by Anne Wertz for the Chestnut Hill Historical Society
Thirty-one years ago, the National Park Service recognized Chestnut Hill as a National Historic District due to its unique development history, its areas of significance as a community, and its inventory of stellar and wide-ranging examples of American architecture. Chestnut Hill was an unusually large Historic District, and remains one of the nation’s largest today. (Designation on the National Register of Historic Places is an honor and does not bring with it any restrictions, rules, or regulations.)
The Chestnut Hill Historical Society undertook the formidable task of preparing the 1985 nomination, which included the creation of an inventory of virtually every building in the community. Each building was surveyed, eloquently described, and determined either to contribute to the historic character of the District or not to contribute. Information regarding the original architects, builders and owners was also included. Shirley Hanson, Nancy Hubby and Richard Snowden led the team, with consulting historian Jefferson Moak and two dedicated interns, and the experiences that they went through would season any professional!
Currently, CHHS is updating the original inventory to include mid-20th century structures, which in 1985 had been too young to be assessed for historical value, but which clearly show significance today. These include Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House (also known as “Mother’s House”) and Louis Kahn’s Margaret Esherick House.
The National Park Service requires that original inventories for National Historic Districts be revisited periodically, and that changes to contributing buildings – including demolitions, additions and replacements – be documented. Last fall, CHHS enlisted help from 13 Philadelphia University students enrolled in Dr. David Breiner’s “History of American Architecture” class. You may have noticed groups of two or three students, with clipboards and maps in hand, walking up and down the streets, carefully examining every house, garage, and storefront in the neighborhood.
As the volunteer project manager, I appreciated what value this project had for the students. Although it was a herculean task, surveying provided them with the unique opportunity to leave behind the classroom and the textbook images, and become intimate with brick-and-mortar examples of styles and trends.
After completing the surveying, they went on to write research papers about aspects of suburban development or architectural trends that they had witnessed in the field. In repayment for their hard work and tired feet, CHHS invited the students to celebrate at the First Annual Architectural Hall of Fame Gala in November 2015.
If you would like to see and learn more about Chestnut Hill’s treasures from the recent past, mark your calendar for Sunday, April 17, when the Chestnut Hill Historical Society will lead a 20th Century Modern Architecture Bike Tour, departing at various times from the Chestnut Hill West train station. To receive details as they are released, add your email address to the CHHS email list: KSouthall@CHHist.org or call 215-247-0417 x 207.
If you’re interested in the history of any Chestnut Hill property, a great place to start your research is the original National Register inventory. Visit CHHS on “First Saturdays” (the first Saturday of every month excluding July and August), between 1and 3 p.m., when Archivist Alex Bartlett can help you look through the inventory as well as the 21,000+ photos, maps, architectural drawings, deeds, books, and other material that comprise the archives – open to the public free of charge during First Saturday events, no appointment needed.