by Miles Orvell
— The second in a two-part series
The visitor to Chestnut Hill in the late 1940s would have been met by an unsightly clutter of shops and stores, billboards, supermarkets and gas stations – the kind of incoherent assortment of commercial activity typical of linear suburban Main Streets. Some few merchants had tried valiantly to attract business by “modernizing” their storefronts during the 1930s and ’40s, adding neon signs, art deco ornamentation and streamlined facades.
But none of that is visible today. And that is because in the 1950s the history of Chestnut Hill took a major turn – moving forward by moving backward, with the goal of creating a town that would take on the character of a “village,” with all of the pre-industrial connotations of that term.
The catalyst for that change, more precisely the force behind it, was Lloyd Wells, a native of St. Louis, who married into old Chestnut Hill and bought himself the Hill Hardware Store. If his customers couldn’t park near his store, Wells soon realized, they’d go to the new shopping centers with more convenient parking, so his first effort was to create the parking lot system, begun in 1953, that is still in place – a matter of persuading dozens of store owners that it was in their best interest to sacrifice their backyards.
A second major effort went into creating an attractive shopping street, and Wells motivated a group of people to systematically plant trees along the Germantown Avenue corridor.
Going beyond parking lots and trees, Wells envisioned a town with a more homogeneous aesthetic character, and he turned back to the Colonial period for inspiration, moved partly by the success of Williamsburg, Va.. (I tell this story in greater detail in my book, “The Death and Life of Main Street.”) This meant exiling neon signs and billboards and slapdash commercial signage from the community’s storefronts and remaking the village’s ambiance.
Gradually, over the course of about ten years and with the ready advice of architects, nearly 50 buildings were redesigned in some version of the Colonial idiom. The investment of energy and dollars was colossal for a collection of independent businesses.
One of the first and most notable of such transformations was Robertson’s flower shop – built in 1790 as a relatively plain-looking hotel – which found its more “authentic” character as a Platonic version of itself, freshly incarnated in 1952.
Another notable transformation was the Chestnut Hill Hotel, built in 1894 with turrets, porches, and ornamental panels – all of which were removed as the hotel was reconceived as a “Colonial” building in simpler lines with quasi-Colonial columns out front. (More on the hotel later.)
Thanks to the extraordinary cajolery of Wells, the Germantown Avenue businessmen got behind this plan, as storefront after storefront was brought into line with the new vision of Chestnut Hill. However, the vision of Chestnut Hill as a Colonial town, the vision that Lloyd Wells evolved in the early 1950s, was never fully completed, and some of the older building stock remained unregenerate.
By the 1980s a new vision of a more heterogeneous Main Street began to gain ascendancy, and in 1988 representatives of the three major organizations – the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and the Chestnut Hill Business Association – came together to write new guidelines for development and preservation. After studying historic districts across the U.S. and meeting with their representatives, the Chestnut Hill group in 1990 created the “Germantown Avenue Urban Design Guidelines,” articulating in detail a very different philosophy of preservation and development for the community.
Designed for developers and for the review committees of the institutions involved, the guidelines aim at a balance between the desires of the individual and the will of the community, a balance that is easier to state on paper than it is to achieve in stone. Acknowledging the “historical character” of Chestnut Hill, the document states, “These guidelines are designed to create visual harmony with the village character and ambiance of Germantown Avenue. At the same time, they allow property owners, developers and architects freedom to express their own design values and creativity.”
How difficult it would be in the years since 1990 to keep this balance is apparent in some of the newer buildings and renovations on Germantown Avenue (especially the lower Avenue, with its mini-strip malls). But there were successful outcomes as well. If the community had to have a McDonalds, at least it got one that looks as unlike the highway golden arches as one could imagine. And sometimes even pillars of the community would insist on designing frontage that violated the letter and spirit of “the village character” (toy trains on an awning?) that would gain its place on the avenue in the name of business.
Regarding existing historic structures, the 1990 guidelines issued an implicit rebuke to the Colonial utopianism of Lloyd Wells: “Each property shall be recognized as a product of its own time. Alterations that have no historical basis and that seek to create an earlier appearance shall be discouraged” (p. 5). But it goes further in seeing buildings as themselves a part of a historical process: “Changes that have taken place over the course of time are evidence of the property’s history and environment. These changes may have acquired significance in their own right and, if so, this significance shall be respected” (p. 6).
In effect, the guidelines are saying: We want to acknowledge change and respect change, but we don’t want to go too far; we want things to kind of stay the way they look now (circa 1990), freezing history. And by this logic, an effort to change the Chestnut Hill Hotel back into its original Victorian form, to undo the Colonial renovation that occurred in the 1950s and that many have since lamented, might not be condoned by the guidelines.
These changed structures now have their own historic significance, and we should respect what they are. Yet who can object to the recent renovation of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, not only the facade, but the side area as well, going back to the parking lot? In its present incarnation, the hotel really does go back to the Victorian structure for inspiration, adding shutters that had been removed and adding a second story wrap-around balcony (as in the original) that had been erased by the Colonial design. The iron balconies and the wooden slats and signage add a touch of something – New Orleans? Art Deco South Beach? The result is to take the building, arguably Chestnut Hill’s most important, into the 21st century by appropriating elements of previous centuries.
The 1990 guidelines do not have the status of the Mosaic tablets, but they do embody a good faith effort to achieve an extraordinary model for communities: to acknowledge the driving force of free enterprise, yet to assert the prerogatives of a community to determine how it will look. We’re not talking about Seaside here, or Kentlands, or any New Urbanist community with a single designer dictating all appearances; we’re talking about a free-for-all commercial strip that at the same time functions, with some of the same sacred aura, as the town Main Street.
How does a community achieve this balance between the individual and the group? The main force is of course the developer, the individual or corporation with the cash, who yet must function within certain rules created by City Hall. Between these two powerful entities stands the community, and happy is the community that has – as Chestnut Hill has – an association that has standing in this process as a “Registered Community Organization,” which can offer approval – or not – when a project seeks a variance. Three committees combine to offer their advice in this process: the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee and the Development Review Committee (both within the Chestnut Hill Community Association) along with the Historic District Advisory Committee (within the Chestnut Hill Historical Society).
The process is and has been immensely complicated. In the end it has resulted in the ongoing creation of Germantown Avenue. Could it be better? Of course. Could it be worse? Most certainly. Walking down Germantown Avenue, one realizes that each building has its own history; each represents the end result of desire and compromise, and that somehow over the course of 250 years or so, we have become the beneficiaries, and the caretakers, of a unique community.
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” (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2012) and co-editor of “Rethinking the American City: An International Dialogue” (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).