Saturday, May 26, 2012


Casa Mia today

My office is in an old Main Line mansion, built as a single family home in the 1920’s.  The estate was subdivided and a town home community was built in the 1970’s, but the old house was retained as the community center.  When I came here in 2003, my first office was in the servants’ quarters.  I would go up and down the back stairs several times a day to use the microwave oven to heat water for tea.  And while waiting those three minutes for my water to heat, I would look around in the kitchen and pantry – thinking about the activities that must have occurred there when this house was in its heyday – with a family living here and likely many servants scurrying about in this kitchen.  At some point I “discovered” the servant’s bell box on the wall in the pantry.  The house was originally wired so that each main room had a button on a wall; when pushed, it would ring the bell over the bell box, and also trigger a small arrow on the box that would point to the room where service was required.  The servant would then report to that location to hear what was required. 
The Bell Box

The bell box contained a hint of who may have lived here when the house was first built.  Two of the locations in gold lettering on the bell box are Mr. Jacob’s Room, and Mrs. Jacobs Terrace Room.  A pamphlet on the history of the house gave me a little more to go on.  I have been doing my own genealogy research for years, and so there finally came a moment when I decided to go off looking for the Jacobs family and see what I could find.  Over the last several years I have been able to find a fair amount on the family:  father John Jr., mother Dorothea, daughter Louise and son John III.  Their time in this house was not that long – from 1926 to 1938 – but they were the only family to own and occupy the house.  They lived here in style – they had approximately ten servants while they lived in the house that mother named Casa Mia:  chauffeur, gardeners, a cook, maids, a nanny.  They enjoyed entertaining – why else build a house with its own ballroom?  They sailed – at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Philadelphia when in town, and at the Watch Hill Yacht Club in Watch Hill, Rhode Island where they summered.  They rode horses – with the Radnor Hunt and jumping at Devon.  The children went to good schools – Shipley and Haverford School. 

Louise, Dorothea and Jake
 And yet no one’s life is all roses.  Mother and father divorced when young John went off to college, and the family moved away from Bryn Mawr, never to return.  Young Louise married a dashing young man from a prominent Chicago family, moved off to a beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, had a child, but was stricken with cancer and died before the child’s first birthday, in 1941.  Mother moved off to New York and lived at 950 Park Avenue in Manhattan, where she passed away at age 71 in 1967.  Father lived in Florida, remarried, and kept a summer home in Hyannis.  He died in 1970, at age 76.  And young John, called “Jake” by his family?  In reaching out to his descendants, I was astounded to find that Jake was alive and well, and living in Connecticut.

Jake left Bryn Mawr for Williams College.  World War II intervened and he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.  His rationale:  “If I was going to go to war, I decided I’d rather fly there than walk there.”  He returned to Williams to get his degree after the war, and met and fell in love with beautiful Greta.  They raised 9 children, 8 girls and a boy, and spent a long life together along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shoreline that he had grown to love during his summers there as a child.  Greta died a few years ago, and John has moved into a retirement community in Essex, Connecticut. 
Jake on left, and the author on right, recreating the original photo.
 After years of chasing after these ghosts of the Jacobs family, I really wanted to meet him and spend some time with him.  Essex is 4 1/2 hours by GPS, but an hour or two longer if you actually have to drive on I-95 in Connecticut traffic, so it is not exactly around the corner.  In conversations with his eldest daughter, I offered to drive up and meet her there so that she could introduce me to her father.  Our schedules were never quite in synch.  She sent me pictures last year of the celebration of his 91st birthday.  If I was ever going to meet Jake, I needed to do it sooner rather than later.  But finally this week, we made a firm date – “come up and have lunch with us in Essex.”

I spent several hours taking lots of photos and movie clips of the house.  Jake’s bedroom was in the room that is now my office.  We both had a view of the same huge oak tree through the back window, and the view of the comings and goings from the two driveways in to the house.  I think of him whenever I walk in – I see the young boy from the pictures that the family has shared with me.  On Tuesday I loaded up my computer with the photos and off I went to Essex.  It is a gorgeous New England town – immaculate and with well preserved 18th and 19th century homes.  I stayed in the Griswold Inn, the oldest continually operating inn in the country – since 1776.  I woke up early and explored, then studied my Jacobs family history notes, and put the photos in some kind of order.  I was not sure if our meeting would simply be lunch, or whether I would get a chance to talk more about his memories of Casa Mia.  I was prepared for either, but hoping that we could chat. 

As it turns out, we hit it off well and had a wonderful time.  We enjoyed lunch together with two of his daughters, and a caregiver.  After lunch both daughters had to leave, but Jake and I went back to his room to talk, look at his photos, and then look at my photos of his boyhood home.  He left to go off to college in 1938, and returned once, in 1980, when he spoke to the residents of Millridge on his family’s life there in the 20’s and 30’s.  The photos brought back memories – and we spent the afternoon talking about them. 
Jake on left, and author on right.
I sat in Connecticut traffic for a long time on the ride home.  But that gave me plenty of time to review my thoughts on this whole improbable journey, that started with a name on the bell box.  I have delved in to their family history as if it was my own.  I have put flowers on the grave of the young Louise.  I play the piano in the ballroom and think of what songs were being played during parties in the 1930’s.  My wife and I had our wedding reception on the back patio here.  And now I have met the last known living link to that past. 

I am not obsessed – but was simply drawn into this story – of the Main Line during its golden era.  And in researching the story, I have wanted to share what I have learned, and that has led me to regular writing for publication – something that I had always wanted to do but never had the time for.  Now I make the time for it.  I have met some wonderful people along the way.  Life has layers that we sometimes are not aware of.  If you are walking about in this house, and not thinking about the past, then you are missing one of those layers.  I always see the young boy, running in and out of these rooms.  Now I have met him.  The story has come full circle.  And I have been changed and enriched in the process.  


  1. What a gift you made to that family. You are quite a history detective!

  2. Doug, what a GREAT story! Thanks for sharing with me.

  3. Doug, I love the story and the history. You always were a history buff. Glad you are taking the time to write!!

  4. Thank you Doug for this wonderful family story!

  5. Great detective work, which I look forward to reading more thoroughly. I'm just so excited to have found my mother's childhood home that I've always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, my mother's not here to tell us more about the days when her family, the Fishers, lived at Casa Mia. My sister said that they didn't live there for long. I believe that it was during the 40s, per this snippet from The Philadelphia Inquirer: I have several photos of Casa Mia, including one of my grandfather out back, which I'm looking at as I write. Thank you for your blog. It's not only fascinating but will enable me to connect with a piece of my family's history.