Chestnut Hill: History Kept Alive Through Preservation and Advocacy
In Chestnut Hill, history stands for itself. Literally.
Many of the longstanding buildings in the affluent Northwest community were built with a unique “Chestnut Hill stone,” or Wissahickon schist, from a local quarry.
Nowadays, learning so much is as easy as an app. The Chestnut Hill Historical Society handles the grunt work for both local residents and visitors seeking to explore local history, by offering maps, books and a walking-tour app of Germantown Avenue.
The existence of the historical society has been vital to raising awareness of the community’s historical richness; the same richness that allowed the neighborhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
But what a simple stroll down the avenue can’t provide is a visual of the architecture that was lost before the society’s inception in 1967.
Take for example the Kerper House, which was believed to have been built in 1780 but was torn down in 1949 to make way for an automobile showroom at Germantown Avenue and Hartwell Lane. Even after the society formed, and despite pressure by its members, a Tudor-style home at 8810 Norwood Ave. was knocked down by the Chestnut Hill Hospital.
Even in today’s era of delicate preservation, the remnants of the periods of little regard for historical property are evident. Case in point: the Chestnut Hill Hotel.
In the 1950s, during a renaissance led by the neighborhood’s unofficial “mayor,” Lloyd Wells, the hotel lost some of its key Victorian elements. In Spring 1961, according to The Philadelphia Bulletin archives, the neighborhood hosted an elaborate celebration to honor the restoring of the town’s shopping district.
“[The reforms] actually resulted in destroying a lot of Victorian architecture in the process. The Chestnut Hill Hotel is a good example,” said David Contosta, author of Suburb in the City, a book on the neighborhood’s history, in a recent interview. “[Wells] wanted to play into this colonial revival.”
Patricia Cove, vice president for preservation at the historical society, said: “When the hotel was built in 1894, it was a Victorian building and on each of the corners of the buildings were large turrets, which are very Victorian architectural features.”
“Because the avenue was really not up to par, as far as the retail end, he decided to create a marketing concept and colonialize the entire avenue,” Cove said. “[Wells’] aim was to take some of the buildings that were really not as specific architecturally, and turn them into more of a colonial facade.”
Since Ron Pete and his wife, Abby, bought the hotel in 2007, they have implemented a years-long project to refurbish the interior and exterior of the hotel.
Cove, who operates Patricia M. Cove, Architectural Interiors & Design, oversaw the exterior renovations.
“I thought, well, what a good way to bring back some remembrance of those turrets by actually curving the outside porches and balconies up on the second floor,” Cove said. “When you go outside now, you do see almost a replication of those turrets, in the way that the balcony and the porch has been designed.”
But that isn’t the only way the hotel is now offering a taste of history. Since Pete purchased the hotel five years ago – at which point, he said, it looked “tired” – he and his wife have added old photos and maps of the neighborhood along the walls.
“The neighborhood can relate to it,” he said. “[Abby] spent four months just picking out the pictures.”
Renovations to the 36-bedroom hotel – which consists of three individual properties, some of which includes leased-out space – included giving each building a specific theme. The “carriage house” – which Pete said is believed to have been used as a carriage garage and old car barn – bears a rustic feeling. Some of the original wood panels in the building remain, and one room’s bed is topped with the frame and wheels of a carriage lift.
The “post office building” – which rents space to a post office – was assigned a 1950s theme down to the small postcards in the room.
Ironically like Wells’ hopes to draw customers to the avenue, Pete said he is trying to make the complex – including a farmer’s market that resembles a small-scale version of Reading Terminal Market – a destination.
“It’s not just the hotel, it’s the real estate that goes along with it, too,” Pete said.
Snapshots of neighborhood history also line the walls of McNally’s Tavern, just north of the hotel. The tavern is a landmark identified by the historical society. While the pub has changed a lot in terms of its purpose and who it serves, the structure has largely gone untouched since it opened in the 1920s, save for some small renovations.
And in this historically rich neighborhood, development proposals are often met at the table by historical advocacy. The community’s Historic District Advisory Committee listens to development plans that come up in the neighborhood, said Tim Wood, the society’s Resource Center and Easement manager.
“[That’s] where we have a voice,” Wood said.
But prominent developers, like Richard Snowden, founder of Bowman Properties, assure the community that history won’t fall by the wayside. Snowden said his company tries to tread lightly on historical properties.
“To me, I have a successful project if, visually, when we’re finished, no one is really quite sure whether we were there or not,” he said.
However, Snowden admits sometimes work needs to be done in order for buildings to sustain themselves – be it replacing windows or installing new systems.
With a 100-plus year family legacy in the neighborhood, Snowden was born in Chestnut Hill – although he grew up in Portland, Ore. Frequent trips to visit his grandmothers allowed him to connect with the neighborhood and experience its history, he said.
Bowman’s plans to build a Fresh Market at 8200 Germantown Ave. are meant to fill a void for grocery shopping. But, in addition to business success, Snowden said his company is committed to maintaining Chestnut Hill’s identity as a residential community.
Snowden recalled his early days in the business, working with his grandmother: “If we were going to keep Chestnut Hill nice, we couldn’t rely on developers, you had to become a developer.”
Such self-advocacy is similar to the work of those with the historical society. With yesteryear’s lesson in mind, those with the society know that preserving landmarks is all about awareness.
“Before we came what we are today, people could just remove a house,” Cove said. “Now, because we exist, and we have put our message out there that it is very important to maintain these buildings, people are much more aware.”
“If you don’t maintain it, you lose that honor,” she added.