 1953. In 1961, part of its unused right-of-way was incorporated into the new expressway bypass for old Route 309. That brought noisy traffic to within several hundred yards of the main house.

Mrs. Lloyd’s death in 2006 has resulted in over a decade of wrangling over Laverock Hill.

Public records suggest that the family may have applied for certain zoning changes even before her death. Then the property was bought in 2008 by Hansen-Lloyd, LLP, a subsidiary of Hansen Properties of Blue Bell. Hansen is a family-owned property management company that has developed and owns various hospitality businesses in the area.

Over the years, the company has proposed a range of activities for the 42-acre site. Planning has been complicated because the Springfield-Cheltenham township line bisects the property. The township files are full of alternative proposals for the site.

Hansen initially proposed a series of four-story apartment buildings in a retirement community that might have maintained the big house as its clubhouse. That gradually evolved into a mix of low apartment buildings and townhouses, with the buildings arranged in a variety of configurations in successive plans, but mostly continuing to retain the main house and some of its outbuildings. More recent proposals have eliminated the house and any outbuildings, and divided the property into small, single-family house plots, again in various configurations.

The Preservation Alliance had included Laverock Hill on its Endangered Properties list in 2010. At that time, the house and gardens were still largely intact. A neighborhood advocacy group has been working on the preservation of the buildings and open land. But a decade of wrangling contributed to the gradual deterioration of the various buildings and gardens. From a recent site visit, it appears that the main house had already been stripped for salvage, and the main structure is mostly demolished now.

The Preservation Alliance noted that this may be have been the one surviving partnership between Charles Platt and Ellen Biddle Shipman. Sadly, even that particularly generous bequest from Garrett has not been large enough to ensure the house’s survival into this century.

Chestnut Hill resident George McNeely is an architectural historian, lecturer, editor, writer and charity auctioneer.

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