Conservancy Chronicles: Innovative housing in Chestnut Hill, part 2

by Richard Bartholomew
Posted 3/23/23

This is the second of three articles about innovative urban housing in south Chestnut Hill. 

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Conservancy Chronicles: Innovative housing in Chestnut Hill, part 2


This is the second of three articles about innovative urban housing in south Chestnut Hill. 

Most residents and visitors walk past the George Woodward developments in Chestnut Hill without consciously recognizing what makes them different from most urban and suburban housing.

The housing consists of clusters of single-family houses, including detached, semi-detached and attached dwellings. Many are organized around landscaped courts. All of them were intended for rental, and most remain in the portfolio of the George Woodward Company. 

Stylistically, most of the south Chestnut Hill projects reflect English and French vernacular styles. While two of the housing clusters – Linden Court, located at 103-113 W. Willow Grove Ave., and Springfield Court, located at 22-32 E. Springfield Ave. – are constructed of brick and reflect a Colonial Revival style, the others are built primarily out of local Wissahickon schist.

This material echoes the stone used for buildings in the English Cotswolds, although our local stone is gray, not beige, as it is in the Cotswolds. Roofs are typically slate. A rich palette of native plants enhance the landscape of these developments and visually relate them to the nearby Wissahickon Valley. 

To appreciate what is creative and different about these projects, one must compare them to the prototypical housing types at that time and, indeed, still today. 

The dominant urban type, especially in the industrial cities of the 19th century, was the rowhouse. Block after block of row houses were built in Philadelphia, London and other cities. These buildings were constructed in continuous rows without front yards, in neighborhoods where density was relatively high. Philadelphia’s predominance of rowhouses, for instance, stood in stark contrast to the tenement housing in New York City. 

Meanwhile, the prototypical suburban house was the single-family detached house, which sat on its own lot and was surrounded by a yard. In these types of neighborhoods, a strong sense of community can be lacking – perhaps partly as a result of dependence on the automobile, a condition brought about by the low density of the housing. 

The Chestnut Hill housing clusters, in contrast, were based on a model that combined urbanity with the benefits of the natural environment that made suburban living attractive to those who wanted to escape the density, pollution, and lack of open space of the city. 

Seven of these are designed with landscaped common courtyards that face the street. This model benefits both the residents and the public, and produces urban streets that provide more greenery and variety than either the urban row house or the single family detached houses of the suburbs.

Woodward’s housing groups have a certain consistency but also diversity. While individual clusters are designed as wholes, there is variety among the clusters, often related to the sizes and shapes of the development parcels. 

Collectively, these clusters of housing contribute greatly to the image of Chestnut Hill, a place where architecture and the natural world combine to form a special urban environment.

Richard Bartholomew is a retired architect and urban planner who was a partner in the Philadelphia-based firm of Wallace Roberts & Todd.  A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the American Academy in Rome, he also served as an adjunct faculty member for over 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He currently serves on the Board of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy and is a member of its Historic District Advisory Committee.