by Pete Mazzaccaro
By the time Henry Houston began buying large parcels of land in Chestnut Hill in the late 1800s the neighborhood was already settled.
North Chestnut Hill was peppered with large estates, the summer retreat homes of wealthy Philadelphians. Germantown Avenue also was home to a village of inns, shopkeepers and mills. The Chestnut Hill East Line, the main mode of transportation for those North Chestnut Hill homes, was already operational.
But the Chestnut Hill character that we know today – as an affluent suburb of the well-to-do professional classes – was begun by Houston’s visionary purchase of land in West Chestnut Hill and the later stewardship of that land and real estate holdings by his daughter Gertrude and her husband, Dr. George Woodward.*
That legacy will be marked in a five-day celebration beginning Wednesday, June 8, through Sunday, June 12. It will include numerous events marking the family’s contributions to Chestnut Hill, the City of Philadelphia and even Charleston, S.C., where a branch of the Woodward family lived.
Henry Howard Houston, born in 1820, was a wealthy executive of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company who became remarkably wealthy, in part from the Civil War. While working at the Pennsylvania Railroad, he lived with his family in a large home at the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Tulpehocken Street.
In the late 1870s, he began to purchase land in Chestnut Hill. Those purchases were of large quantities of undeveloped land north of Allens Lane and West of Germantown Avenue. In 1879 the board of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company agreed to build Chestnut Hill West, and the foundation was set for Houston’s suburban development, which he named Wissahickon Heights. Construction of the Railroad began in 1882, thanks, in part, to $500,000 worth of land donated by Houston.
Houston’s development began to rise in the area of West Chestnut Hill between the Cresheim Creek gorge in the south and Willow Grove Avenue in the North, and between St. Martin’s Lane in the west and Seminole Avenue to the east. He would push past these boundaries before long, in every direction, and his son-in-law George Woodward would go beyond that.
Houston built many different-sized homes but maintained ownership of all, renting them to residents rather than selling them. Those rents ranged from $30 a month for twins on Mermaid Lane to $135 a month for much larger homes on St. Martins.
Dr. David Contosta, a historian and Chestnut Hill College professor who wrote a comprehensive biography of Houston and the Woodward families, said that no one knows exactly what drove Houston to develop his own suburb, but it was clearly something that was very important to him.
“He had wanted to build a planned community and had purchased land in Germantown, Mt. Airy (the area around Allens Lane between McCallum and Cresheim Valley Drive that would later become The French Village) and had begun buying contiguous acres through upper Roxborough into Montgomery County. He owned 3,000 acres all the way to the corner of Ridge and Butler pikes.”
Contosta said that George and Gertrude Woodward were largely responsible for refining Houston’s vision, but that Houston built the centerpiece of the community in a series of large architectural projects in the 1880s. Much of that story is contained in Contosta’s book, “A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill.”
For Houston’s suburban development to be a success, he believed it needed institutional anchors. These he built in the development, beginning with the Wissahickon Inn – a 250-room guest house designed by architects William D. and George W. Hewitt that opened in May of 1884.
That inn, which became the main building of Chestnut Hill Academy and remains the upper school of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, was a vehicle for well-to-do professionals to visit Wissahickon Heights. Once people came and saw how nice life was in the suburbs, Houston reasoned, they’d stay and rent one of the many homes he was building in the brand new neighborhood.
Recreation was a big part of what those visitors would find. Houston lured the Philadelphia Cricket Club to what is now the club’s St. Martin’s course, just across Willow Grove Avenue from the Wissahickon Inn. Houston had also damned up a portion of the Cresheim Creek, dubbing the small lake it created Lake Surprise.
Finally, in 1889, Houston completed what may have been the most important cornerstone of his development – the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The church opened Feb. 2, 1889. An Episcopalian himself, Houston sought to attract other Episcopalians to the new suburb.
Houston clearly did not build Wissahickon Heights for others. In 1885, he built his own estate west of the Wissahickon Inn. He named the large home, also designed by the Hewitt Brothers, Druim Moir. The name was a Gaelic word for “great ridge,” describing the estate’s perch atop a ridge looking out over the Wissahickon. In 1890, Houston built the original McCallum Street Bridge, improving access to Wissahickon Heights from the rest of the city.
In the years before his death in 1895, Houston was able to create a suburban retreat with remarkable amenities and to surround it with open space, not only in the many acres of lawn and forest of Druim Moir but also in land he donated to the city that would make up much of the Wissahickon portion of Fairmount Park.
Contosta told the Local that much of these preservation efforts were solidified by Gertrude and George Woodward.
“Woodward was a real progressive Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt,” he said. “Dr. Woodward was one of the founders of the Friends of the Wissahickon. He would not have used the term, but everything he and Gertrude did was for the sake of sustainability. Chestnut Hill is what it is today because of the Woodwards.”
Next Week, The Woodwards’ Chestnut Hill. We’ll look at what Dr. George and Gertrude Woodward did to extend Wissahickon Heights, its renaming to St. Martins and how much of what the family did has made Chestnut Hill what it is today.
*An earlier version of this story misidentified Dr. George Woodward s Dr. Charles Woodward.