By Design

How 'sense of place' can help keep Hill's historic character

by Patricia M. Cove
Posted 5/4/23

The answer most people give today when they are asked why they love Chestnut Hill is that they love its historic village character.

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By Design

How 'sense of place' can help keep Hill's historic character


by Patricia M. Cove

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and presented by Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies at Temple University and the writer of several books about American culture, including “The Death and Life of Main Street.” His talk was entitled “Sustaining Main Street: Chestnut Hill in the 21st Century.”  

I know Miles personally. He is a member of the Conservancy’s Historic District Advisory Committee, a committee that I chair. So I am familiar with his knowledge and the expertise he shares on the evolution of main streets. 

During my early years living in Chestnut Hill, which stretch back to the 20th century, I chaired a committee called the “Aesthetics Committee.” The reason that the Aesthetics Committee existed was to ensure that the historic village atmosphere of our community and shopping district remained intact. It was made up of a group of feisty ladies and gentlemen who had design and business backgrounds, all of whom understood the often indescribable and sometimes misunderstood qualities that made up that all important “historic village character.”

As Miles pointed out in his lecture, the main street of any community encompasses many components; the landscape, nature, buildings and the built environment among them. These qualities create what is often termed a “sense of place.” Whether it’s the southern charm of Charleston or the Pueblos feel of Santa Fe, the success of any main street depends on its ability to preserve and maintain the distinct qualities that create it’s unique sense of place.

Fifty years ago, Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill was an amalgam of  historic residences, small businesses and  commercial enterprises sometimes housed in modest vernacular structures. Building fronts were varied in style, scale, and design, and commercial advertisement encompassed everything from flashing signs to billboards. As Miles so aptly described in his lecture, it could have been compared to the Pottersville version of Main Street in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

But a controversial effort on the part of a local businessman striving to “colonialize” sections of Germantown Avenue began to create the “sense of place” that has struggled to be retained up to today.

In the late 1980s, a set of “Germantown Ave. Urban Design Guidelines” were written and supported by the three major community organizations: the Conservancy (then known as the Historical Society), the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chesnut Hill Business Association. The Aesthetics Committee, was charged with administering these guidelines. 

The committee had its challenges. There was always the struggle between maintaining the historic village character versus the commercial  interests of  business owners and developers. But that feisty group soldiered on, by being both passionate and proactive.

The answer most people give today when they are asked why they love Chestnut Hill is that they love its historic village character. We don’t have an Aesthetics Committee anymore, and its replacement, the “Streetscape Committee” seems powerless in the face of projects that do not require any zoning variance by the city, or just flagrantly disregard our all important “guidelines.”

Listening to Miles Orvell’s talk, I was reminded again of the importance of not giving up in the face of these challenges. New building developments that are out of scale and out of character are being proposed continually. New store fronts are being installed with no regard to pedestrian scale, some of which incorporate signage that is more appropriate for Route 309. So many have worked so hard, for so long. But – recognizing that change is inevitable – we wonder how we can move forward, knowing that the character of our community may soon be unrecognizable as the historic village it is today.

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and is Vice President of Preservation for the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.