Our Town: Celebrating Chestnut Hill’s commercial corridor

by George McNeely
Posted 4/13/23

The Chestnut Hill Conservancy is celebrating the success of that experiment with an April 13 lecture and accompanying walking tour on April 23.

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Our Town: Celebrating Chestnut Hill’s commercial corridor


Chestnut Hill is a living experiment in sustainability, a place that has greatly changed while keeping its distinctive character as a historic urban village with a vibrant main street, Germantown Avenue.

The Chestnut Hill Conservancy is celebrating the success of that experiment with a lecture and accompanying walking tour entitled “Sustaining Main Street: Chestnut Hill in the 21st Century.” The lecture, which will be held at the Venetian Club at 8030 Germantown Ave on Thurs., April 13, will start with a 6 p.m. wine and cheese reception. I will lead the walking tour, titled “Sustaining Main Street: Exploring Overlooked Vernacular Commercial Structures” on Sun. April 23, at 1:30 p.m. It will start at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, located at 8708 Germantown Ave.

The commercial core of Chestnut Hill emerged in the 18th century as a hub for business activities between the farmers of the Whitemarsh Valley, the many local mills they used and the shops and residents of the growing nearby city of Philadelphia. Those activities required a variety of commercial buildings, some of which have survived remarkably through the centuries, along with some of their various supporting structures. 

Succeeding centuries brought other commercial structures of all sorts, including stables, warehouses, garages, workshops, factories and utility structures that were built along the Avenue, on side streets, and in the open spaces behind them. The buildings that have survived today have evolved and been repurposed, and our commercial core has remained vibrant because of the efforts of many businesses, individuals and organizations that made that happen.

In his illustrated lecture, Miles Orvell will define the character of Chestnut Hill as a place somewhere between the ordinary and the extraordinary. He’ll consider questions such as: Why is the idea of history so important in Chestnut Hill? How has our thinking about Germantown Avenue changed since the “colonization” of its buildings in the 1950s and ‘60s? How does a community sustain its essential character as it grows? How does a community celebrate the past while meeting present and future needs in changing environments?

A resident of Chestnut Hill for more than 30 years, Miles Orvell teaches American studies at Temple University and has written several books about American culture, including The Death and Life of Main Street. 

Following that lecture, my walk around the commercial core of Chestnut Hill will explore the subsidiary buildings and yards along and near Germantown Avenue that have evolved in different ways to support our Main Street. From the few early farm-related barns and sheds to the many structures and spaces specifically created to accommodate the car to 20th-century manufacturing buildings, these vernacular utilitarian buildings scattered along the Avenue and its side streets have survived by being repurposed for newer functions.

These often-overlooked humble structures are a key part of the healthy commercial fabric of Chestnut Hill and deserve greater recognition for the vital supporting role they play.

This lecture is part of Chestnut Hill Conservancy’s “Discovering Chestnut Hill” tour and lecture series, which explores the architecture, history, and natural beauty of Chestnut Hill and surrounding communities. This series is sponsored by John B. Ward & Co. Arborists, Chubb Insurance, and the Conservancy’s other supportive businesses.

For tickets visit chconservancy.org/discovering-chestnut-hill.