by Miles Orvell
— The first of a two-part series
Why did Forbes Magazine name Chestnut Hill one of the top seven urban enclaves in the country? What makes it a “Distinctive Destination,” in the eyes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation? What makes it (unofficial estimate) the home to more architects per square foot than almost any other community in America?
The chief asset of Chestnut Hill – leaving aside the residential areas – is the “charm” of Germantown Avenue, yet interestingly it’s an attractiveness that defies easy generalization, an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and residential buildings blending into a streetscape harmony without seeming “precious.”
Part of the reason for the charm is the embedded history of Germantown Avenue, for Chestnut Hill’s Main Street is a continuous space comprising multiple temporal dimensions, a random collection of commercial and residential buildings that have come into existence for different reasons at different times, a mix of period styles that yet compose a whole in terms of scale and atmosphere.
It is also, of course, a uniquely walkable community, with residential streets near to the main commercial street. From practically anywhere in Chestnut Hill to Germantown Avenue is a distance of no more than half a mile, a walk of about ten minutes. A walk from the top of the Hill (Bethlehem Pike) to Mermaid Lane at the bottom is less than a mile, a walk of about 15 minutes. Not surprisingly, Chestnut Hill, one of the original “walkable” towns, has been a model for New Urbanist design.
Stroll down Germantown Avenue and you appear to be in a single space, more or less, but in actuality you are walking through six or seven time zones. Unlike the controlled environments of the shopping mall or the new town centers that are designed and built at a single moment and under the aegis of single commercial vision, Chestnut Hill is the product of organic growth over nearly three centuries. That’s why it looks so different from the homogeneous environments of the shopping centers – suburban and urban – built in the late 20th century until today.
But Chestnut Hill also looks different from many small towns that got frozen at a given moment – say, Colonial, or Victorian, or early 20th century. Usually as a result of changes on a national scale, these local towns basically stopped at a moment in time – the factory moves South, the new highway bypasses the town, the family farms disappear, the railroad stops running – and to visit them is to visit a museum of the past, and not always a living museum.
Chestnut Hill, by contrast, has maintained its dynamism in part because it is a satellite of Philadelphia, and it has evolved alongside Philadelphia’s dynamic economy. Moreover, it has continued, for more than a half century, to reinvent itself, responding to the competition of the shopping mall and other commercial distractions, refining its function by trial and error.
As one walks down Germantown Avenue, the eye is attracted to storefronts and signs and usually ignores the structures that actually house these places. But virtually every property on Germantown Avenue contains a history of ambition, compromise, and sometimes conflict, with several different players engaged in a process with unequal powers: corporations, landlords, individual entrepreneurs, zoning and building regulations, architects who are working with a vision and within a budget, lawyers who interpret regulations on behalf of clients, and community boards who offer advice, opinions, and support (or no support), when, as sometimes happens, a project comes to City Hall with the request for a variance. And of course the all-important builders who execute the project once the lights have turned green.
But let’s get back to the heart of Chestnut Hill and to the main artery that really does supply the life-blood of the community – Germantown Avenue. From a purely functional point of view, what needs are being served by our Main Street? An anthropologist from another planet (always handy on these occasions) would conclude that we are a people who eat well, who collect art and antiques, who love flowers, and who wear clean shirts.
If you think back 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you would see that this represents a narrowing of functions. Sports and hobbies? Now reduced to one shop. Books? Gone. Drug stores? Reduced to one or two. Movie theater? Gone. Video rentals? Gone. In short, Germantown Avenue has become functionally more specialized, giving away its older diversity to the shopping malls, to Center City Philadelphia, and to the Internet. Amazingly, we have held on to a live theater – Stagecrafters – still thriving in a converted barn. And at the crossroads of Highland and Germantown, you can indulge your need for necessities and luxuries – a hammer, a rose, a fine print.
But if Germantown Avenue has tended to become narrower in its function over the years, architecturally it remains a diverse Main Street, a mosaic of structures built and renovated over hundreds of years, with new and old often inhabiting contiguous spaces. Beginning with the Colonial period, we can see an additional six time zones on Germantown Avenue – the mid 19th century Greek Revival, the high Victorian style of the later 19th century, the early 20th century commercial storefronts, the “modernized” facades of the 1930s and 40s, the Colonial retro-designs of the 1950s, and the eclectic designs of the last 25 years.
The oldest buildings – from the 18th century – are nearly invisible small farmhouses that are often set back from the building line and are modest in proportion. The Detwiler farmhouse is one example: Built in 1744 and the area’s oldest surviving building, it now serves what must be its ninth life as a cat hospital, across from the Chestnut Hill Hotel.
The 19th century is the dominant era for the Avenue, with a variety of styles, from neo-Classical to neo-Romanesque to neo-Gothic to vernacular commercial. One of the most notable is the Veterans of Foreign Wars Building (8217 Germantown Ave.), which was built in 1859, when it was known as the Hiram Lodge of the Masonic Order, in mid-century Greek Revival style.
By 1966 the building was just about a ruin, and in order to survive at all, the occupants, by then the VFW, proposed to amputate the top floor with their limited funds. Through the efforts of the late Ann Spaeth and the still very active Shirley Hanson, among others, funds were raised to rebuild and restore the handsome structure, including a new pediment.
Importantly, it was out of this effort in fund-raising and consciousness-raising that the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, the major force for preservation in the community, was born.
Many of the most handsome buildings along the Avenue date from the late 19th century, several made of Wissahickon schist, quarried locally in tones of gray, black, blue, and brown. One notable example is the imposing building at the corner of Evergreen and Germantown, built as a Tudor style pharmacy (with residence above) in 1891 for Frank Streeper, and serving that purpose for most of the 20th century (Battin and Lunger occupied it for many years) before morphing into the present O’Doodles. Other, more modest commercial properties are stuccoed and have gone through a variety of identities over the years: The present Bredenbeck’s, for example, began life as a laundry, also in 1891.
There are also a great many remaining two-story commercial properties, dating to the late 19th and early 20th century, where the proprietor’s family would often live above the store, as in the row of attached buildings on the West side of Germantown, between Highland and Evergreen.
Our main focus is the Avenue, but let’s not forget that by 1900 Chestnut Hill was attracting a new population whose economic base was the city of Philadelphia, where they were commuting as managerial white-collar workers, as bankers, and as industrialists. One of the most fascinating was Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose engineering studies changed the way people worked.
Taylor lived at his estate (Boxley), near the Highland Avenue Station and was a champion golfer and tennis player; but he was better known (and reviled) as the inventor of “Scientific Management,” the foundation of 20th century time and motion studies. He had a method for everything, including a sleeping harness to prevent nightmares, which he invented when he was twelve. Taylor died in 1915, fifteen years before the collapse of the economic system he had helped to build.
We know that national calamities affect local communities, and the Great Depression of the 1930s slowed not only factories but also retail business everywhere; thus it became a common strategy for downtowns to modernize their facades in an effort to attract customers and compete with the new shopping centers beginning to develop in the area. (Ardmore’s stylish art deco Suburban Square opened in 1928.)
“Modernization” meant new plate glass windows, signage in the new streamlined style, traces of art deco ornaments. This was a hit or miss operation, and the discordances from one store to another would be obvious. With the development of neon lighting (introduced in the U.S. in the 1920s from France), that too became a feature of some Chestnut Hill stores, and by the late 1940s billboards were gracing the north end of the Avenue and Bethlehem Pike.
A detailed look at historic Germantown Avenue can be seen in the richly illustrated volumes, “Chestnut Hill” by Thomas H. Keels and Elizabeth Farmer Jarvis and the latter’s sequel, “Chestnut Hill Revisited.” (Liz Jarvis is the present curator of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.) With the recent searchable archive online now at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society website, an abundance of photographs will bring these past eras to immediate visibility.
By 1950, Chestnut Hill’s Main Street was cluttered with automobiles, with a haphazard mix of commercial businesses, where signs in every style and every size obscured the architecture beneath. In short, Chestnut Hill in 1950 was evolving into a linear commercial strip of the sort that was becoming endemic to the postwar suburbs of the United States. If things had continued in that direction, I would not be writing about Chestnut Hill today, and you would not be holding the Chestnut Hill Local in your hands. The story of how Chestnut Hill transformed itself from a languishing Germantown Avenue into a magnetic Main Street continues in Part Two.
Miles Orvell is professor of English and American studies at Temple University. He is the author, most recently, of “The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community” (University. of North Carolina Press, 2012) and co-editor of “Rethinking the American City: An International Dialogue “(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).