Chestnut Hill contains many important examples of Midcentury Modern design. But others also deserve attention -- like the former residence of James Bond, scheduled for a sheriff's sale.
Chestnut Hill contains a number of nationally important examples of Midcentury Modern residential design. Those by Robert Venturi and Louis Kahn are well known, but other houses of that period also deserve attention, including one at 721 Davidson Road that will be offered at auction on June 6, 2023, via a Sheriff sale (see link below).
The house, while currently needing work, was elegantly designed in 1955 by Oscar Stonorov, the noted Midcentury Modern architect who created a number of the other houses on Davidson Road as well as the neighboring apartment buildings of the Cherokee Village.
The initially unassuming house sits on a sloping .43 acre site, with only the carport and entrance visible on the upper story. But they lead through to the top of the two-story living room, which offers a floating staircase, fireplace, and two full-height walls of glass that optimize views out towards the Wissahickon valley. It has three bedrooms.
And it also was the home of noted ornithologist James Bond, whose name was borrowed by the English author Ian Fleming for his legendary fictional spy.
Davidson Road was created around 1955 on part of the former Stonehurst estate. The land had been acquired in 1884 by Chestnut Hill’s “founding father,” entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Howard Houston, as a wedding present for his daughter, Sallie, and her husband Charles Wolcott Henry. At that time, he was also starting to build his own house, Druim Moir, and wanted his various children to live nearby.
The Henrys chose the important New York architects McKim Mead & White for their house, which was designed in a French Renaissance Revival style. The surrounding landscape, designed by the Olmsted firm, included extensive terraced gardens and outbuildings.
With Druim Moir on one side and Krisheim on the other (built for another of Henry Houston’s daughters, Gertrude Houston Woodward), those three immense family houses and their surrounding gardens graced neighboring bluffs overlooking the picturesque Wissahickon valley, ideally positioned for sunset cocktails toasting Henry Houston’s business acumen.
Sadly, when Sallie Houston Henry died in 1938 during the Great Depression, her heirs decided to tear down that large house. Plans for the redevelopment of the estate were then delayed by the Second World War.
Once workers and building materials were again available, the Henrys’ daughter Gertrude and her husband, Donald Davidson Dodge, recognized that their world had changed and divided the estate’s acreage between what became the Cherokee apartments and a group of single-family houses along the newly created Davidson Road, which ends at the Wissahickon Park, including the house at 721.
The Henrys’ plans for the site were both innovative and controversial. Henry Houston’s original vision for the development of Chestnut Hill had clustered denser residential development closer to Germantown Avenue, not near the Wissahickon. But by that time, Samuel Houston had already reduced the size of his father’s Druim Moir by removing the fanciful Scottish Baronial turrets and gables and then donated it to the Episcopal Church. (It was later converted into condominiums, with new houses nearby.)
Neighboring Gertrude Houston Woodward at Krisheim was not pleased about all these changes. In his book Suburb in a City (1992), Chestnut Hill’s “historian laureate” David Contasta quotes a letter from Donald Dodge to his sister-in-law Gertrude Woodward: “Growth of populations surrounding great cities simply does not stand still; our whole manner of life has been changed by the automobile.”
The Dodges' choice of architect was also innovative. They selected the German-born Oscar Stonorov, who had come to the United States in 1929. Stonorov’s work reflected the modern architectural thinking that emerged in Europe out of the destruction of the First World War, and he was closely linked with the influential Swiss-French modern architect and city planner known as Le Corbusier.
In Philadelphia during the Great Depression, most of Stonorov’s work focused on multifamily housing, much of which was constructed with public funding. With Alfred Kastner, he designed the remarkable Carl Mackley Houses, a middle-income apartment complex that opened in 1935 in the Juniata neighborhood of Philadelphia, in the imported International Style. He also worked collaboratively with other noted local architects, including George Howe, Louis Kahn, and later Robert Venturi.
Given the particular characteristics of the Stonehurst site, with rolling lawns gradually descending towards the steeper sides of the Wissahickon ravine and the Olmsted plantings, Stonorov worked with the young German emigree landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who was among the first women to graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She later noted the importance of the fully mature specimen trees that remained on the estate and that they had worked together to site the new buildings to fit sympathetically into the varied topography and large trees.
The single-family houses sited along the west side of the new Davidson Road backed mostly onto a smaller tributary of the Wissahickon and thus offered both privacy and beautiful woodland views.
The builders of 721 Davidson Road were a married couple: locally raised Mary Fanning Wickham and her husband James Bond. Their house was constructed between 1955 and 1957, and they continued to live there until 1977. Mary Wickham Bond took a number of color slides of the construction of the house, and 32 of those images are now in the photography archives at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.
After he completed Cambridge University, James Bond returned to Philadelphia and tried banking before becoming a “gentleman naturalist” affiliated with our Academy of Natural Sciences. He was particularly interested in the birds of the Caribbean and wrote what became a standard field guide entitled The Birds of the West Indies which was first published by the Academy in 1936.
Coincidentally, that same book was discovered by Ian Fleming, the English novelist, who had been an intelligence officer during the Second World War, including working on the infamous US-British “T-Force” that focused on securing key German documents and technologies from possible destruction. Along the way, he fell in love with the island of Jamaica and in 1945 built a house there that he called “Goldeneye.”
While in Jamaica, Fleming enjoyed birding and owned a copy of James Bond’s The Birds of the West Indies. As he was starting to imagine spy novels based on his recent military experience, he fell on the name “James Bond” for his main character.
An article published in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Penn State about Mary Wickham Bond noted that in 1964, on one of their many birding expeditions they paid an unannounced call on Ian Fleming in Jamaica. “Apparently Mr. Fleming first thought that the Bonds may have dropped in unannounced to slap him with a libel suit for the theft of the name James Bond. This was not the case, and all went well with their meeting. Upon their departure, Fleming even presented them with a copy of his then-latest novel, You Only Live Twice. On the fly cover, Fleming had signed it ‘To the real James Bond, from the Thief of his Identity.’”
Fleming later told Mary Wickham Bond, "… that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born." The article published by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book also notes, “She didn't mind the attention much during the day, but her husband would get calls at 2 and 3 a.m. from women looking for James Bond. She would answer these calls irritably, saying ‘Yes, James is here, but this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now.’”
Coincidentally, the Bonds sold the house in 1977 to E. Crosby and Augusta Willet. E. Crosby Willet was the grandson of the founder of Chestnut Hill’s own famed Willet Stained Glass Company, and the firm’s third-generation president. They sold the house to the current owners in 2003.
The elegant modern house at 721 Davidson Road, designed by the visionary architect Oscar Stonorov as part of the larger enlightened redevelopment of the Stonehurst estate and home to several noted local families, will soon be available for new owners who can write their own life story within its storied walls.
Thanks to the Chestnut Hill Conservancy for spotting this sale and for their excellent archives. For more information about the upcoming auction: https://www.bid4assets.com/auction/index/1085553.