In 1955, a group of Roman Catholic priests of the Piarist Order purchased a 20-acre parcel in Devon, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of founding a secondary school for boys—Devon Preparatory School. The place had been previously part of “Westthorpe Farm,” which included one hundred acres of woodland surrounding an impressive stone mansion with 25 rooms, that had stood empty for 10 years prior to the sale. The following year, the Piarists renamed the mansion Calasanctius Hall, after the founder of their order, and transformed it into an academic institution that continues to thrive today. I attended the school from 1995–2000. During the first two years (middle school), the bulk of my classes were held in bedrooms on the second floor, complete with large defunct fireplaces and ornate woodwork.
Westthorpe Farm was the home of Charles and Charlotte Lea from 1913 to 1945. They purchased it from the estate of Thomas F. Wright, who apparently built the original structure in the 1890s. I have often heard it repeated that the Leas built the mansion (e.g., Bright 2013, and on devonprep.com accessed 3/5/15, and again on 8/28/17), but it appears that they did not, but rather made extensive renovations to a previously existing structure (Hellberg 1993). Frank Kelley, who served as director of public works for Tredyffrin Township and who, at age 75, was interviewed for a 1993 piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, recalled an extensive two-year renovation during which the Leas hired Italian masons to install imported marble and other stone. Kelley had mowed the lawns at Westthorpe Farm for summer employment as a youth (Hellberg 1993).
This is usually where the story ends for students of Devon Prep history. I decided to dig a little deeper into the Lea family history, and what I found was somewhat surprising. It is in fact, incredibly appropriate that Devon Prep came to occupy the building that is now known as Calasanctius Hall, because its history is intricately tied to one of Philadelphia’s most prolific scientific families, champions of academic and civic engagement.
Charles Mathew Lea’s great-grandfather was Mathew Carey (1760–1839), the Irish-born social reformer and publisher who in 1781 worked in Benjamin Franklin’s printing office in Paris. In 1784, Carey immigrated to the United States under threat of prosecution for publishing in Ireland essays critical of British authority. He opened a printing company in Philadelphia that would endure in subsequent generations of his family (Fry 1999).
Carey had two sons and a daughter. Both sons were involved in their father’s publishing business. His eldest boy, Henry Charles Carey, became a prominent economist and served as adviser to President Abraham Lincoln (Elder 1880). His younger son was the publisher of the first American edition of John James Audubon’s Ornithological Biography (E. L Carey & A. Hart, 1832–1839). But it was his daughter, Frances Anne Carey (1799–1873), a botanist and scholar of classical languages, who in 1822 married the eminent Quaker conchologist Isaac Lea (1792–1886), who would have bearing on the history of Calasanctius Hall.
Their household was steeped in science and publishing. Isaac Lea was the successor of ornithologist George Ord (1781–1866) as the president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where he served during the runup and early years of the American Civil War, 1858–1863. He also served as the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1860, after which the position was vacant for the duration of the war, and Vice President of the American Philosophical Society (Leidy 1887).
They had three sons, one of which died in infancy. Mathew Carey Lea (1823–1897) was a prolific American chemist, publishing over one hundred major peer-reviewed research papers, and is now considered the “Father of Mechanochemistry” (Barker 1903, Takacs 2003). Henry Charles Lea (1825–1909) assisted his father at the publishing firm and in his studies of conchology, and even published several conchology papers of his own; but he became best known as a historian (he was an expert on the Spanish Inquisition) and civic reformer. Indeed, his mother’s proclivity for classical languages rubbed off on him, facilitating his extensive research in European history. He served as President of the American Historical Society in 1903. When he died, his children donated his extraordinary personal library to the University of Pennsylvania (Henry Charles Lea Library):
“…The library of Henry Charles Lea consisted of the most complete collection of medieval and early modern European legal and ecclesiastical history in the United States, housed in a magnificent Victorian Gothic reading room.The collection the University received held around 7,000 volumes, including four hundred medieval manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1500), transcriptions of manuscripts and archival material from Europe, Lea’s scholarly correspondence, drafts and corrected proofs of his historical works, unpublished research and reading notes, as well as the entire room and its furnishings…” (E. Peters, in The Penn Library Collections at 250)
The son of Henry Charles Lea and his wife Anna C. Yandon, Charles Mathew Lea (1853–1927), joined his father’s publishing firm in 1880. The same year he married Helen Vaughan Cope (1857–1886). In 1885, the father retired and Charles M. Lea ran the firm (then called Lea Brothers & Co.) with his younger brother Arthur. In June of the following year, Helen (Cope) Lea died in Cape May, New Jersey.
Charles Mathew Lea remarried in 1895, to Charlotte (Augusta) Lea, the Chief of the Women’s Division Federal Food Administration for the state of Pennsylvania, and later the President of the League of Women Voters in Chester County, where the couple moved around 1900. They lived at Cassatt and Conestoga Roads in 1902 (Boyd’s Chester County Directory), and later rented “The Terraces,” the Devon estate of Clarke Merchant (Fry 1999). In 1913, they purchased Westthorpe Farm, initially a 20-acre parcel, and enlarged it in 1920 with an additional 83 acres along Upper Gulph Road, to the south and east of Lea’s original property.
In 1915, Charles Mathew Lea retired from the publishing business to devote more time to his collection of rare art prints. His father had initiated the project in 1879, and they had worked on it together for many years. After Henry Charles Lea’s death in 1909, the son improved and enlarged the collection significantly, and the spacious mansion now known as Calasanctius Hall was particularly accommodating for that purpose. After her husband’s death in 1927, Charlotte Lea donated the extraordinary print collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it resides today (Pearson 1928).
It is fitting that the Lea mansion was, of all possible outcomes, destined to become a school, where young men (such as myself) spend their formative years in rigorous study of the humanities, natural sciences, and art. They are most likely (as I was) oblivious to its rich history in these subjects, but I like to think that they are nevertheless affected by it, in an ecological sense.
Baltzell, E. Digby (1958). Philadelphia Gentlemen. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press. p. 149
Barker, G. F. 1903. Biographical memoir of Matthew Carey Lea (1823–1897). 155–208.
Bright, A. 2013. A century of sentiment. Devon Dialogue V(1):8.
Elder, W. 1880. A memoir of Henry C. Carey. Henry Carey Baird & Co., Philadelphia, PA. Read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. digial edition prepared by G. Edwards, 2006. http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/carey/Memoir%20of%20Carey.pdf
Fry, H. 1999. Facts found in an almanac. History Quaterly 37:68–69. Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Hellberg, J. V. 1993. As A Home, Or A School, Always A Host To Children The 25-room Stone Mansion Was Part Of An 100-acre Estate. Now, It’s The Centerpiece Of Devon Prep. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1993. Retrieved 3/5/2015
Henry Charles Lea Papers. Penn Special Collections. University of Pennsylvania: Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Leidy, J. 1887. Biographical notice of Isaac Lea, LL. D. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 24(126):400–403.
Pearson, E. T. 1928. The Charles M. Lea Collection. Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 23(121):8–9.
Peters, E. M. Henry Charles Lea and the Libraries within a Library. The Penn Library Collections at 250. Retrieved 3/5/2015.
Takacs, L. 2003. M. Carey Lea, the father of mechanochemistry. Bulletin of Historical Chemistry 28(1): 26–34.