American Versailles

Editor’s Note: When we called ourselves Hidden City Philadelphia, we meant to stay within the city limits. Occasionally, though, something just over the line proves too attractive to resist, like Whitemarsh Hall–or rather what’s left of it.

Looming Ionic columns and curious bits of statuary scattered among the modern townhouses of Stotesbury Estates are all that remains of what was known as “The Versailles of America,” once home to Edward Stotesbury, one of the richest men of his era.   The $3 million Neo-Georgian mansion, with interior decor costing another $3 to $5 million, was the investment banker’s rather pricey wedding gift to his second wife, Lucretia Roberts Cromwell. Stotesbury tapped Horace Trumbauer, prolific architect of suburban mansions for Philadelphia’s elite, to build Whitemarsh Hall on 300 acres in what is now Wyndmoor. Jacques Greber, designer of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, handled the grounds and gardens.

Whitemarsh Hall was completed in 1921, when Stotesbury was 72 years old. Its 147 rooms on six floors–three above and three below ground–included 28 bathrooms, three elevators and a movie theater, and totaled 100,000 square feet. The Stotesburys enjoyed a lavish lifestyle until 1932, when the stock market crash began affecting even the richest of the rich. Stotesbury shuttered the mansion, let most of his staff go, and allowed the grounds to go to seed.

His wife couldn’t afford to maintain the property after Stotesbury died in 1938, and sold it to the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company (later Pennsalt/ATOFINA) in 1943 for $167,000. The company used the mansion for laboratory space, and sold off most of the land to developers, who subdivided it and built single-family homes in the wake of WWII. Pennsalt moved to a new facility in 1963, leaving Whitemarsh vacant. The property changed hands several times in the years that followed, and deteriorated steadily. Vandals, arsonists, looters and the elements all took their toll.

In 1976 Jay Gross bought the stripped and overgrown mansion and the remaining 46 acres of land, and built 183 townhomes on the property. He called the development Stotesbury Estates. The main residence met the wrecking ball in 1980. Gross left some statuary and architectural details to remind residents of Whitemarsh Hall’s former splendor. Most of these ruins–including columns of the main entrance’s portico, a grotto that houses what once was the fountain of Neptune, the lower garden wall from the formal gardens and a belvedere–are contained in a park for residents. Outside the park are several other remnants, including the main entry gate and guard house–now a private residence–as well as several pieces of statuary. These reminders of one wealthy man’s whims now lie in the shadow of rows of indistinguishable, mss-produced townhouses–like a momento mori for the American Dream.



           
		 	        
			

Laura S. Kicey is a photographer and artist based in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Kicey is a 1999 graduate of Kutztown University, where she studied graphic design and photography. Since 2004, her work has been shown in numerous galleries and museums across the U.S., and has been licensed by such clients as Urban Outfitters, Terrain at Styers, AMC Network, Lensbaby, Philly Weekly, and Pantone. Her photographs and digital composites can be found in several private collections and have been prominently featured in print 
publications internationally. Check out her website HERE and her Twitter feed HERE.

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1 Comment


  1. I remember wandering the ruins of the estate before the final demolition. It felt like stumbling across some lost outpost of Atlantis. Truly amazing but not nearly as amazing as the knowledge this was all about to go. Pity I only used my camera for endless pictures of my cat in those days, lol!

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