Conservancy Chronicles: Chestnut Hill's innovation

by Richard Bartholomew
Posted 3/9/23

The first of three articles about innovative group housing in south Chestnut Hill, which discusses developers George and Gertrude Woodward and their architects. 

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Conservancy Chronicles: Chestnut Hill's innovation


The first of three articles about innovative group housing in south Chestnut Hill, which discusses developers George and Gertrude Woodward and their architects. 

In the 1880s, railroad executive and entrepreneur Henry Howard Houston (1820-1895) arranged for construction of a rail line to Chestnut Hill’s west side, where he had assembled 3,000 acres of land. There he began work on a planned suburb, anchored by construction of the Wissahickon Inn (today part of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy), the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. 

He also built several large estates and numerous single-family detached and semi-detached houses. When Houston died, his sizable estate passed to his wife and three children, the youngest of whom, Gertrude, had married George Woodward in 1894. 

Woodward (1863-1952) held a medical degree, but practiced medicine only briefly, and with his wife eventually picked up what Henry H. Houston had started. They continued to develop more housing in the area, primarily in the southern part of Chestnut Hill. 

The Woodwards, who were among the most innovative thinkers of their day, would develop more than 180 houses in the area. And the current charm of Chestnut Hill is, in large part, their legacy. 

Woodward was a man of many interests. He was a member of the Progressive Party, active in Philadelphia’s Octavia Hill Association, whose mission was to provide low-cost rental housing, principally in the poorer parts of the city. The Philadelphia organization was modeled after London’s  Octavia Hill Association, which was formed in 1886 to provide affordable rental housing in the industrial city by renovating existing terrace (row) housing. 

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was an English social reformer who believed that the quality of the physical environment influenced well-being and behavior. This belief appears to have been shared by the Woodwards. 

They were also aware of the English Garden City Movement, which had its origins in Sir Ebenezer Howard’s influential 1898 book, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, which was reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow

Howard argued for the development of small towns, separated from the central city by a greenbelt but connected by rail, a description that remains apt for Chestnut Hill.

His ideas led to the development of the English towns of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, where houses were built in clusters. According to local historian David Contosta, Dr. George Woodward had “heard about these ideas at the meetings of the National Housing Conference, which he attended between 1911 and 1929.”

One can see the influence of this thinking in the development of housing by George and Gertrude Woodward in the southern part of Chestnut Hill. 

The most illustrative examples consist of housing groups or clusters within a few blocks of both sides of Germantown Avenue – most of which were developed between 1910 and the Great Depression. 

The Woodwards relied on three architects for these projects: H. Louis Duhring, Edmund B. Gilchrist, and Robert Rodes McGoodwin. All three architects were based in Philadelphia, but were also familiar with European models – as were George and Gertrude Woodward, both of whom traveled extensively. 

Indeed, the “Grand Tour” in Europe was considered an important part of an architect’s education, not only for American architects, but also for architects from other countries, including European ones.

It was also a time when American architectural schools were relatively new and were greatly influenced by historical precedents. 

Duhring and McGoodwin were graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, which had a degree-granting architecture program founded in 1890. Gilchrist also attended classes there. Both Duhring and McGoodwin were awarded travel scholarships and traveled extensively in Europe. 

David Contosta, in his book Suburb in the City, says that the Woodwards sent the three architects to England and France to study country architecture. He also reports that the three architects and their client met in the Woodwards' office weekly and discussed their designs as a group, which was an unusual form of collaboration for the time. 

The experiences of these architects, combined with the Woodwards’ knowledge and interests, resulted in a creative stew that came to fruition in the Chestnut Hill projects.

Richard Bartholomew is a retired architect and urban planner who was a partner in the Philadelphia-based firm of Wallace Roberts & Todd.  A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the American Academy in Rome, he also served as an adjunct faculty member for over 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He currently serves on the Board of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and is a member of its Historic District Advisory Committee.