Theirs Is Bigger Than Yours

Supersized châteaux are stoking palace envy on the Main Line.

The luckiest day of 2005 for Rick Santorum was June 14th. That Tuesday, real estate developer Mitchell Morgan and his wife, Hilarie, opened the gates of their Bryn Mawr home—their 29,000-square-foot, Bennett Weinstock-­decorated, facade-of-Versailles home!—for a Santorum fund-raising luncheon that featured a drop-in by George W. Bush. Main Liners have been spying upon the goings-on at the 20-acre Morgan property for several years now, so anyone who could afford it wrote a check and ran over to see the house that warm day. Once the property of Ed Snider and his former wife, Art Museum trustee Martha McGeary Snider, the house has been very visibly gutted, expanded, and transformed into a French manor with a ballroom, conservatory, billiard room, library, wine cellar and home theater.

So vast is the new house, in fact, that Bush—inhabitant of the White House, guest at the Armstrong Ranch, visitor to Saudi palaces—made a little joke about it during the event. As the President rambled on about improving the nation’s standard of living, he gestured to the magnificence surrounding him and said—guests thought he was joking—“Someday I hope all Americans can live like this!”

Once again, though, Bush wasn’t exactly tuned in to the American public—or at least to the self-styled Taste Police who are a bit hysterical about this ultrahouse and a handful of others like it that have erupted locally. Call it the rise of the gigamansion: These completely customized, whimsical structures can comprise anything dreamed up by an owner and architect, and stir up emotions that range from awe, envy and admiration to sheer terror. Naysayers rant about the hugeness of new houses that loom fantastically on Bryn Mawr or Gladwyne lots, dwarfing the critics’ own normal-sized mansions. “We call it ‘The Hotel,’” says a Villanova neighbor of the Morgan structure. One woman has dubbed it Fontainbleu, calling the trend the “Beverly Hills-ing of the Main Line.”

“If someone has moved up in life and they want a huge house, I don’t fault them for that,” fumes Gladwyne resident Pierre Robert, the WMMR deejay. “What I fault is that we have to tear down, and change the entire nature of a neighborhood.” And right there is the heart of the conflict: Those who are passionately irked by epic houses say that in their size and proximity to the street, they destroy the very essence of the Main Line, with its natural beauty and onetime landscape of mature trees and creeks and big-but-conservative houses. “We’re used to mansions,” says a Haverford resident who’s a Main Line native, “but these supermansions are going to a level we’re more used to seeing in the Hamptons and Connecticut.”

“I don’t think [houses over 10,000 square feet] are in good taste,” adds Robert, who in his hippie-ish way is voicing what a lot of the critics won’t come right out and say. “They’ll think I’m an asshole for saying it, and I’m being snobbish and elitist, but I’m passionate about this.”

But—haven’t such houses been happening for years on the Main Line? And are they really anybody’s business? “What kind of person needs to promote their wealth to this degree?” opines the Haverford house-watcher, before adding, “But do I feel like I have a right to comment on people’s decisions to build such places? Not really.” And in truth, the Morgan house is resplendent. Those who have been inside praise the fine details of its construction and decor. The facade is elegant, the tall French windows are chic, even the Belgian blocks in the driveway are handsome. “It’s beautiful, very French,” says one guest at the house. “People are just jealous,” adds another neighbor.

But despite the house’s zaftig good looks, it just makes some people crazy. As one Gladwyne woman puts it, “It’s a giant fuck-you to the entire street!”

OH, WELL. SURELY that’s not the message the Morgans (who declined to be interviewed for this story) mean to broadcast to the world. If that were the case, there are a lot of giant fuck-yous springing up in every super-rich enclave in the U.S.; in fact, the entire island of Palm Beach would be one big fuck-you. (That actually may be true.)

On a recent Monday, hairstylist Maurice Tannenbaum jumped into his Hummer for a little drive around the winding streets near his Gladwyne salon and home, where old money and new money politely interface every day. Tannenbaum buzzed along Youngsford and Old Gulph roads, past vintage stone houses and stucco manors and a few ’60s contemporaries teetering on hillsides. He went left up onto Merion Square Road, past old farmhouses and even a modest ranch or two, and braked at a brick-and-stone castle rising up, a turreted structure so Sultan-of-Brunei in scale that even Tannenbaum, who’d seen it a dozen times before, was rendered speechless. The new house, owned by lawyer-entrepreneur Vahan Gureghian and his attorney wife, Danielle, will dwarf a neighboring 1920s edifice. That ’20s house, a former Pew mansion known as Skylands, until recently served as a home for Lutheran nuns, and is now home to developer Michael Karp.

Like Skylands, houses such as Carrington in Gladwyne, Ravenscliff in St. Davids and Glenmede in Bryn Mawr—indeed, most of the grand houses built between 1870 and 1930 on the Main Line—were palatial. And like today’s superhouses, their styles were largely invented: They were designed so Philadelphians could emulate British country life, a faux-pastoral dream that the American upper classes aspired to in the early 20th century. The new supermansions tend to look more French, but aren’t so different from the old supermansions after all. They’re more about a fantasy of a lifestyle than anything else.

Many of the storied older mansions, though, were set back out of sight on huge pieces of ground. When a gigamansion is built these days, it’s easier to witness the process, since there’s really nowhere to hide your house. “There’s not much raw land, and people want to live in Lower Merion,” says Mike Weilbacher, head of the Lower Merion Conservancy. He notes that the teardown rate in his township has gone from about two a year in the early 1990s to more than 40 annually. “Part of our concern,” he says, “is not so much the new house as the old house that’s been taken away. The new house tends to be built to a wildly different scale than the neighborhood. You’ll have a street of ranch houses in Penn Valley, and then a behemoth in the middle of it.”

It’s not just happening in our suburbs: In California and Seattle and Greenwich, CT (where neighbors are currently lobbying against the construction of a 16-­bathroom, 39,000-square-foot home), houses are getting bigger on their lots, and yards are shrinking to accommodate our taste for all things venti. It’s an American tradition: Pimped-out construction flourished from the 1890s through the 1930s in wealthy confines all over the nation, from the North Fork of Long Island to Chicago’s North Shore to Southern California to south Florida. The Depression slowed that trend, and after World War II, people built normal-sized houses for a while, until a famous megahouse lumbered into California in 1991: Aaron Spelling’s 56,000-square-foot Holmby Hills place. You might blame Spelling and his bombastic Dynasty for the great-roomed, 7,000-square-foot McMansions that swept America and laid the foundations for even bigger houses. All of this upsets those who are still mourning the “old Main Line.”

TANNENBAUM'S TOUR de Gladwyne wound along into Bryn Mawr, and as he drove past the two vintage gatehouses at the Morgan house, past the ­pillars-and-wrought-iron expanse of its fence, he was transfixed: “It’s so big that it will have to eventually become a museum,” he said, trolling along. “But you know,” he said of its owners, “they’re from Delaware.”

In fact, Mitchell Morgan, 51, proudly tells of working his way though Temple (where he is now a trustee) by toiling at a shoe store. He went to Temple Law at night, and in 1985 founded his company, Morgan Properties, which owns apartments in nine states. Hilarie Morgan serves on the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has a Ph.D. from Penn in counseling and professional psychology, and counsels adolescents and adults. The couple is generous to various charities—they have an eponymous charitable foundation and support the Mann Music Center, Wills Eye Hospital and the Wharton School, among other causes. One friend expressed surprise that the couple built at the scale they did, but another acquaintance says the Morgans did so precisely so they could hold large fund-raisers.

Perhaps the Morgans aren’t so mysterious after all, then. They could afford to build their house, and it made sense to them. So do houses like theirs mean the Main Line is “ruined,” as one resident puts it?

If so, that happened a long time before these recent huge houses went up. The development of every square inch between Malvern and Center City was inevitable, precisely because of the allure of the “old Main Line,” and that has nothing to do with a few XXL houses. Sure, a legendary estate such as Ardrossan evokes Cary Grant and Hope Scott, and at least for now, the Morgan house evokes Rick Santorum, but as one friend of the Morgans points out, “Everyone loves the old manor houses that were built on the Main Line years ago—and maybe this will be that kind of house 100 years from now.”

With all the curiosity that accompanies the myriad opinions floating in the serene skies above the Morgan house, what the residents of Bryn Mawr and Gladwyne need—the ones who didn’t make it to the Santorum luncheon, that is—is a good old-fashioned block party. There could be hamburgers grilling, and shrimp being passed, and reggae music playing into the night, and once everyone had been a part of that sprawling, silent French house, perhaps they would even embrace it.