Robert Venturi (center) at a panel discussion on architecture and the future of Chestnut Hill with Romaldo Giurgola (second from left) and Louis Kahn (second from right). That panel was organized by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and moderated by Evan Turner (left). Also at the table was founding member of the historical society Nancy Hubby.

by Shirley Hanson

Robert Venturi, one of the most prominent American architects in the last century, died last week at the age of 93. Among his many important works is his Mother’s House, built in Chestnut Hill for his mother Vanna. Venturi lived in Mt. Airy and his office was in Manayunk.

News of the death of Robert Venturi sent me some 50 years into the past to consider the power of his influence on the future of Chestnut Hill. My thoughts settled on the new Chestnut Hill Historical Society (now the Chestnut Hill Conservancy). The time was 1967-68 when our thinking coalesced around two beliefs. First, more significant than a handful of important older buildings is the total community of Chestnut Hill. Second, we accept our role to help guide Chestnut Hill’s future.

Together, they became our mission, arising from our appreciation for the far-reaching rescue and renewal of Chestnut Hill led by Lloyd Wells in the 1950s and 1960s.

The origin of our calling was in that magical year of 1963. Imagine our small community becoming the center of architecture’s future through the work of Robert Venturi in the house he built for his mother. At the same time Chestnut Hill gained not only the residence Louis Kahn designed for Margaret Esherick but also the home Romaldo Giurgola designed for Dorothy Shipley White on Glengarry Road.

Let’s explore “Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History” by Susan and Willard Detweiler, the first publication in 1969 from the new historical society. At the end of the section on “Architecture” photos of the three 1963 houses stand out starkly and imaginatively from the 97 older buildings chosen to represent the architecture that came before. Recently, the Detweilers said, “Despite controversy, the founders of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society had the wisdom to recognize the significance of contemporary architecture as well as older structures to the overall fabric of the Chestnut Hill community.”

In the book’s foreword, Evan H. Turner, Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, “Appreciating the achievement of the past is the commencement of concern for the future. Patterns of existence will change significantly in the years to come. Change can be difficult: it can as well be exciting. Every person in the community should play a responsible part in confronting the future.”

In 1970, our role was confirmed in our program called ““An Evening of Speculation: Chestnut Hill’s Future.” Then, we gathered Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn, and Romaldo Giurgola in a panel with Evan Turner as moderator.

At that time, we gathered 800 people, including architects and architecture students from New York City. They sat in the bleachers in the Chestnut Hill Academy gym to hear these architecture pacesetters connect with Chestnut Hill as it existed then and as it might become.

Shirley Hanson is a founding member of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.

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