Gates to paradise: Entries to the Wissahickon

Posted 8/16/19

Top: Stotesbury Gates c. 1901. (Photo courtesy of the Germantown Historical Society) Bottom: The pergola at Germantown Avenue and Cresheim Valley drive today. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro) by George …

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Gates to paradise: Entries to the Wissahickon

Top: Stotesbury Gates c. 1901. (Photo courtesy of the Germantown Historical Society)
Bottom: The pergola at Germantown Avenue and Cresheim Valley drive today. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)
by George McNeely A reader has inquired about the various sets of gateways at key entry points to the Wissahickon Park in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. On these warm summer days, those of us who are not at the beach are likely visiting the Park and may encounter those gateways. Herein is some of their history. The earlier gate frames Lincoln Drive, just east of its intersection with Johnson Street. The ensemble includes a pair of stone piers on either side of the road, topped with wooden trellises, and adjoining low stone walls. Completed in 1901, each side originally had a pair of piers, connected by the trellises, which were quickly covered with vines. Two of the piers were later removed during widening of Lincoln Drive. The gates marked the transition from the residential blocks of Mount Airy into the Park, which then continued uninterrupted along Lincoln Drive and the West River Drive to Center City. They are named after Edward T. Stotesbury, who was active with the Fairmount Park Commission. A prominent banker and partner of J.P . Morgan, he is also known for indulging the social ambitions of his second wife by building the extravagant Whitemarsh Hall in Wyndmoor, now demolished. Immediately to the east of the gates was a section of the park then known as the Houston Ramble. Begun in 1900, the ramble was a classic late Victorian garden scheme that included walks, lawns, pergolas, water, and vistas of the surrounding picturesque rocky crags. Central Park also offers a ramble, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, with many of the same features. Our ramble incorporated two ponds that had been created by the damming of Monoshone Creek, which now runs underground along the south side of Lincoln Drive. Henry Houston donated both the land and funding for those gardens. As discussed previously in this column, Houston had lived nearby in Germantown before his eye turned to the open fields of Chestnut Hill in the 1880s. His large Italianate house, at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Tulpehockan Street, has been demolished, but surviving are a number of other houses he built on the surrounding blocks that were his early real estate adventures. Many were designed by his preferred architects, the Hewitt Brothers. The residents of those houses would have benefited from the pleasures of the nearby Houston Ramble. Most of the Houston Ramble has since become overgrown and is hard to decipher, but alert drivers can see the bronze statue of Henry Houston on the north side of Lincoln Drive at Harvey Street. It was sculpted by J. Massey Rhind, who also created the current statue of Native American chief Tedyuscung at Indian Rock farther up the Wissahickon. The gates are another reminder of those lost gardens, and have recently been handsomely restored, including the replacement of the projecting wood trellises. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated in 1909 that those trellises “… present a Japanese effect, which is as attractive as it is unusual in Park adornments.” You can inspect them the next time you drive into town. A curiously similar set of gates was later constructed at the intersection of Germantown Avenue and Cresheim Valley Drive, including stone piers, wood trellises and an adjacent fountain and benches. Constructed in 1909 and funded by Henry Houston’s daughters, Mrs. Charles I. Henry and Mrs. George W . Woodward, it is likely that they were designed to echo the earlier gates. They have also recently been restored. Just as Lincoln Drive was created to link the residents of Germantown and Mount Airy with the Park and Center City, Chestnut Hill has its own parkways: Cresheim Valley Drive and the disconnected section of upper Lincoln Drive. Plans to continue Lincoln Drive west of Allen’s Lane through the Cresheim valley to connect with the Drive’s short upper section never happened, leaving drivers to scatter via alternative streets. But part of a smaller existing road along the Cresheim Creek was expanded into Cresheim Valley Drive from the end of Emlen Street west to Germantown Avenue, anchored by the new gates. In the early 20th century, the Wissahickon Park was increasing in size through land donation, purchase or condemnation. Particular focus was paid to the tributaries of the Wissahickon: the Monoshone and Cresheim creeks. Those same daughters of Henry Houston had donated some 12 acres along the Cresheim Creek in 1906. The land donated by the Houston sisters included the area that once had featured Lake Surprise, south of the Drive near where Cresheim Road ends at the ruins of Buttercup Cottage Barn. Created by damming the creek, the pond had been one of a number of recreational amenities that Henry Houston offered to guests of his nearby Chestnut Hill Hotel. The pond was later drained to create what was known as Woodward Meadow, which itself has more recently been replanted and become mostly second-growth forest. As the Park had been expanding, George Woodward had bought up land around the western end of the Cresheim Valley Drive, and demolished a number of smaller houses near Germantown Avenue. His goal was to create an engaging entrance to Chestnut Hill around that intersection, with the gateways as one feature. Immediately adjacent to those gates is an abandoned railway bridge that remains from the now defunct suburban railway line that split off of the Chestnut Hill West line towards Flourtown. (Readers may remember from an earlier “Our Town” column that the railway line ran past Laverock Hill, the former Starr family estate in Laverock.) The abandoned railway right-of-way is now proposed to become part of the Cresheim Creek Trail that would lead from Devil’s Pool in the Wissahickon west along Cresheim Creek and the railway right-of-way out to Springfield Township. That would expand the recreational opportunities offered by Philadelphia’s remarkable Fairmount Park system, and reinforce the importance of the Houston sisters’ gateway on Germantown Avenue. I would like to thank Peter DiCarlo, the architect on the planning team for the Stotesbury Pergola restoration project, for generously providing research materials for this article.