Grace Kelly's Philly home gets historical marker
PHILADELPHIA — Driving straight from 3901 Henry Ave. in East Falls down to the Schuylkill, particularly at dusk, when the river settles like glass, with three single scullers rowing right out of an Eakins, it's not hard to see why John B. Kelly built his family home there.
The neighbors — not to mention fans of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, around the world — have always known that the 2 1⁄2-story brick Georgian home at Henry and Coulter avenues was the Kelly family home.
Now, everyone who passes by will also know, with the addition of a blue state historical marker outside the home commemorating the Kelly family.
People might also be interested to know that the current owner, Marjorie A. Bamont, 80, who raised her family in the home, will soon be looking to put the house on the market, according to her daughter, Susan Sauer, who grew up in Grace's bedroom.
The Kelly family marker was officially dedicated recently at McMichael Park across the street on a day picked to coincide with the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta down at the river.
Alas, the sign will also have to be fixed after the dedication, as it contains a spelling mistake — “Skull” instead of “Scull” referring to son John Kelly Jr.'s victory in the Diamond Scull at the 1947 Henley Regatta in England. (“Kell” also won a bronze in the 1956 Olympics.)
The time of the dedication, 1 p.m., was set to allow several of the speakers — who include avid rower John B. Kelly III, a grandson of the patriarch — to race in the regatta first, organizers said.
The marker is one of 16 approved this year by the state. The others in Philadelphia include architect Frank Furness, African-American politician John C. Asbury, Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey, the Pennsylvania Bible Society, the Pennypack Creek Bridge, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHAS) Basketball Team.
John B. Kelly Sr. was a construction magnate who won three Olympic gold medals in the 1920s for rowing. A statue near the grandstands on Kelly Drive (as well as the drive itself) is in his honor. Although the marker does not give the dates the family lived there, Kelly built the home around 1929 and his wife finally sold it in 1970.
The new honor, which covers three generations of the Kelly family from John Sr. to Princess Grace, is the result of an effort by the East Falls Historical Society and the neighborhood council, which have always felt the distinction of their neighborhood and want to make sure others do as well.
“East Falls is a really tight-knit Philadelphia community,” said Patty Cheeks, who wrote the application to the state. “I like where I live. I think it's really important for East Falls and other areas of the city to appreciate what you have.”
The Community Council ran a bus tour this month of Kelly Family sites in the neighborhood, including St. Bridget's, which now has a replica of the ceiling of the church in Monaco where Grace Kelly was married, and the Old Academy Players theater, where she acted as a child. They had a showing of the Grace Kelly movie “To Catch a Thief” at nearby Philadelphia University.
Bamont told a Philadelphia Daily News reporter in 1982, several days after Grace Kelly's death in a traffic accident (she suffered a stroke while driving), that she still received mail for the Kelly family and for Princess Grace.
“I still get mail from all over the world addressed to ‘Her Serene Highness' and to the Kelly family,” Bamont said then.
Sauer said her mother, who now stays mostly out of sight of the neighbors but gave her approval for the marker, intends to fix a few things before listing the house. The grounds are a bit unkempt, and two cats watch from a second-floor window.
Bamont bought the brick house with black shutters and two-columned white portico for $100,000, her daughter said, in 1973, from Thomas Lawton, who had purchased the home from Grace's mother three years earlier.
Lawton sold off some of its property, including where a tennis court once stood. (It's now a house.)
Sauer said her mother has had offers over the years, and said TV personality Gene London, a Grace Kelly costume collector, wanted her to donate the home to open a museum in honor of the actress-turned-princess.
Sauer also said about 15 years ago, she and her brother discovered John Kelly's Olympic gold medals in a basement safe, in addition to a set of oars in the attic, which she says they sent back to Prince Albert of Monaco. (Laetitia Pierrata, Chef du Service de presse for the prince, who has been traveling in New York, replied to an inquiry in an e-mail: “I don't have any information about that story but I will look for them.”)
“One of the closet doors does have a chart of the kids, their growth chart,” Sauer said. “We basically kept it the same, the same wallpaper in the hallway, which is gorgeous. You can't find that, dark with light through it, a chair rail.”
A sign etched into the door says, “Don't paint over or rub off,” Sauer said. They did not. According to a Daily News story several days after Grace's death, the entries for her on the linen closet door range from 1931 (nearly 15 months) to 1943, when she was 14 and about 5-foot-5 1⁄2.
Sauer said she was glad there was a public marking of the house that gave her such a distinctive childhood, though she noted that it's almost impossible for a passing motorist on Henry Avenue to pull over if they see the sign. “It's nice that East Falls has something like that,” she said.
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