The Bellevue Hotel, part 1 – oral history of people who grew up there


One of the most beautiful and impressive buildings that has ever been erected in Wayne is but a legend now – the Bellevue Hotel built in the summer of 1881 by George W. Childs and A. J. Drexel.

For not quite nineteen years it stood on the high slope of ground overlooking Lancaster Pike at the intersection of what is now Bellevue avenue, its wide porches looking out on the surrounding countryside. And then on a bitter cold night in January, 1900, the hostelry, famous for two decades as the summer home of wealthy Philadelphians, burnt to the ground. It has never been rebuilt. But a few years later William W. Hearne erected his home on very nearly the same site. This is the building now occupied by the Helen Kellogg Dining Room at 125 West Lancaster avenue.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s there were several famous summer hotels along our Main Line. Among them, in addition to the Bellevue, were the Bryn Mawr Hotel, now the Baldwin School; White Hall, on old Railway avenue in Bryn Mawr; Louella Mansion on Lancaster avenue in Wayne, and the Devon Inn in Devon.

The Louella, built in 1867 by Henry J. Askin as a home for his young family, had become a summer hotel by the middle seventies, thus antedating the Bellevue by several years. But of all the hostelries none has been more famous for the aristocracy of its guests, the beauty of its surroundings and the comfort and luxury of its appointments, than the Bellevue in the brief years of its existence.

The story of summers in the old hotel has been graphically described to this columnist recently by a man and a woman who livd there as children in the decade between 1885 and 1895. They are Dr. George W. Arms, a retired Presbyterian minister now residing in Lansdowne and Mrs. Horace J. Davis, of Wallingford. They are grandchildren of Mrs. Mary Berrell Field who purchased the Bellevue from George W. Childs in 1885. With their father and mother they lived at the Inn for ten years of their childhood.

For all of those ten years small George attended Sunday School regularly at the Wayne Presbyterian Church. “Undoubtedly during that time,” he writes, “seed was sown which developed into a Presbyterian preacher of now over 45 years. Some of my playmates, if they should remember me and my name, wonder at the grace of God.” Dr. Arms also attended the public school in Wayne and remembers “the four room gray stone school that was built near the present school location”. George H. Wilson was then the principal.

Mrs. Davis and Dr. Arms tell of the Philadelphia families who would leave town early in the spring to avoid the heat of the summer and to spend a restful time at a hotel “in the country”, as they considered the present suburb. Town houses would be closed and families would “board the Main Line train for Wayne”. But before they did so, furniture was protected with linen covers, mothballs were scattered over the rugs and trunks were packed in readiness for the call of the Adams Express Company.

Once in Wayne, the took up commodious quarters in the Bellevue Hotel, which was a charming hotel built of frame, four stories high, with broad porches running across each floor. The second and third floor porches were divided by white railings, for each room had its door leading out onto a private porch.

The hotel with its large lawns was set back from the Pike. Up from the Pike was the U-shaped drive tot he front door. A small summerhouse, covered with honeysuckle, stood half way up the drive. (This small building somehow escaped the fire, and is still standing, the sole remainder of a day now long past).

On the lawn to the right of the hotel was a small stone house with high domed roof, long stained glass window on the side and porch running across the front. In it were the billiard and pool tables. At the side and rear of the hotel were the tennis courts and croquet grounds. A shaded walk with flowering bushes led down to Wayne Station. In back of the hotel was the servants’ cottage, on the lower floor of which was the laundry room where all the laundry of the hotel and of the guests was done.

By the side of the cottage was the large ice house, supplying the ice for the hotel. Every winter the ice was drawn from Martin’s Dam on long wooden sleds. Sawdust was packed in the ice house with the ice to keep it solid. After the house was filled, the doors would be locked and not opened until the following spring.

Up the broad steps and across the wide front porch was the entrance tot he Bellevue. The front hall ran back to the dining room. On one side of the hall to the left was a small library with a white mantelpiece, with a beautiful brass fire set beside it. At the end of the room were doors that opened onto the porches.

On the right side of the hall was the parlor with three wide doors opening out on the front porch. The floor was covered by a gay carpet, there was the mantel with its mirror, and at the end of the room a long wide mirror from floor to ceiling which reflected the small sofas and chairs. it was a rather severe and formal room with its piano, a few ornaments and pictures.

Down a side hallway, running the length of the house, was the card room for the men. When whist was played in the evenings never a word was spoken. Across the hall was another card room, this for the ladies.

The dining room with its windows on each side was a large and cheerful room. There the Saturday evening hops were held each week. In back of the dining room was the kitchen. One side of it was covered with high iron ranges, in front of which was the carving table with a frame over it, from which hung the carving knives. It was as long as the range. The steam table and dishes and the pantry were on the other side of the room.

So vivid was the impression made on the mind of small Mary Arms during a childhood spent at the old Bellevue Hotel that she is able to present this word picture of it now, may years later. And Dr. Arms has even drawn to scale both interior plans of the Hotel and an exterior view showing the buildings and its grounds.

To be continued