Throwback Thursday: Bessie Dobson Altemus


At a Grace Kelly brainstorming meeting today, lifelong local Carolyn Sutton showed us some really cool Hohenadel stuff and a cache of rare antique photos she’s been hunting down online: 

Jack Kelly and son meeting the Governor, the view of Midvale from across the river when the Mills were active, stereo-optic images of Laurel Hill from the early 1900’s…

She’ll be scanning those in for but our favorite so far was this one of Bessie Dobson Altemus from the 1930’s (those clothes! that car!)


She’s the one on the left, by the way. Here’s a photo of her daughter, though —  rowl:

Bessie Dobson Altemus her daughter Mary Elizabeth Altemus

A mill heiress, Bessie Dobson Altemus lived with her family in “Bella Vista,” a grand estate where PHA’s Abbotsford Homes sits today.  Reporters were there to capture her last lingering moments before she left her home to Uncle Sam. This article from the Indiana (Pennsylvania) Evening Gazette dated August 14, 1941 describes the scene:

Bessie Dobson the dismantling of Bella Vista

Defense Workers to Occupy Homes on Philadelphia Estate

Philadelphia, Aug 14 — Standing in sunken gardens, socialite Mrs. Bessie Dobson Altemus looked for the last time upon the rambling, beautiful old home she has known all her life.

“I remember…” she mused sadly,  “Well, it doesn’t matter what I remember. I only hope those who live here will be as happy as I have always been.”

That was her benediction upon the famous mansion Bella Vista at the falls of the Schuylkill River, upon the surrounding 28-acre estate and upon the 700 defense workers who will shortly occupy new government houses on the site.

For yesterday was Moving Day for Mrs. Altemus, forced to vacate to make way for the housing project. Next week, pick and axes and claw-hammers will begin tearing down the Altemus showpiece.

The socialite, chairman of the Republican Women of Philadelphia, had to step out of the way of a crew of moving men as she wandered about the house and estate for the last time. The lavish furnishings, art works and books of Bella Vista will be divided among museums and institutions and the friends and neighbors who used the estate as a community center and called its hostess merely “Bessie.” The famous sunken gardens will remain intact.

Mrs. Altemus’s daughter, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Altemus Whitney, the former Mrs. “Jock” Whitney, spent the last day at Bella Vista with her and disclosed she wanted her mother to live at Llangollen, the $1,000,000 Whitney estate in Virginia.

But Mrs. Altemus declared she hadn’t decided where she would live, adding “It doesn’t really matter. I have no home now,” then she reminisced a bit.

“This house was built by my father when he was 35 years old, and it’s sad to leave it now. I remember when there wasn’t a factory to be seen anywhere from here. The children used to run their horses over the fields. We used to be way out in the country.”

As she said these words, her eyes were fixed on the smoke-puffing industrial plants of the Midvale Steel Company, the Budd Wheel Company and the Bendix Aviation Corporation on Philadelphia’s outskirts. Defense workers from these plants will be housed in the new Federal dwellings.

“Wherever I go,” Mrs. Altemus continued, “I don’t think I shall ever stay long from the falls of the Schuylkill.”


  1. Do you have any other information on the Bendix Aviation Corp.? My mother worked there as a radium dial painter during WWII, and Philadelphia seems to have lost all the history of that plant. I have even tried to get info from the National Archives, it is supposed to be no longer classified, but one must wonder why the secrecy?

  2. My parents worked there, too but I have not been able to find the location. At the time, my mother lived in South Philadelphia and my father lived in Upper Darby. They met at the plant. My father was an engineering student at Drexel assigned there for work study and my mother was a stenographer. I would like to learn more

    • Bendix Aviation was located at 4700 Wissahickon Ave – now the Philadelphia Design and Distribution Center.

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