Original stone pillars with gates and a kidney shaped driveway marker (left) in front of a stone wall obscured by cascading vines. A hairpin fence (right) is typical of homes in the area in the mid to late 1800s.

by Patricia M. Cove

As we all know, our homes, our communities and our streets are all reflective on how we like to live, what we enjoy seeing every day and the surroundings that bring us peace and joy. Living in the Northwest section of Philadelphia, we are surrounded by historic architecture, gardens and smaller, but equally important, more inconspicuous features that many of us may take for granted. These features, however, play an extremely important role in upholding the historic atmosphere that we love.

Since we are all spending more time at home lately and often taking in more of our local surroundings, as we walk through our neighborhoods, it becomes clear how many of these “smaller” elements are still a part of many properties, and also how many have started to disappear. All of these features contribute to a community’s history and to that elusive quality called character that we all cherish. But as many of these features are in a precarious position, either through lack of maintenance, a misunderstanding of their significance or simply that they stand in the way of “progress,” they are falling into disrepair, and are in danger of disappearing completely. Following is a list of some of these special elements. Maybe you are lucky enough to have one or more of them on your property. If so, keep in mind the role they play in maintaining the character of their surroundings, the value they add to a property and the community as a whole.

FENCES: Although fence designs vary greatly, throughout this region, a style known as a “hairpin” fence can be seen quite often. It was a common design employed in the mid to late 1800s and can take on a variety of iterations, but it is characteristically simple in design and harkens back to the natural curve of a woman’s hairpin. If sections are damaged, there are iron companies in existence today that can reproduce the design, which can not only save the original fence but save money, too.

STONE WALLS: What neighborhood, in this section of Philadelphia, doesn’t contain at least a few original stone walls? When the Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill were developed, a stone known as Wissahickon Schist was prevalent and became the material of choice for not only walls, but homes, papermills and all sorts of accessory buildings. Accent walls often bordered walkways, gardens and driveways, many of them being quite long and quite tall. It is easy to see how they can fall into disrepair. Their beauty and significance speak for themselves and building them today would be economically unfeasible. So when walls like these are allowed to grow over with vines, weeds and invasive plantings, the joints become weak, and the stones loosen. Bulges appear, signifying an imminent collapse. Maintenance and care of these walls is ongoing, but their beauty and historic significance is something we cannot afford to lose.

GATES: Would a home built in 2020 require an iron gate? Not necessarily, but 100 years ago, gates were a natural part of any estate both large and small. We still have many of these original features in this part of Philadelphia. Often they are supported by two stone pillars, and would have to be manually opened and closed as owners passed by. What is disheartening is that often these gates go missing, often leaving behind a mate and an empty stone pillar with the steel mounts attached, but the gate gone. To replicate and replace a missing historic gate is expensive to say the least. But if you are lucky enough to have a one, cherish it and know how much it adds to the historic nature of the community and value to your home.

STONE MARKERS: Our ancestors enjoyed “marking” things. Whether it be letting a carriage rider know how many more miles to Philadelphia or homeowners who marked their driveway with large kidney shaped stones, these markers represent a piece of history that we no longer incorporate and is reminiscent of a simpler time and place. These are small and some would say “insignificant” things, but they still add tremendously to historic character A walk down Summit Street in Chestnut Hill can take you back in time 100 years, with many of these features still in place. Notice the large granite blocks that rest at the sidewalk entrance to the homes. These blocks assisted travelers exiting a carriage and were often accompanied by stone posts with a ring that was used to secure a horse. Are these features necessary today? Of course not. But they certainly add a lot of charm and intrinsic value to a neighborhood.

As we all spend more time walking around these days, make sure you notice these quiet historic features, their contribution to the ambience and character of an historic neighborhood, and realize how easy it is to lose them if we are not vigilant to their maintenance and care.

Patricia Marian Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design and serves as Vice President for Preservation of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.

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