A member of Chestnut Hill's 'first family' dies at 85


Despite his lofty pedigree as a member of the first family of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, George Woodward III was a soft-spoken, modest gentleman whose lifestyle was proudly pedestrian. Woodward, who died on March 7 at the age of 85, could have had homes in Malibu, Palm Beach and the French Riviera, but his down-to-earth, everyman habits consisted instead of rooting for the Phillies, bowling in a league, and fishing and relaxing in his vacation home at the Jersey shore.

“I will admit I am a little bit of a fanatic when it comes to fishing,” he once told me. “The thing I really love to do is take part in fishing competitions on the East Coast and even down to the Florida Keys. I love the camaraderie.”

An alumnus of Chestnut Hill Academy, Woodward was the son of the late Charles H. and Elizabeth Prioleau Gadsden Woodward. He worked at G. Woodward Company and then the Woodward House Corporation, 8031 Germantown Ave., for over 55 years, and he was president of the Woodward House Corp. for 8 years.

According to Martin Heckscher, a close friend for more than 70 years, “I first knew George when we were in the lower school at [Chestnut Hill Academy]. He was in the class behind me. I have known him since those early days in many different ways and places. It was always a pleasure to be with him and to see his face light up when a friend walked in the door. Amazingly, he met the challenges he faced in life with courage and determination. 

“He had many friends who loved to be with him during his travels all over the world. He took care of them while they did likewise for him. He especially loved the community of Chestnut Hill, where he flourished in the family real estate business carrying on the legacy of his parents and sister Quita. George was known and loved by many. His passing is noted with great sadness; he will be missed by us all.”

According to the George Woodward Company website, in the early 1880s, Woodward's great-grandfather, Henry Howard Houston, a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a very prominent Victorian-era entrepreneur, bought three farms comprising more than 3,000 acres. The parcel bordered Germantown and encompassed what is now Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough and Andorra. (The Henry H. Houston School, a public elementary school in Mt. Airy is named for Houston.)

Houston developed a railroad line to service the area and built the required infrastructure and more than 100 houses that were either sold or leased to tenants. The infrastructure included streets, railroad lines and railroad stations. By bringing the railroad to Chestnut Hill, summer vacationers were able to escape the heat of Center City and enjoy the beauty of the Wissahickon Valley. To attract the vacationers, Houston also built The Wissahickon Inn (Chestnut Hill Academy today), Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Philadelphia Cricket Club and athletic fields. Today, Houston's statue can be seen at Lincoln Drive and Harvey Street.

“They wanted diversity in all kinds of income brackets,” Woodward said in an earlier interview. “Chestnut Hill was never intended to be a Greenwich, Conn., or a Palm Beach. And we have always been committed to housing diversity and keeping rents reasonable. I believe we offer about the lowest rent in the country for housing of this caliber.”

In 1904, Dr. George Woodward, a physician-turned real estate developer, married Houston's daughter Gertrude, and furthered the family's real estate interests by purchasing a group of dilapidated houses west of Germantown Avenue along Springfield Avenue. He replaced them with an attractive collection of twin houses. These were so popular that a waiting list was implemented that is still in effect today. 

Dr. Woodward established George Woodward, Inc., in 1921 and went on to build over 400 houses. In addition to being early developers of fine architecture and urban design, the Houstons and Woodwards were quite philanthropic. The family's donations to the city included the Water Tower Recreation Center, Pastorius Park, a large part of the Wissahickon Valley, the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center and Houston Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

George Woodward III and his sister, Quita Woodward Horan, who was also a longtime president of the Woodward House Corporation, acted behind the scenes to maintain the houses and green space that were part of the Woodward family’s planned community on Chestnut Hill’s west side dating from the 1800s. Quita died April 5, 2020, at age 86 at the Hill at Whitemarsh in Lafayette Hill due to complications from a stroke and coronavirus. 

Woodward is survived by his nephew, Charles Woodward, and his grandniece, Hayes Hamilton Woodward. A private burial was held at St. Thomas Church in Flourtown.

For more on the history of the Houston and Woodward families, read “Suburb in the City.” by David R. Contosta, an author and history professor at Chestnut Hill College.