Then and Now

Looking back on a century of life in Chestnut Hill

by April Lisante
Posted 10/14/21

It is the gem of Northwest Philadelphia, separated from the city by an ascending ravine that stretches nearly 12 miles up Lincoln Drive.

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Then and Now

Looking back on a century of life in Chestnut Hill

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It is the gem of Northwest Philadelphia, separated from the city by an ascending ravine that stretches nearly 12 miles up Lincoln Drive.

Through the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century its geographical summit above the city made it a place for our founding fathers’ summer homes, and later, a resort, a stopping point for travelers, and a convalescent locale to escape the stench and heat of Center City in the warmer months.

It is perhaps in this last century, from 1921 until now, that Chestnut Hill has morphed most significantly with the times, evolving, changing, and becoming a commercial hub far distant from Center City, all while maintaining the history and charm of its infancy.

This year, as the Hill celebrates several centennials including this month’s McNally’s Tavern milestone, we are taking a retrospective look at what life was like back then – and how we got to where we are now. To set off on our trip down memory lane, we spoke with Mount Airy native Alex Bartlett, the archivist at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and a veritable wealth of knowledge about the Hill’s history. Bartlett has been with the Conservancy for twelve years, and has devoted his career to the study of local history with a Masters in museum studies.

“Despite having undergone many changes over the last century, Chestnut Hill has retained the charm and character it had in 1921,” Bartlett said. “We look forward to seeing what the next 100 years will bring!”

Samuel Austin’s development of Summit Street was still quite new when this circa 1866 view was taken from 25 Summit Street, facing southeast towards Wyndmoor.
Samuel Austin’s development of Summit Street was still quite new when this circa 1866 view was taken from 25 Summit Street, facing southeast …

Changing with the Times

The year 1921 was an exceptional time to be living in Chestnut Hill. Sandwiched historically between the end of World War I and the ominous arrival of the Great Depression, it was a time of commercial boom and development. The nineteenth century geographic open spaces and residential homes and estates were transitioning. In their stead, retail commercialization, the modernization of the railroad lines and the trolley, as well as the great American automobile were making their appearances.

Germantown Avenue in 1921 was a mix of homes and mom-and-pop stores. On either side of Germantown Ave., 19th century estates like the Victorian-era Randall Morgan Estate at Willow Grove and Stenton Aves. still sprawled with gardens and large lawns. Estates like this would eventually be abandoned following the Great Depression – and much later become the Market Square shopping center and Chestnut Hill Village apartments - but in 1921, estates still existed alongside a burgeoning local economy.

Following a post-war recession in 1920, a retail and residential rebound had begun, and had reached the Hill. Homes were popping up on either side of Germantown Ave., fashioned with stone from local quarries. Generally speaking, about four blocks on either side of the Avenue would have been residentially developed by 1921. Even the sites of Wells Fargo Bank, the Sunoco and Jenks school were residential homes in 1921. Stores were appearing alongside traditional Italian markets and mom-and-pop shops. And cars suddenly were king, forcing the Hill to adjust to the onslaught of new vehicles.

“People were buying cars and there started to be traffic and parking problems,”Bartlett  said.

The Chestnut Hill Businessmens’ Association was trying to determine where to put stop signs, which didn’t exist. Intersections weren’t yet monitored and we aren’t sure where the first traffic light appeared.

But they did decide in 1921 to ban cars from the bucolic drive running along the Wissahickon off Bells Mill Road. Today it is Forbidden Drive, a car-free zone and the reason one of the Wissahickon’s most infamous walk-abouts was thus christened.

The arrival of cars meant residents were expanding their recreational activities. Once limited to the Wissahickon Valley’s hiking trails, they were gifted with the Water Tower Recreation Center, which was brand new in 1921 after construction in 1919.  The current site on Hartwell Lane had been a reservoir, owned by the Chestnut Hill Water Company.

“That’s why the tower is there,” Bartlett said.

Schools were another vital part of local life. Norwood Fontbonne Academy was brand new in 1921, having just been founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. A Miss Zara’s School for girls taught children just around the corner on West Moreland Avenue. And because the site of Jenks Academy of Arts and Science was occupied by a residential home, public school children would have gone to The Gilbert School at 212 West Highland Ave.

A Melting Pot of Residents and Retail

Chestnut Hill, much like Center City, was a melting pot of residents, from African Americans to Irish, German and Italian Americans. Doctors had homes built on Waterman Avenue and Norman Lane, near the Chestnut Hill Hospital in the 20s, since health care was becoming such a huge industry. The hospital, which opened in 1904, continued to provide area care, while The Bethesda Home on Bethlehem Pike provided convalescent care in the Hill’s crisper, fresher air.

“Summit Street was the highest location but the idea was that this was a resort, that we were at the highest point and had healthful air and was good for convalescence,” Bartlett said.

Irish and German Americans worked as domestic help in local homes and estates, whereas African Americans owned stores and Italian Americans either had stores or came from Poffabro Italy and worked the stone quarries toward the bottom of the Avenue, where Staples now stands.

“The Roanoke Street houses are built up high because they are above where the quarries existed,” Bartlett said. “Where Staples now is, you can see it’s rocky back there.”

While fine stone homes continued to be built amid the already existing 19th century estates in the neighborhoods on either side of Germantown Avenue, the commercialization continued along the Avenue. The site of the Wells Fargo Bank was once that of Gillie’s Fish Market and there were several Italian markets catering to the Italian community. But in 1927, an A&P grocery store appeared at what is now the Children of America daycare center.

“It may have changed the overall feel of the intersection,” Bartlett said. “The supermarket may have started to plant the seed of that area being more commercialized rather than residential.”

Transportation was Key

Like many American cities in 1921, the railroad and trolley were keys to keeping the Hill bustling.

The railroad lines, both the Chestnut Hill East and West, were the Reading and Pennsylvania railroad lines respectively, and were the link to Center City. The West line had been electrified in 1918, making it a new luxury by 1921. But there was an additional line extending from near the Allen Lane station, crossing Germantown Avenue near the former Trolley Car Diner to take passengers to Fort Washington and then to the Trenton Cutoff to New York City. That line ran from 1921 until 1952.

“Everyone thinks about going to New York City from 30th Street station along what is now Amtrak but technically you could have taken a train from Center City to New York via Allen Lane.”

The number 23 trolley, which existed in 1921, used to go “almost everywhere,” Bartlett said.

The trolley loop did not go in until 1927, and so in 1921, the trolley would ride all the way down Germantown Avenue into Montgomery County. One used to stop at the now defunct Maple Lawn Inn on the way, an inn that sat right at Germantown and Bethlehem Pikes.

But it was Rose McNally’s husband, Hugh, a trolley driver, who decided in 1921 that his wife needed to do something to feed the drivers and other travelers coming up into Chestnut Hill. So the industrious Rose McNally opened McNally’s Quick  Lunch, with soups and food for the road-weary. She served everyone: drivers, passengers, with no discrimination.

“African Americans, many businesses discriminated against them, but McNally’s was never one of them,” Bartlett said.

This month, Rose’s great-granddaughters Anne and Meg celebrate 100 years at the top of the Hill as McNally’s Tavern. They still serve the same lunches, but now they are also a neighborhood stalwart serving dinner, drinks and camaraderie.

Rose McNally, her husband Hugh McNally, a trolley car driver who went on to found McNally’s Tavern, and her three sons.Hugh McNally, grandfather of the current owners of the popular pub, Meg and Anne McNally, is on the far left.
Rose McNally, her husband Hugh McNally, a trolley car driver who went on to found McNally’s Tavern, and her three sons.Hugh McNally, grandfather of …

“’Here comes everyone!’ We can’t be sure our great grandmother knew of this quote from James Joyce, but she certainly lived out its spirit,” said Anne McNally. “She fed the hungry, prepared beverages for the thirsty and must have brought a real charisma of hospitality to everyone who stopped at McNally’s Quick Lunch."

100th

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