by Patricia Marian Cove
Why is Chestnut Hill so special? Named one of the best neighborhoods in the United States by the American Planning Association, referenced by shopping districts near and far, as being a business district to emulate, and honored by attaining National Historic District status, Chestnut Hill can lay claim to these and many other distinctions.
It is a small town, a walkable community, where people move, and rarely leave! Once you experience the historic nature, village charm, and unique character of this community, you begin to realize exactly how special Chestnut Hill really is. It is sometimes bewildering that as much as people love it here, many do not grasp what those specific qualities really are, and how each and every day we strive to maintain them!
Many years ago, a man named Lloyd Wells, aware of how spectacular our residential architecture was, envisioned a commercial corridor that could compare in look and character to the community’s sense of place. Germantown Avenue at the time was a blend of architectural styles, a generic mix of old and new, dilapidated and maintained, historic and modern, and appeared to the casual visitor as ‘Anywhere, USA.”
But Mr. Wells had a vision, more specifically, a village vision. With the bones of that village already in place, a cobblestone street, buildings of schist, small-scale shops, and hidden courtyards, he set out to complete his vision: the historic village we have today.
Wells’ tactics and methods often come into question. Even today, there are those who claim that there is nothing historic about our Germantown Avenue shopping corridor – that his tactics and methods were akin to brewing a stew of brick and stone, panes and mullions, Colonial Reds and Colonial Blues, all mixed together creating a feast worthy of Colonial Williamsburg comparisons.
But then there are the rest of us, the residents, the shopkeepers and the business people who recognize that without that magical blend, we would not have the village that we do today. We understand that, yes, maybe it was a marketing ploy, a branding initiative that created a business district that not only complemented our historic residential neighborhood, but gave those residents an attractive place to shop, socialize, have their shoes repaired and their film developed. It was not an easy task. But he fought for it because he knew what his efforts would create. And we all benefit from those efforts today.
Things are different now. No one person could ever accomplish what he did. But we do have dedicated committees that try to uphold the standards that that early individual put into place. The Germantown Avenue Urban Design Guidelines is a document that was developed after months of research, site visits to other historic communities, and meetings of design professionals and urban planners.
The guidelines focus on the unique characteristics of Germantown Avenue and the buildings that line the Avenue. They discuss the character of the street and the characteristics of the architecture. They list the inherent qualities that need to be maintained in order to preserve the historic village that we all love.
It is a document that also acts as a road map, providing direction to residents and business people alike in the specific course of action that retains that special quality, that “sense of place,” that few shopping districts can claim. The guidelines talk about how light can make or break a store façade, how window signs detract from the merchandise inside, how a blending of compatible materials can create a more interesting and welcoming entrance, how just the right sign draws people in, rather than allows them to walk right by.
Yes, they even address the color of a building, and how it can act as a barrier to potential shoppers. But most importantly, the guidelines help to maintain the real reason why we have all chosen to live and work here.
The atmosphere we love in Chestnut Hill does not just happen. It is an ongoing process that involves the investment of the Community Association, the Business Association, and the Historical Society. It is a realization that without those guidelines – and people who realize their importance – we are not that far away from “Anywhere, USA.”
Patricia Marian Cove is vice president of preservation at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.
To take a virtual tour of historic Germantown Avenue, visit www.chhist.org and click on “A Walk on Germantown Avenue.”