About Ralph Lester Colton
Biography from the American Architects and Buildings database
Nephew of prominent Philadelphia architect Horace Wells Sellers, Ralph Colton was born in Wallingford, PA to Jessie (Sellers) and Sabin W. Colton. He received his architectural education at the University of Pennsylvania, gaining his B.S. in 1913 and his B.S. in Architecture with the Class of 1916. Having served his apprenticeship with his uncle, Colton launched his own firm by 1923 with offices at 225 South Sydenham Street, an address shared by J. L. Conarroe. By 1926 he had moved to the popular 1520 Locust address shared by a number of other architects. Colton's early death, due to an explosion aboard his motorboat, prevented the development of what appeared to be a promising career.
Colton joined the AIA in 1919. While at the University, he had been a member of the Architectural Society and of Psi Upsilon.
A man of means, Ralph Lester Colton was born into a family of seemingly great wealth and influence in their area of Pennsylvania. His father was Sabin Woolworth Colton, who was the last Colton to own the “Old Red House” that had been built by Captain Simon Colton (#64) in Longmeadow, MA in 1734; a fine example of a New England “saltbox” style characteristic of 18th century architecture. This structure was given to the Historical Society Association but somehow ended up being sold into private ownership.
Ralph Lester Colton had many advantages that many of us can only dream about and yet he met a tragic end at a much to young an age. Nonetheless, he accomplished a great deal in the short time he walked upon this earth, as we shall soon discover.
His father, Sabin Colton, had also purchased a large piece of the eastern end of Greening’s Island, lying between the Northeastern and Southwest harbor towns on the mainland of Mt. Desert Island that contains the Acadia National Park. The Nelson Rockefeller family had a residence in Seal Cove and built the road leading to the top of Mt. Desert along the coast of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean.
Sabin Colton bought two residences contiguous to this property for his children and a magnificent personal residence on the end of the island. He had two large boat houses installed and a swimming pool, almost unknown to that area at that time, and used salt water from the ocean as that water stayed about 50 degrees during the summers.
With this area as a background, Ralph L. Colton became an avid boatsman with a great love for the sea. He had his own sloop but later found a greater love and sold it to buy an engagement ring for his wife to be.
Through architecture, the late Ralph L. Colton, of Philadelphia, PA, gave to this world the benefits of his ability and training. Comparatively young in his skilled profession, he accomplished much that is noteworthy and he was held in high regard by his contemporaries. A member of an early American family, prominent since early Colonial days he was the fourth of five children born to Sabin W. Colton (#1818) and Jessie (Sellars) at Wallingford, PA on 19 September, 1891. This made him a younger brother of Harold Sellers Colton, who later built and owned the historic Colton House Retreat Center outside Flagstaff, AZ (CFN, Vol. 1, Issue 3). It was his father, Sabin, Jr., who for many years owned the “Old Red House” in Longmeadow, MA.
Ralph took his college preparatory course at the DeLancey School and entered the University of Pennsylvania, taking a course in liberal arts and graduating in the class of 1913. Having pursued further study in the department of architecture at the same University, he received his degree in Architecture in February of 1917.
Mr. Colton immediately started in his profession of architecture in the office of his uncle, Horace Wells Sellers and with him engaged in research work and the securing of data on old houses of distinction, which would influence much of his later life. He had a fine aptitude in this direction and gave the subject much time and thought. The Bartram Mansion was one of his best known subjects from this line of work.
His fondness for the really good old architecture was exemplified by his purchase of “Harriton”, the oldest house in Bryn Mawr, PA, his own personnel residence. This house was built in 1704 by Mr. Rowland Ellis, who named it “Bryn Mawr” for the town with that same name in Wales, England. For 15 years it bore that title and the present town took it’s name from it. In 1719 the name of this residence was changed to “Harriton” and has so remained until this present day. It was occupied for many years by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, who presented to George Washington his certificate of election as the President of the United States. It was in this house that Thomson translated the Holy Bible from the Greek into the English version for its American publication! He was known among the Indians as “The Man Who Always Speaks the Truth.”
Ralph Colton enlarged “Harriton” greatly, but he kept the original portion practically intact. All the charm of the ancient house was retained and the many individual touches of personality and genius that he wove into it only added to its beauty as a home. The large living room, with the great beams in the ceiling and with a fireplace at each end, was often the scene of friendly gatherings on harsh winter evenings. These fireplaces have wrought-iron screens with scenes drawn by him and transmuted into metal by a master craftsman.
When the United States entered the World War, Mr. Colton enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve Force as a coxswain, refusing to use the many influences that could have obtained him a commissioned officer’s rank for himself. He was among the enlisted men of the Reserve Force who were selected in January of 1918 to take a special course at the United States Naval Academy and, on the completion of that course, in June, 1918, he received his commission as Ensign. After graduating he was assigned to the battleship “Mississippi”, where he remained until the end of World War I. The USS Mississippi was precluded from entering any eastcoast port because of a severe outbreak of influenza, called “swine” or “Spanish” flu from which over 30% of the crew’s complement would die and the death toll in the New York and Baltimore areas was of equal severity. He left the Navy at the end of hostilities as a Lieutenant Junior Grade, having proven his worth and deserving of the promotion and its merit.
Returning to Philadelphia after the war, he started his own architectural office, specializing in country residences. Many houses in Bryn Mawr and in other suburbs came from his drawing board, each stamped in some detail with his unusual ability as his trademark.
In his college days Ralph had been an athlete, winning letters in both cross country and track. He was a splendid yachtsman, navigator and pilot, and sailed his own yacht from Philadelphia to Maine, being particularly fond of cruising the New England Coast, which he knew exceptionally well. He was also fond of shooting and swimming. He was a member of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, the Varsity Club of the University of Pennsylvania, the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia, the Northeast Harbor Yacht Club, the Bullock-Sanderson Post, No. 136, American Legion, and the Patriots of America. His religious faith was that of the Presbyterian Church.
Florence Lucile Wilson, the daughter of Thomas Erwin and Rosalind (Unkefer) Wilson was married to Ralph L. Colton at Bellvue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 21, 1917. One of her brothers was Charles E. Wilson who would later become President of General Motors Corp. and then to become the Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower. Another brother became mayor of Corpus Christi, TX and still another became an accomplished artist and architect, winning several Carnegie awards.
Mr. and Mrs. Colton became the parents of three children:
Ralph Lester Colton, Jr., b. 25 September, 1918 Rosalind Jessie Colton, b. 23 April, 1923 Sabin Woolworth Colton, V, b. 9 April, 1926
The year after the birth of Sabin Colton V, Ralph purchased a ketch with an auxiliary engine named “The Constant Friend” and sailed it to Maine for the summer. There it developed a problem with the engine’s cooling system. A replacement part was ordered but did not arrive in time to be ready for the arrival of one of his best friends. An attempt was made to install a “jury rig” for the cooling system by Ralph along with his brother-in-law, Robert T. Wilson, and his mother’s chauffeur who was a skilled mechanic. Somehow there was an explosion and Ralph was taken to the hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine but he would not survive the head injuries he had sustained.
With all of this going for him what else could any man ask? But fate had stepped in and dealt a lethal blow to the life of Ralph Lester Colton, just 40 years of age in a harbor just off his summer home in an area he had so frequently sailed before that fateful 8th of September, 1931 while at one of his favorite pastimes, Yachting! His untimely death was a sorrow to all who knew him and to his large circle of friends who were stunned by this seafaring tragedy!
Ralph L. Colton was an individualist in everything he did, but he respected the beauty of form as he found it in the older masterpieces of architecture and adapted his own ability to the limits of practical good taste. A leaded glass window, with delightful animals, birds, tortoise, etc., which he designed for his own dining room, merely enhances the interest of that exceptionally interesting room with its huge fireplace, high beamed ceiling and pewter, silver and copper utensils - the art of today mingling perfectly with that of over two centuries ago. He was open-minded as to modernism in architecture, but preferred the simplicity of the Colonial to live with in his own house.
Mr. Colton was dearly loved both by his family and his many friends. He was a quiet man, possessed of a delightful sense of humor, which was shown both in his conversation and his drawings (other than architectural); strong, yet very gentle; generous yet never ostentatious; courteous and restrained, almost shy, until he knew a person well enough and admitted him to that friendship which meant so much to those who knew him best.
Thus we make the final entry on the page in history for Ralph Lester Colton and he now joins the ever growing list of those ancestors who have been part of the Colton family.