by Richard Bartholomew
The Chestnut Hill Historical Society is sponsoring a guided walking tour of Summit Street and adjacent areas on Saturday, May 9. The tour will begin at the Chestnut Hill East train station at Bethlehem Pike and Chestnut Hill Avenue at 1:30 p.m. and is expected to take about two hours, followed by refreshments at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 8708 Germantown Ave. The rain date is Sunday, May 31.
Free parking is available at the Chestnut Hill station on weekends and a train from center city arrives at 1:20 p.m.. Registration is required as spots are limited. The tour is free to CHHS members and $15 to nonmembers.
The walking tour will focus on the development of Chestnut Hill’s first residential street, on the exterior architecture of its significant houses, and on some of the notable owners of the properties over the years.
Summit Street is located at the highest elevation (446 feet above sea level) in the city of Philadelphia. Its development as a fashionable nineteenth century suburb followed the opening of the Chestnut Hill to Germantown Railroad (today’s Chestnut Hill East line) and the Consolidation Act of 1854 when the Germantown Township, including Chestnut Hill, was annexed to the City.
Philadelphia lawyer Samuel H. Austin, recognizing the appeal of the area, purchased about 5.75 acres of land south of the station and constructed Summit Street from Bethlehem Pike to what is today’s Stenton Avenue. Austin sold off various large lots on both sides of the street, and construction of houses quickly followed. By 1876 the development of the street was nearly complete, with houses representing a wide range of Victorian-era architectural styles.
Most of these houses still stand, although many have been subject to additions and alterations. Today Summit Street remains one of the most interesting and beautiful streets in Chestnut Hill and in the City of Philadelphia.
In addition to its convenient location near the railroad station, Summit Street, due to its higher elevation and superb views, was an ideal opportunity for well-to-do Philadelphians to exercise the mid-nineteenth century’s romantic ideal of living close to nature, and escaping the crowding and insalubrious conditions of urban life. This way of thinking has affected the development of the American suburb ever since.
For a long time the architecture of the Victorian period was ignored, or even despised, because it was eclectic and was not considered a “pure” style when compared to previous periods of western architectural history. With some exceptions, most architects of the Victorian age, both here and in Britain, dressed their buildings in a variety of neo-architectural styles: classical, Italianate, Gothic, etc., depending on the desire of the owner or the symbolism associated with each style.
A stroll along Chestnut Hill’s Summit Street is, therefore, an opportunity to experience a microcosm of American Victorian architecture, an example of the romantic ideal of residential life, and one of the city’s most appealing streets.
Tour Guide: Richard Bartholomew, FAIA, FAAR, is a retired architect and city planner whose career focused on urban design.