Mansion History

A Short History of The Willows

The 47 ½ acres of land surrounding the intersection of Paiste’s Run and Little Darby Creek on the south side of Darby-Paoli Road in Villanova, Pennsylvania, is known today as The Willows. Although it is currently a public park owned by Radnor Township, the land and the mansion that is perched on a hill overlooking the park have a rich history of prior ownership dating back to the late 1800s.

In the 1890s, the countryside west of Philadelphia was beginning to transition from farmland into residential areas, and affluent Philadelphians were eager to purchase large country homes. Many families made this move to escape the challenge of city living, wanted to acquire more land or sometimes wanted to show off their wealth. The “Main Line” became a good investment according to Herman Wendell, a carpenter by trade and later a real estate investor. Wendell bought 113 acres of land encompassing Paiste’s Run in 1896. Wendell bought the property for $28,000 but sold it only four years later to E. Craig Biddle for $40,000.

Biddle, a descendant of the wealthy Drexel and Biddle families built a large house on his newly acquired property. Craig’s uncle, George W.C. Drexel provided the funding as a wedding gift for the couple. Craig and his wife, Laura Whelen, named their home, Laurento. Laurento sat north of the eventual location of The Willows, on the opposite side of Darby-Paoli Road. In 1909, wishing to sell the land on the southern side of Darby-Paoli Road, he sold roughly 47 acres to John Sinnott for $1. Oftentimes, a transaction for $1 meant that there was an arrangement between the buyer and seller – sometimes family members – by which the buyer took on any mortgages on the property, or where the families did not want to disclose the true value of the property for tax purposes. Biddle sold the other 65 acres of his property in 1911 to Archibald Barklie.

John Sinnott’s father, Joseph Francis Sinnott, was an Irish immigrant who was homeless The family he had come to stay with had died of yellow fever, so he quickly found work in order to support himself. At the age of 18, the elder Sinnott began working at the distilling company, John Gibson’s Son & Company, which grew exponentially to become one of the largest in the country. Within ten years, Joseph Sinnott became a partner in that business and, soon after, Gibson retired, and the company changed its name to “Moore & Sinnott.” Joseph Sinnotts’s partnership with Andrew Moore continued for four years, until Moore’s death in 1888, which resulted in Sinnott acquiring full ownership of the business. The elder Sinnott eventually built the Main Line mansion Rathalla, where John Sinnott and his eight siblings were raised. Rathalla is now the Main Building at Rosemont College.

In addition to his business activities, John Sinnott participated in many religious, charitable, civic, and historical endeavors, making himself a significant member of society. After he attended Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, he married Mary Henrietta Luce in San Diego, California. In 1910, he purchased 47 ½ acres south of Darby-Paoli Road from Biddle and the couple built a large house at the top of a hill on the property. The house was designed by the prominent Philadelphia architect, Charles Barton Keen, who also designed the clubhouse at Aronimink Golf Club. The Sinnotts named the house and property Rose Garland after the Sinnott family’s ancestral home in Ireland. Built while trends in residential architectural styles were evolving, the couple chose a simple design featuring a red tiled roof, smooth plastered walls, and balconies with wrought iron railings, echoing a style that was popular in California at the time. During the construction of the house, a 2.5 acre pond was also carved out of a low-lying piece of the property. This and other landscaping projects contributed to the beautiful park we know today.

The Sinnotts owned Rose Garland for approximately 14 years, after which they sold the property to H. C. Parkin. One year later, the property was purchased by Clement A. Griscom III.

Clement A. Griscom III was the grandson of shipping magnate Clement A. Griscom, president of the International Navigation Co. which later became the  International Mercantile Marine shipping trust company. Griscom and his wife used the mansion primarily as a rental house until its sale in 1934 to Simon S. Neuman.

Simon S. Neuman was Chairman of the Board of Publicker Industries, a distillery business. Neuman and his wife, Helen, modernized the mansion’s kitchen and installed a stylish, post-Prohibition bar in the basement before selling the property two years later, in 1936, to Clarence Geist and moving across the street to Inver House.

Clarence Geist was the president of the Philadelphia Suburban Water Company and the owner of Launfal, the grand house and grounds of which are now the Academy of Notre Dame on Sproul Road. He bought the property for his daughter, Mary Golden Geist, as a wedding gift for her and her new husband, Alfred Zantzinger, Alfred was the grandson of another famous Philadelphia architect, Clarence Zantzinger, whose architectural firm designed many of the large homes in the area, including Chanticleer. The Zantzingers renamed the property Maral Brook, using the first syllable of each of their names. They traveled every summer with their house staff to their house in Maine. They held memberships in the Racquet Club, the Gulph Mills Golf Club and the Wilmington Country Club, among other exclusive clubs. Mary and Alfred died in 1969 and 1972, respectively. They were the last to own and live in the Willows Mansion before it was acquired by Radnor Township in 1973.

How did The Willows come to be called The Willows? While the property was still in E. Craig Biddle’s possession, author and journalist Christopher Morley nicknamed the property The Willows after the graceful willow trees growing on the property. Although the house has had three names since it was built in 1910, The Willows is the name that has lasted the longest – 50 years and counting!

The information above was compiled by Ysabel Stanton.

Primary Source: “The Willows. 1910-1973″ by Phyllis C. Maier

Edited by: Mary Coe

John Sinnott

Owner of Rose Garland

Courtesy of the Gertrude Kistler Memorial Library at Rosemont College

Charles Barton Keen


From the private collection of Sara Pilling.

Willows Mansion circa 1920's

From the private collection of the Griscom Family

Willows Mansion circa 1910

Willows Mansion circa 1970

Photo Courtesy of Daniel Zantzinger

Photo courtesy of Daniel Zantzinger

Photo courtesy of Daniel Zantzinger

Photo courtesy of Daniel Zantzinger

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