by Lou Richman, Chestnut Hill Conservancy
Anyone who spends even a short time in Chestnut Hill knows how crucially the community depends on reliable public train service to connect it to Center City and beyond. But no less important than utilitarian transportation to Chestnut Hill’s vitality and identity are the handsome train stations that grace its neighborhoods.
Recognizing the stations’ contribution to Chestnut Hill’s architectural heritage, the Chestnut Hill Conservancy announced at its annual meeting on Jan. 6 that the preservation of these treasures of late 19th and early 20th century civic construction will be a focus of its preservation and public programming activities in the coming year. The conservancy kicked off the initiative by presenting a 2018 Preservation Recognition Award to the St. Martin’s Station Committee, a local volunteer organization, and SEPTA for their more than 35 years of joint stewardship of St. Martins Station, the oldest of the depots serving the community.
In making the award, Shirley Hanson, chair of the Conservancy’s Preservation Committee, observed that no station is more closely entwined with the history of the settlement that ultimately became Chestnut Hill than St. Martins. Built as a simple one-story stone and wood structure in 1884, with a second story added five years later, the station was the first to serve Henry Howard Houston’s vision to create a new residential and pastoral retreat he originally called Wissahickon Heights. The station was designed by W . Bleddyn Powell, an early work by the architect who would go on help build City Hall and later serve as chief architect for the Philadelphia Building Commission.
The station soon became the heart of the St. Martin’s district, tucked among the stately homes built in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century. But as the neighborhood thrived, the station began to show the wear of time across changing economic cycles. By the late 1970s, accumulated deferred maintenance and vandalism on the nearly century-old building were taking a toll, as commuter-rail traffic slumped and the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads fell into financial crisis, ultimately to be absorbed by SEPTA.
It was then that a group of public-spirited local residents headed by Allston Jenkins, the prominent business leader, conservationist and historic preservationist, stepped forward to save St. Martins, chartering a not-for-profit St. Martin’s Station Committee in 1982 to raise funds to help stabilize the building. The committee amassed $100,000 in donations to shore up the structure. It also forged a pioneering partnership with SEPTA to restore the station and surrounding gardens and to lease the second floor to tenants to provide income and a physical presence on the property.
The committee labors on to the present day, sustaining its successful relationship with SEPTA, earning recognition for its outstanding stewardship of this treasured architectural asset. It serves as “a model of public-private partnership,” wrote a former SEPTA chief operating officer several years ago, “that might be emulated more broadly.”
Accepting the award on behalf of the St. Martin’s Station Committee were current board members Joseph Lavin and Ed Hickey and past board chair J. Randolph Williams. Representing SEPTA was Melissa Cooper, the agency’s manager of architectural engineering.