Chestnut Hill Tour Part 1
North Chestnut Hill & Environs
, located in the far northwest corner of Philadelphia, is a neighborhood that has a well known reputation for upscale living. This image of the Hill is nothing new however. It is an image that has been cultivated for over a century-and-a-half. Chestnut Hill started out as an outpost of a German Township almost as old as the city of Philadelphia itself and evolved into a commuter suburb for the well-to-do. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, real estate speculators, chiefly Henry Howard Houston (1820-1895) and his son-in-law, Dr. George Stanley Woodward (1863-1952), built large and opulent mansions for the city's wealthiest residents. These weren't just used as summer retreats, but as permanent homes built near newly opened rail stations. Woodward was also responsible for developing many innovative multiple-famiily dwellings that were practical, affordable and attractive. His efforts were duplicated elsewhere in the city and the country as a whole, but never reached the same level of harmony and comfort. These architect designed homes are still in use by modern Chestnut Hillers which proves that a good concept never goes out of style. Even in the 21st century, Chestnut Hill shines as a top place to live in the region. In 2007, Chestnut Hill was named one of the top seven urban enclaves
in America by Forbes Magazine. With upscale Germantown Avenue as its main retail drag and the wilds of the Wissahickon wilderness area for its backyard, it's no wonder Chestnut Hill has a reputation as an urban gem.
The German Township was set as 5,700 acres of land to be sold by a group of investors known as the Frankfort Company with whom William Penn had met with in Frankfort, Germany in 1677 after receiving the charter for Pennsylvania. Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1720) was the agent for the Frankfurt Company as well as a group of thirteen families who purchased lots in the newly formed settlement. The township was divided into four villages, German-Towne (now Germantown), Kresheim or Cresheim (now Mount Airy) and Crefeld and Sommerhausen (now Chestnut Hill). Crefeld was named for the home village of the original purchasers while Sommerhausen ("Summerhouses") was the Bavarian birthplace of Pastorius. Once the thirteen emigrant families had settled in the township's main community of Germantown, they were given lots to build on in the outer villages.
Crefeld and Sommerhausen
When exactly the two "hindermost villages" of the German Township became known as Chestnut Hill is not quite clear, but it probably happened shortly after the lots were assigned to the Crefeld purchasers in 1683. The earliest written record of the name "Chestnut Hill" appears in a deed from Thomas Fairman to Peter Wentz dated 1711. The two separate villages combined for an area that comprised of almost 2,200 acres, slightly smaller that Germantown itself.
It is also unclear how the place got the name Chestnut Hill. Historian Rev. S.F. Hotchkin argued it was due to an abundance of chestnut timber. Another local historian, John J. McFarlane, disagrees stating that there are no more chestnut trees in the area than elsewhere in the region. It has been noted that there are many oak groves in Chestnut Hill, so why not Oak Hill?
The "Hill" part of the name is fairly obvious. Chestnut Hill rises to a peak of 446 feet above sea level on the aptly named Summit Street. Not only is this the highest vantage point in the city of Philadelphia, it is also the highest point between a range of hills stretching from Trenton to Bryn Mawr. Other high points of the Hill are 413 feet at Gravers Lane and 426 feet at Highland Avenue.
The boundaries for Chestnut Hill are Northwestern Avenue to the north, Stenton Avenue to the east, the Wissahickon Gorge to the west and the Cresheim Creek to the south. The north, east and west boundaries have remained consistent throughout the long history of Chestnut Hill. The southern border has changed over time. In the Hill's earliest days, Mermaid Lane was the southern extent of the Hill. In the early 19th century the border shifted as far as Allens Lane in what is now Mt. Airy. It wasn't until the 1980s when the Chestnut Hill Historical Society officially declared that the Cresheim Creek would be the southern limit of the neighborhood. Some neighboring communities outside the city of Philadelphia also considered themselves Chestnut Hill residents. As late as the 1950s, people living in Wyndmoor, Montgomery County would list Chestnut Hill as their mailing address.
Map showing boundaries of Chestnut Hill: Satellite image by Google Maps
Before becoming a commuter suburb for the city's white collar workers, Chestnut Hill was a gateway village connecting the city to the resources of the Pennsylvania countryside. One of the major thoroughfares into Philadelphia was the notoriously bad Germantown Road (now Germantown Avenue) although it was called by many names, some of which were probably not used in polite company. It was said that Germantown Road was muddy in spring and fall and a carpet of dust in the summer and filled with deep ruts year round. Making a delivery with a large wagon loaded down with produce or textiles became all the more treacherous given the terrible road conditions. As a result, many a "great store" appeared along the main road as a place where merchants could exchange their goods for other items in trade or cash, thus avoiding the long and arduous trek to Philadelphia. Chestnut Hill's own landscape was a place where a person of modest means could scratch out a decent living. The many waterways that flowed through provided water power for mills and the fertile land was excellent for farming. The northwest region of Philadelphia was also noteworthy for an abundance of mica schist which was an ideal building stone. Also a very large deposit of limestone nearby was the perfect accompaniment for binding the stones in place. Buildings from the colonial era built of the local schist are still standing strong. Talk about a brick schist house!
Although it was slow to develop at first, Chestnut Hill soon transformed from a howling wilderness into a thriving community. As the 18th century progressed land was cleared, homes were built and businesses were established. Along the way, the American army led by General Washington passed on their way to battle the British army led by General Howe at Germantown in 1777. They retreated back the same way after their defeat at the legendary skirmish. Washington mentions Chestnut Hill by name in a letter to Richard Henry Lee dated February 15th, 1778, regarding the Brits being repelled from Chestnut Hill in a December 1777 attack;
"Lord Cornwallis has certainly embarked for England, but with what view is not so easy to determine. He was an eyewitness a few days before his departure to a scene, not a little disgraceful to the pride of British valor, in their maneuver to Chestnut Hill, and precipitated return, after boasting their intentions of driving us beyond the mountains."
The Emerging Suburb
In 1834 the pioneering Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad began regular trips between Germantown and Philadelphia. It was an instant success. "Old Ironsides" turned Germantown into one of America's earliest commuter suburbs but at a shocking 25 cents per ride (the average daily worker was lucky to make a dollar a day back then) it was clearly something only for the city's upper class. As early as the 1840s, wealthier citizens of Philadelphia had second residences in Chestnut Hill. The house on the Hill was used as a summer home (making the original name of "Sommerhausen" quite appropriate) while the primary residence was in the city for the fall and winter entertaining season. Their summer suburban retreat was not only to take in the fresher country air of the Hill during the sultry summer months, it was also a way of avoiding the unpleasantries of city life as much as they could. The early suburbanites would go to and from their houses to the train depot in Germantown in carriages in spring and summer. Soon regular omnibus service became available to Chestnut Hillers and the price of the train ride into the city would be reduced but it was still out of range for the average worker.
"North Chestnut Hill"
In the 1850s, a group of wealthy investors from Chestnut Hill sought to extend the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad into their village, thus eliminating the trek to and from the Hill to the station in Germantown. After years of negotiating and at the urging of local newspapers, the new Chestnut Hill Station was established in 1854 at Chestnut Hill Avenue and Bethlehem Pike. It was a smashing success. So much so that the Hill was now viewed as not only a place as a summer retreat, but as a railroad suburb in the mode of Germantown before it. Farmland was quickly converted into new streets for the new upper class residents. Pioneering developers like Samuel Austin urged his fellow elite members of society to move to North Chestnut Hill with the promise of a healthier lifestyle and unparalleled views of the surrounding country side. Many took up the offer and construction began on many a spectacular home on Summit Street, Chestnut Hill Avenue and Norwood Avenue. The large houses were architect designed and came with plenty of land. They were done in the fashionable styles of the mid to late 19th century; Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival or elements of two or more styles. Many of the larger homes required live-in help. As was the custom, Irish born workers were favored to help out with domestic chores, giving the Hill its first large influx of Catholics.
To be continued.
c. 1750, addition c. 1765 Client:
9198 Stenton Avenue Architect:
In 1748, Agnes and Garrett Dewes sold William Streeper a 98 acre parcel of land. The house was presumably built shortly thereafter. The house was built in two stages with the older section being the one closest in the photo.
c. 1783 Client:
9200 Stenton Avenue Architect:
View form Bells Mill Road
The house with the barn (1804) in the background
Stenton Avenue, laid out by Philadelphia attorney Samuel Austin, represents the earliest suburban style development in North Chestnut Hill. A newly opened railway station made this possible. But with a fare of 25 cents each way, at a time when workers were lucky to make a dollar a day, this was a suburb for only the richest families in Philadelphia.
Dr. J. Clinton Foltz
1 Summit Avenue Architect:
George T. Pearson
This lovely Tudor Revival building at the corner of Bethlehem Pike and Summit Street saw numerous alterations between 1899 and 1973. It is currently home to a law firm.
View of the Foltz House from Bethlehem Pike
c. 1865 Client:
Theodore D. Emory
14 Summit Avenue Architect:
Despite a minor alteration in 1931, this house still retains much of its Victorian Era charm.
Daniel C.E. Brady
17 Summit Avenue Architect:
Thomas W. Evans House
c. 1856 Client:
Charles C. Longstreth
18 Summit Avenue Architect:
1857, altered numerous times Client:
21 Summit Avenue Architect:
Charles MacAlester House
Daniel C.E. Brady
22 Summit Avenue Architect:
Daniel C.E. Brady
26 Summit Avenue Architect:
1858, severely altered from original appearance Client:
25 Summit Avenue Architect:
The remaining structure that is 25 Summit Avenue was once just the east wing of a larger Italianate structure that was demolished in 1950. Between 1895 and 1974 this house has been worked on many times by some of the finest architects of their times.
32 Summit Avenue Architect:
37-39 and 41 Summit Avenue Architects:
Sidney & Merry
37-39 (originally a single house) and 41 Summit Street are virtually identical to each other, the only instance of architectural unity to be seen in early North Chestnut Hill development.
1857, radically altered in 1919 Client:
Martin Russell Thayer
38 Summit Avenue Architect:
Unknown, 1919 alterations by R. Brognard Okie
In 1919 T. Wister Morris hired Okie to redesign this house from a Victorian mansion into its present Colonial Revival Style.
54 Summit Avenue Architect:
Sanford owned the property from 1855 to 1861.
Modest 2-1/2 story house on Summit Avenue
c. 1856 Client:
Joseph and Charles Mather
57 Summit Avenue Architect:
One of the few surviving examples of the Italianate Style to be found in North Chestnut Hill, this old house saw a few additions/alterations in its early history.
Late Victorian house on Summit Avenue
C. Watson House
c. 1854, greatly enlarged c. 1870 Client:
100 Summit Avenue Architect:
Mr. Watson, who made his money as a carriage maker, built the house and sold it to David Webster. This house was sold by Webster to Edwin Mitchell in 1864. Mitchell then sold it to Spencer Janney who owned the house from 1870 to 1910. It was under Janney's stewardship that the house was expanded from what was probably a simple Italinate villa to its current High Victorian appearance. The house is currently for sale for $750,000.
View from Prospect Avenue
Front elevation from Summit Avenue
1879, addition 1885 Client:
George F. Collum
8427 Prospect Avenue Architect:
A. Penrose Benner, 1885 addition only
Prospect Avenue and Evergreen Avenue
Evergreen Avenue East
1883, many additions and alterations Client:
Charles A. Potter
401 E. Evergreen Avenue Architect:
Wilson Eyre, Jr.
Notable not only for being an outstanding example of the Shingle Style of architecture but as an early house by Wilson Eyre, Jr.
The Anglecot has recently been restored to its original appearance after decades of unsightly alterations.
The stables of Anglecot
c. 1883 Client:
Robert S. Dunmore
252 E. Evergreen Avenue Architect:
196-198 East Evergreen Avenue, built 1876
Evergreen Avenue West
Chestnut Hill Train Station
Evergreen Avenue and Navajo Street
Along with Summit Avenue, Norwood Avenue marked the earliest attempt at high-class suburban residential development in North Chestnut Hill. Charles Taylor deserves the credit for the Norwood Avenue developments. Unlike Summit Avenue, Norwood Avenue suffered some unfortunate demolitions, one as recently as 1980. Two others on opposite corners of Norwood and Chestnut Hill Avenues will removed to make way for parking lots! If it weren't for the efforts of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 8840 and 8860 Norwood Avenue would have met a similar fate.
c. 1860 Client:
Ledyard J. Hodges
8840 Norwood Avenue Architect:
Possibly Chandler, Jr. or Sloan
This house was in the Disston family for a number of years. The Disstons, famous for their saw works in the Tacony section of the city, made many alterations and additions to the house in the late 19th century.
1862, addition 1891 Client:
Charles B. Taylor
8813 Norwood Avenue Architect:
Thomas W. Horstmann
Richard Vaux, a former mayor of Philadelphia, once lived in this house after a brief ownership by S. Morris Waln.
before 1864, enlarged 1881 Client:
Charles B. Dunn
8860 Norwood Avenue Architect:
Theophilus P. Chandler, Jr. (1881 expansion)
Charles Dunn, a native of Cornwall, chose the name Edgecumbe, meaning side of a hill, for his estate in honor of Mt. Edgecumbe from his native England.
George C. Thomas
8870 Norwood Avenue Architect:
Charles B. Taylor
Richard C. McMurtie
8870 Norwood Avenue Contractor:
George S. Roth
Rural scene on Norwood Avenue
Chestnut Hill Avenue East
Our Mother of Consolation Church
1855, additions 1899 Client:
Our Mother of Consolation Church
25 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect:
Rowland W. Boyle
Our Mother of Consolation Church Parsonage
, built 1855
c. 1864 Client:
18 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect:
Sidney & Merry
23 East Chestnut Hill Avenue
William Moss House
before 1864 Client:
2 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architects:
James C. Sidney and Frederick C. Merry
Samuel Austin Residence
c. 1855, third story added later Client:
5 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect:
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
22 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architects:
Zatzinger, Borie & Medary
45 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue, built before 1876
39 E. Chestnut Hill Avenue
84-92 Bethlehem Pike
84 Bethlehem Pike (on the right) was built c. 1880 on property owned by Hiram Potts.
86 and 84 Bethlehem Pike
c. 1854 Client:
129 Bethlehem Pike Architect;
Unknown, possibly Samuel Sloan.
Row of late 19th century commercial properties. The middle store was originally Witten's Drug Store (105 Bethlehem Pike) and dates from 1880.
Chestnut Hill East Station at Bethlehem Pike, 1930
Fairview Care Center, formerly the Eldon Hotel
c. 1866 Client:
184 Bethlehem Pike Architect:
Simpson at first took border into his own house but then expanded it by adding the mansard roof at the rear.
Early guest must have enjoyed unobstructed views of the Whitemarsh Valley below.
Chestnut Hill Avenue West
450 W. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect;
Brockie & Hastings
434 W. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect;
Walter K. Durham
500 W. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architect;
Willing, Sims & Talbutt
Binderton, The James Wilmer Biddle House
455 W. Chestnut Hill Avenue Architects:
Cope & Stewardson, Frank Miles Day
James Wilmer Biddle (1861-1927) was a member of the prestigious and wealthy Biddle family.
View from Towanda Street
Mrs. Benjamin Franklin Pepper
9120 Crefeld Street Architects:
Willing & Sims
Near the corner of Crefeld Street and Hampton Road is Ballygarth with its grand view of the Wissahickon Gorge. Mrs. Pepper was the sister of Charles Willing who had just partnered with James Sims. Ballygarth was one of the first works commissioned from the young firm of Willing & Sims.
1914, alterations 1928, 1929 Client:
101 W. Hampton Road Architect:
George Howe, before joining the firm of Mellor, Meigs & Howe, buit this lovely house overlooking the Wissahickon Gorge for his own personal use. High Hollow is an impressive structure by any measure. Howe would later partner with William Lescaze and design the iconic PSFS Building in 1930.
Harry F.C. Stikeman
95 W. Hampton Road Architect:
Mellor, Meigs & Howe
35 Hampton Avenue
Hilltop Road and Shawnee Street
Hilltop Avenue's bungalow style homes with trademark local stone.
Where Rex Avenue and Hilltop Road split.
8701 Shawnee Street (Shawnee Street and Rex Avenue)
Bells Mill Road
30 Bells Mills Road, an Italianate house from 1860
Bells Mill Road crossing the Wissahickon Creek
The Morris Arboretum
John T. Morris
Meadowbrook Avenue Architect:
Theophilus P. Chandler, Jr.
Compton (1888), the estate of John T. Morris, was demolished in 1968. On the land that was once the grounds for the Morris estate is now the Morris Arboretum. The carriage house and a few outbuildings are all that remains. The arboretum, administered by the University of Pennsylvania, is breathtakingly landscaped and well worth a visit if you're in the area.
The carriage house, now the Morris Arboretum Visitor Center
Landscaped grounds with Chestnut Hill College in the background
Statue of Mercury from the Mercury Loggia (1913)
Inside the Fernery
A view from where Compton once stood
End of Part One