Why do people choose to live in Chestnut Hill? For those who live in the neighborhood, the answer may seem obvious. The neighborhood is well designed and walkable. It has a robust retail district and a collection of fantastic restaurants. Nearly every corner of the neighborhood is an easy train ride away from Center City.
For many in the suburbs, those amenities can’t compete with the larger homes, lower crime rates and the perception of superior public schools. And the easy parking. Can’t forget about the easy parking. Suburban living is often seen as a little more relaxed, less stressful, even than the leafy, relatively residential Chestnut Hill.
Over the past two weeks, however, while writing about the upcoming celebration to honor the Woodward and Houston families, who planned and built much of Chestnut Hill, a thread emerges that does more to explain why people choose Chestnut Hill than the nice restaurants.
Now don’t get me wrong – never underestimate good restaurants – but any place can have good restaurants. But not every place has a long history that anyone can feel as they walk Germantown Avenue or stroll along any residential street in west or east Chestnut Hill.
Anyone who decides to live in Chestnut Hill, or in any Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood, really, must appreciate that fact. In Chestnut Hill, most homes have a story that began at least 100 years ago. And the neighborhood is part of a narrative that dates back to the 13 Colonies.
The richness of the various threads of that story are obvious in telling the story of the Houstons and Woodwards. Chestnut Hill was a place where Henry Houston first envisioned a rural yet modern suburb in the 1880s. His daughter Gertrude and her husband Dr. Charles Woodward continued that work, perfecting the Wissahickon style of architecture that gives this whole region much of its distinctive character.
And, what is more than that, the story isn’t over. For those people who live and work here, that sense of history – the narrative of a place with purpose – persists. It is why residents here are so protective of every home and every tree. Even the most unremarkable home is a precious part of that story, and that story is an important part of why many people choose to live here.
Starting this week and concluding next week, we will relate a small part of that story in a look at the Houston and Woodward families. Their story is very much a central piece of the larger narrative of Chestnut Hill. And for further reading, I have to recommend the works of David Contosta, whose books “A Philadelphia Family: The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill,” “Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1850-1890,” and “Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City” continue to be a tremendous resource to us.
Read the articles. Get the books. You may have a sense of the history, but the whole story is one worth repeating.
— Pete Mazzaccaro