VALUE AND VULNERABILITY: The Chestnut Hill Conservancy Looks Back at 2021

by Lori Salganicoff, Executive Director, Chestnut Hill Conservancy
Posted 12/24/21

The Chestnut Hill Conservancy believes that growth and  development must add value to, rather than extract value from, any community. This defines our work as a progressive and collaborative community advocate; we use  preservation, conservation, and history as tools to strengthen and defend the community. 

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VALUE AND VULNERABILITY: The Chestnut Hill Conservancy Looks Back at 2021

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The Chestnut Hill and Wissahickon watershed area has sustained us all in so many ways,  especially during these past two years. The Chestnut Hill Conservancy believes that growth and  development must add value to, rather than extract value from, any community. This defines our work as a progressive and collaborative community advocate; we use  preservation, conservation, and history as tools to strengthen and defend the community. 

The Conservancy takes an unusually multi-faceted approach to encourage balance between smart growth and strategic protection. We are honored to be celebrated as a national model  for integrating preservation, conservation, and history as tools to foster beneficial change  (thank you, Garden Club of America!). Our lean nonprofit is more than 90% member and  supporter funded, and we are all grateful for the many community collaborations and  partnerships that will benefit the area for generations.  

The community has enjoyed some remarkable preservation successes in the past year. The  Conservancy gratefully played a part in the dramatic rescue of the four developable acres and  mansion of St. Michael’s Hall by the Woodmere Art Museum (and its generous supporters). Collaborative preservation leadership by the Conservancy has also been key in the evolving  transformations of Greylock (209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave.) and the Shipley White House (717  Glengarry Road). And our recent addition of several properties to the Philadelphia Register of  Historic Places ensures they are protected from demolition and drastic alteration. Other,  quieter work, problem solving with several neighbor groups (you know who you are!) has  helped maintain community balance behind the scenes and outside of Local reporting. 

Our Historic District Advisory Committee (a Philadelphia Registered Community Organization or  RCO) consistently defends our historic community from insensitive development as part of the  public community review process. We also celebrated great preservation work with our annual  Preservation Awards, and added five publicly-chosen architectural treasures to the Chestnut  Hill Architectural Hall of Fame.  

As we have seen increased development pressure, so too have we welcomed an increase of  interest by property owners in restricting future development on their own properties through  conservation and preservation easements. These legal agreements between a property owner  and a land trust such as the Conservancy are enforced in perpetuity and can result in  substantial financial benefits. So far, the Conservancy, in partnership with FOW and dozens of  private property owners, has protected more than 100 acres in the Wissahickon watershed! Chestnut  Hill can be proud to have the first urban land trust in the nation to win accreditation, which is awarded  to land trusts meeting the highest national standards for excellence and conservation  permanence. We began the re-accreditation process earlier this year. 

Considering that in Philadelphia 72% of carbon emissions come from buildings, retrofitting and  reusing existing buildings is our biggest opportunity to fight climate change and reduce carbon  production. But how do we improve energy impact and building efficiency without diminishing  architectural character? With “This Green Old House” (aka the 8708 Sustainable Preservation 

Project), the Conservancy will develop practical guidance to demonstrate to homeowners how  to improve the performance of historic but energy-inefficient houses without diminishing  architectural integrity. We will be using the Conservancy’s 164-year-old Headquarters at 8708  Germantown Avenue (a former residence), as our initial subject. 

This is the first project emerging from the Conservancy’s broadened efforts to inspire and  inform a culture of sustainability.  

Earlier this year, the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia donated their  historical collections, dating from 1873, to the Conservancy’s archives. As the archives begins  to outgrow our physical space, we are planning improvements to physical storage and to public  access to historic documents and photos through our physical headquarters as well as online. In  fact, donations to the Chestnut Hill and Wissahickon archives collection have increased fourfold  in the past year, thanks to local institutions and neighbors committed to preserving and sharing  their own histories. 

Our Pandemic Documentation Project has been collecting elements of the history we are living  through now sourced from your donations and our own documentation. In a joint program of  the Conservancy and the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, high school  students from Germantown Friends School participated in an elective course, “Documenting  Pandemic Life in Germantown.” As part of the course, students were trained to conduct oral  history interviews on video, interviewing a wide group of NW Philadelphia residents on their  pandemic experiences. 

This year’s Night of Lights exhibition, the Conservancy’s fifth annual gift to Chestnut Hill, was  the biggest to date. Thousands enjoyed archival slideshows, lights, music and demonstrations,  all while appreciating a transformed Germantown Avenue throughout the 10-night run. New  headsets provided by anonymous donors allowed us to host a few pandemic-safe in-person walking tours of Pastorius Park and its neighborhoods, and the WPA Structures in the  Wissahickon.  

But most public programming was held virtually. Through our screens, we enjoyed lectures on  “The Wissahickon Style of Landscaping,” “The Fortuitous Open Spaces of Chestnut Hill,” “WPA  Structures of the Wissahickon,” “MonumentLab: Civic Reimagination,” “Going Solar,” and  “Smart Homes to Manage Risk.” Members also enjoyed an exclusive virtual tour of Louis Kahn’s  Margaret Esherick House. Many of these were recorded and are available on the  Conservancy’s website. Also free and openly available on the Conservancy’s website is the History at Home collection of narrated history-themed slideshow videos, a monthly “Bloom  Where You Are Planted” view into all things green, as well as building- and history-related activities and games.  

Because of you, the Conservancy has been able to continue our advocacy and education, and  build community. Mark your calendars for the Jan. 9 Virtual Annual Meeting, where we will  share more detail about these projects and work to come in 2022. All members will receive an  invitation to register and join the meeting virtually.

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