Since 1871, there has been a library building in Chestnut Hill at 8711 Germantown Avenue. Now, we need you to do your part.
Since 1871, there has been a library building in Chestnut Hill at 8711 Germantown Avenue. It hasn’t always been the beautiful Wissahickon schist Gothic-revival building that stands there now. Our library building, which has a rich history apart from serving as an example of impressive Philadelphia architecture, is an historic example of the Carnegie-library building boom of the early 20th century. It illustrates both the growth and civic-mindedness of the Chestnut Hill community.
Before Chestnut Hill consolidated with the City of Philadelphia in 1854, it was its own self-governing village. With the coming of commuter trains, Chestnut Hill attracted wealthy Philadelphians to the growing residential neighborhood. Additionally, stonemasons and laborers came to build the new homes and workers came to care for them. These disparate groups of people settled in Chestnut Hill and brought a “can-do” spirit to their new neighborhood. It was in this spirit that Henry J. Williams, a prosperous Philadelphia attorney, started Chestnut Hill’s first lending library in 1871.
Williams was a devout Presbyterian and called his library the Christian Hall Library. The two-story building housed the library in addition to a YMCA and a workingman’s club that provided bathing facilities. The local African American community also used the building for religious services during the summer months.
By 1876, the board of the Christian Hall Library had persuaded Henry Williams to make the library, which started as a reading room and then became a subscription-based library, open to the public. When he died in 1879, Williams left an endowment of $15,000 to maintain the library. A library board report from 1886 makes an appeal for donations for the library fund and, in the anachronistic language of the time, states, “The library is used by all classes of citizens.”
Chestnut Hill should be proud of its long history of having a public library in the community. A study done at Santa Clara University in 2000 showed that before 1876 there were only 484 public libraries in the U.S., and half of those were in New England. The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) didn’t open its doors until 1894, although by 1897, the year it took over operations of the Christian Hall Library, the FLP had the highest book circulation in the world.
It’s hard to quantify the impact Pittsburgh business mogul and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s library-building program had on the nationwide public library movement, but in 1901 when the Philadelphia City Council applied for a Carnegie grant to build 30 local library buildings, the Christian Hall Library of Chestnut Hill was one of only 14 local FLP branches.
The cornerstone for the current library building was laid in 1907. Construction was completed in 1909, and the new Carnegie-funded building was reopened as the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Designed by the prominent Philadelphia architectural firm of Cope and Stewardson, it was built of local Wissahickon schist and designed in the Gothic-revival style, to fit with the developing neighborhood of Chestnut Hill.
Although chiefly known for their “Collegiate Gothic” architecture, which can be seen in multiple buildings they designed at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Princeton University and elsewhere, the architecture firm also had varied commercial and residential designs in its portfolio. Some local examples of these are the Biddle mansion on Chestnut Hill Avenue, an early renovation of Cliveden (the Chew family home), and the Friends Library at Germantown Friends School.
Fast forward to the Seventies. Although Chestnut Hill residents always supported and donated to their Library, a formal “Friends” group didn’t start until 1972. By 1983, when the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library petitioned the “Big” library for funds for a meeting room to be added to the rear of the building, the organization boasted 700 members. The addition was completed in 1991 using a combination of funds from the City and funds raised through the efforts of the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library. The addition received the Pennsylvania Society of Architects Design Award in 1997.
Over its 51 years, the Friends has raised tens of thousands of dollars. That money has gone to projects like the addition, a renovation in 1999, and the beautiful garden update. But year in and year out, the Friends of Chestnut Hill Library gives funding for book acquisitions, furniture and equipment, computer resources and other things that keep the library current and accessible. Since opening Hilltop Books in early 2021, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library has channeled close to $35,000, above operating expenses, directly to the Chestnut Hill Library.
When the plaster ceiling collapsed at the library on November 14, 2022, things looked pretty bleak for our 116-year-old library building. Many thanks to the City for all the restoration work it has done.
But like those self-reliant Chestnut Hill residents of the past, our neighborhood needs to step up to support our library. The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library is actively raising money for additional restoration work that the City won’t cover.
We need you to do your part. If you aren't a member of the Friends, please join. You can also shop at Hilltop Books, the warm and welcoming used bookstore at 84 Bethlehem Pike that supports the Library. And last but not least, you can visit CHLibraryFriends.org to add the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, a nonprofit charitable organization, to your charitable giving rotation.
We all want our Library to re-open this spring, and we all need to pitch in to make that happen. Let’s keep our Chestnut Hill Library branch a vibrant and essential part of our community for another 152 years.
I would like to thank Alex Bartlett, archivist at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, for finding a wealth of information (including past Local articles) that made up the bulk of the historic information in this article.