A bulldozer showed up in the yard of a historic Chestnut Hill residence last week, alarming preservationists as well as neighbors.
A bulldozer showed up in the yard of a historic Chestnut Hill residence last week, alarming preservationists as well as neighbors about the fate of a building designed by one of Philadelphia’s most important architects, Wilson Eyre Jr.
City records show that new owner Kenneth Curry, who bought the house at 399 E. Willow Grove Ave. in September for $990,000, was granted a demolition permit for all structures on the lot in December. The sudden appearance of the bulldozer, and the fencing that now encircles the property, would suggest that he intends to follow through with that permission – and soon.
Curry, who also owns the house next door at 8036 Crittenden Street, has not returned multiple calls from the Local. Nor has he responded to questions from community leaders about what exactly he intends to do with the property.
“We don’t know what the plans are, because we haven’t been able to speak with him,” said Anne McNiff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.
Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, said the structure is a significant part of the Chestnut Hill Historic District, and that the loss of it would further erode the historic character of this gateway to the community.
“We would love to hear what his plans are, as we would hate to lose such a beautiful historic building by such an important architect,” said Salganicoff. “We are wondering if there is any way we can work together to find a mutually beneficial solution that will save this building.”
Still, neither Salganicoff nor McNiff have given up hope, they say, and are continuing to try and contact Curry.
The Queen Anne style house known as Teviot sits on a .9 acre lot at the corner of East Willow Grove Avenue and Crittenden Street, which is directly across from Chestnut Hill Apartments. Both it and 401 E. Willow Grove Ave., two remaining historic buildings, anchor the end of the residential portion of Crittenden Street – which is in an increasingly commercial section of Chestnut Hill.
According to Chestnut Hill developer Richard Snowden, a staunch defender of the neighborhood’s historic character who is also on the board of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, the house is an important remaining example of Eyre’s work. Eyre designed remarkable residences and institutional buildings throughout the Philadelphia region, as well as the Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle.
“Having restored an important Wilson Eyre house just a couple of blocks away, I can tell you that they are rare,” said Snowden, referring to Angelcot, another Eyre building at 401 E. Evergreen Ave., which he saved and converted into high-end condominiums. “They are rare pieces of artwork. There are not a lot of them that have survived intact.”
“I think it's important that we think of the architecture in Chestnut Hill as a collection of art, not just a bunch of old buildings,” Snowden added. “Because it really is that. Architecture is art. These are individually crafted pieces. And all of them matter. Taken together, they form a kind of gallery.”
The deed contains some restrictions about what can be built on the lot, Salganicoff said, but it does not appear to preclude demolition. Subdivision also seems to be restricted by deed, she said, so if this building is lost, the site’s subsequent redevelopment would likely require some legal maneuvering that the community would certainly get involved in.
According to Salganicoff, historical records illustrate important information about the land, building, and the people who built it. The property was originally part of a large tract of land bordering Stenton Avenue that was purchased in 1857 by Charles Heebner, a prominent and philanthropic resident of Chestnut Hill during the middle of the 19th century.
Heebner’s children began to develop their family tract in the 1880s, taking advantage of a new building boom in Chestnut Hill and a desire by the Reading Railroad to renovate and upgrade the Reading railroad’s Chestnut Hill section to compete with the new Pennsylvania Railroad branch opened in 1884.
In July 1888, the Heebners sold the corner lot at 23rd Street (now Crittenden Street) and Willow Grove Avenue to 37-year old Major Joseph Howell Burroughs, who commissioned the noted Eyre to design and supervise the construction of their new house.
After moving into the house with their two small children in 1889-90, Joseph and Edith Burroughs named the house Teviot, after a famous Scottish estate. The carriage house they added to the property in 1894 now serves as a single family home at 8038 Crittenden St.
Burroughs’ son Joseph Howell Burroughs, Jr., who was six when the family built and moved into the home at 399 E. Willow Grove Ave, grew up to become a mechanical engineer and a designer of steam locomotives for the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia.
The property was sold by the Burroughs family in 1910. It sold again in 1943, and then again in 1948 when it was purchased by Harvey and Hilda Davis. The Davis’ subdivided the property into four lots in 1963, retaining ownership of a large corner lot with the main house until that was sold in 1968 to George and Marilynn Wills. George and Marilynn Wills passed away in 2021 and 2020, respectively, and the home was sold by their estate’s executor and daughter in September 2022 to Kenneth Curry and Yvonne Thomas.