by Lou Mancinelli
By tracing the evolution of the former Morgan Tract at Willow Grove and Stenton Avenues from a Civil War hospital in the 1860s to high-rise condominiums and a commercial shopping center in the 1960s, one can discover an interesting slice of Chestnut Hill history and a lesson on politics behind closed doors.
History is the only monument to those times past, whose buildings have all disappeared. The site that was once a Civil War hospital, is the site that 100 years later came to strengthen and mobilize the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA).
Before the arrival of Market Square and Chestnut Hill Village, this tract of land was the site of one of the nation’s largest Civil War hospitals.
Planned by architect John McArthur Jr., who also designed City Hall, Mower General Hospital extended from what is now the Wyndmoor train station to Stenton Avenue and from Mermaid Lane to Willow Grove avenues. During its two-year existence from 1861 to 1863, its staff served 20,000 patients transported from Civil War battlefields.
The hospital on 37 acres was shaped like a wagon wheel. In the middle was the administration building, chapel, post office, barbershop, band’s quarters, dining hall, operating room, conservatory, engine room and various similar departments. Fifty 2,400-foot-long corridors surrounded the center building like spokes around a hub.
After the war the hospital was torn down, and the property evolved into an 85-acre estate. First acquired on June 1, 1865, by Charles Heebner, the first president of the Chestnut Hill Water Works Company, and later purchased around 1900 by Randal Morgan, vice president of the oil-rich United Gas Improvement Company, the tract would – 55 years later – spark a rebirth and strengthening of the somewhat dormant CHCA.
“I remember my impression was that coming from the residential streets we were suddenly in the middle of a farm,” said Meredith Sonderskov, volunteer archivist at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. Sonderskov recalled being in her family’s car one afternoon in 1943 when her father dropped off her younger sister at a birthday party for Morgan’s granddaughter, Patsy Morgan.
After thriving for 70 years as a flourishing estate lined with walkways stitched through gardens, sculptures and fruit orchards, and complete with its own farm, animals and the workers to service the land, by the 1950s the tract had become an overgrown tangle of weeds surrounding a Colonial revival mansion.
Following World War II, the estate began to decline. Randal Morgan had died in 1926, and in the 1950s executors of his estate gave Temple University officials an option to purchase the land. Temple planned to move its campus to Chestnut Hill – a move that Philadelphia Mayor Joe Clark felt would destroy North Philadelphia, according to Lloyd Wells.
Wells was a founding father of modern Chestnut Hill, responsible for revitalizing its commercial district and developing local quasi-governmental bodies. He helped to found or reorganize the CHCA, the Chestnut Hill Parking Association, the Chestnut Hill Realty Trust, the Local and the Chestnut Hill Community Association.
In a 1989 interview conducted by the Environmental Research Group, Wells’ comments illuminate the role of civics in local government and provide a look at an insider’s hand in the game of political poker.
According to Wells, Temple President Robert Johnson told Clark that the university was tied down in North Philadelphia and could not get parking space or new buildings. Clark assured Johnson he would get Temple federal funding and eminent domain.
When Temple cancelled its plans for Chestnut Hill, according to Wells, Meyer Blum, a developer on Temple’s board of directors, asked the board for rights of first refusal, meaning he would legally have the first option to purchase the land.
Ultimately, it was Blum’s plan for 3,000 residential units and 150,000 square feet of commercial space that became the tail that wagged the dog, as Wells put it, transforming the CHCA. The group was changed from an organization that provided assistance to Girl Scout Troops and landscaping at the Water Tower into a quasi-governmental group.
Wells tells it this way:
“One day [Joe Straus] is coming out on the local train after a day’s work. He opens the Evening Bulletin and there in a big double-spread advertisement is ‘Meyer Blum Proposes Development of Morgan Tract.’ Joe immediately adds two and two and sees that 3,000 is essentially doubling [three people a unit equals 9,000 new residents] the 10,000 population of Chestnut Hill overnight. One-hundred- fifty-thousand square feet of commercial space would be more square footage than the shopping area we already had.”
Straus soon created the East Chestnut Hill Neighbors (ECHN) in 1955, but shortly after its founding it was assimilated into the CHCA.
“I said this is going to be a political problem,” Wells said in his interview. “We’ve got to get the biggest representation representing the community. What we’ve got to do is not work with the [ECHN] but to work with the [CHCA]. Just for the name.”
And so it went. The association fought to oppose or at least limit the development. After several years, Blum gave up, and the land was sold to an out-of-town firm, Summit Construction Corp.
“We controlled City Hall,” said Wells later in the interview. “We had the Mayor, the Councilman and a great deal of representatives in City Hall at that time. Frankly, we said, ‘if you don’t listen to us, Summit, we’re going to destroy you in City Hall. You haven’t a chance in the world.’ It was a pure bluff hand. Playing poker, we bluffed him. We said, ‘you don’t have a chance of getting this thing through unless you cooperate. He said, ‘OK. I’ll cooperate.’”
The resulting compromise was 1,250 units and about 50,000 square feet of commercial space tucked into the back corner, instead of at the corner of Willow Grove and Stenton Avenues as the developer wanted.
“We got legally binding covenants wherein the community of Chestnut Hill was the beneficiary interest,” Wells said. “That was the Morgan Tract. That started the Community Association. That was the main impetus.”
In 1961, construction began on Chestnut Hill Village, according to Bartlett. Construction on the high rise began the following year. The supermarket was erected in 1967. It was originally a Food Fair, then a Pantry Pride, A&P, Superfresh, and, finally, Pathmark. In 1971, work began on the portion of Market Square north of the post office, which was built about a year later.
When the Chestnut Grove condominium development was introduced in 1973 it reignited neighborhood controversy.
A June 6, 1974, Local article presented the details. Developer David P. Casani wanted to build 54 units (which he was legally allowed to do by right) behind the Morgan House, which was eventually razed to make room for the townhomes. Community Association representatives opposed Casani’s variance for an additional 10 homes.
If Casani built 54 units, he would pay the CHCA $40,000. If they let him build 64 units, (Casani claimed he would lose money if he only built 54 units), he would pay the CHCA a $75,000 cash settlement. Intermingled amidst the power politics was a lawsuit that was eventually settled.
“There’s a need for housing here,” the article quoted then Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation president Robert Glendinning (who was also Chestnut Grove’s selling agent) as saying. “Only five or six houses are on the market, and three or four are more than $100,000. Young people are also needed.”
“I’m very disturbed the board is considering taking money to replace trees and open space,” said Morris Lloyd, CHCA board member in that 1974 article.
In the end affordable housing won out, and in 1975 construction began. Sixty-four units were built. The CHCA received its $75,000.
The history of the Morgan Tract provides an interesting commentary on the relationship between land and people – powerful and otherwise. And the Market Square development offers a glimpse of the inner-workings of politics: the give and take, the bluff and compromise, and the way a community can rise to a challenge.
Many thanks to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society for their help with the research and revision of this article. For more information visit www.chhist.org or call 215-247-0417.