George Woodward Co. built more than 400 of the stone buildings that now typify the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill and W. Mt. Airy. The Houstons and Woodwards designed much of the existing street pattern and built and donated several of its most important institutions, including the Water Tower Recreation Center, Pastorius Park, a large part of the Wissahickon Valley, and the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center.
This is a big year for Chestnut Hill, as several of its most important institutions are celebrating their centennial anniversaries, including Norwood Fontbonne Academy and the popular McNally’s Tavern.
But none is more important than George Woodward Co., which built more than 400 of the stone buildings that now typify the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill and W. Mt. Airy. The Houstons and Woodwards designed much of the existing street pattern and built and donated several of its most important institutions, including the Water Tower Recreation Center, Pastorius Park, a large part of the Wissahickon Valley, and the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center.
So the company is celebrating. It started Friday night, when it partnered with the Chestnut Hill Conservancy to kick off “Night of Lights.” There was a guided walking tour of Woodward developments east & west of Germantown Ave., and this Saturday, it’s planning a community social on the 7900 block of Lincoln Drive with tenants of the 150 units it now manages. The event showcases the conversion of Casey’s Icehouse to Willet’s Stained Glass Studio to the current George Woodward Co. Residential Properties.
“Our idea was to do something that really blends the company with the community,” said Barbara Baumbach, president of GWCo., adding that George Woodward, the founder of the company, “we think Geroge and Gerturde would have approved.”
The Woodward Company story begins in the early 1880's, when Henry Howard Houston, a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bought three farms totaling 3,000 acres that encompassed what are now Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, and Andorra.
Houston had a vision, and began building. In order to attract summer vacationers to the area, he engineered a spur railroad line and built the railroad stations that would bring them in. He laid out the streets for an entire community, and built attractions for vacationers that remain vibrant today: The Wissahickon Inn (Chestnut Hill Academy today), Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, The Philadelphia Cricket Club, and sporting fields.
By 1904, Houston had built more than 100 houses. That’s when his daughter Gertrude married George Woodward, a young surgeon from Wilkes Barre. George and Gertrude continued the family business and expanded their real estate interests by purchasing a group of dilapidated houses west of Germantown Avenue along the 100 block of W. Springfield Avenue, and replacing them with an attractive collection of twin houses. The Woodward developments were so popular that a waiting list was implemented. That waiting list is still in effect today.
In 1921, Woodward incorporated George Woodward, Inc. and went on to build over 400 more houses, including single homes, more twins, and a new experiment in home building - the quadruple house (four units under one roof). These are located on the unit blocks of Benezet Street & E. Springfield Ave. in Chestnut Hill and near Allens Lane & Lincoln Drive in W. Mt. Airy.
Woodward used the local Wissahickon schist stone, and “tried to replicate the Cotswold style home in England,” said Contosta. Woodward was also a pioneer in the field of adaptive reuse of older buildings for modern purposes, Contosta said, and many of his buildings were featured in the architectural journals of the day.
Woodward, who was a practicing physician before he became a developer, was an adherent of the Garden City Movement, according to historian David Contosta, a resident of Chestnut Hill and professor at Chestnut Hill College. He believed that people needed to be able to experience nature in order to thrive, and was interested in creating a self-contained community with plenty of open space, gardens and parks.
And that, said Baumbach, is one reason Chestnut Hill looks and feels the way it does now. “The community was laid out in such a way that there was enough open space for the neighborhood to grow, and thrive,” she said.
According to Kathie Meadows, who was retail recruiter for the Chestnut Hill District and now works at Woodward, it's also one reason why so many of the original stores on Germantown Ave. are still in business. “It was a big selling feature for them to know how many businesses here have been going for 50 years or more,” she said. “That spoke to what a good retail environment it is.”
“It’s hard to imagine what this area would have looked like without George and Gertrude Woodward’s efforts to create an urban village,” said Baumbach. “We hope to be around for another hundred years.”
Tickets are still available for an Icehouse Social in the 7900 block of Lincoln Drive from 3 to 5 pm on Saturday, October 16. The event showcases the conversion of Casey’s Icehouse to Willet’s Stained Glass Studio to the current George Woodward Co. Residential Properties. Special guest visitors from the past include George and Gertrude Woodward. Also a “Past Teller” will channel your past life identity from Chestnut Hill years ago. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at www.night-of-lights.ticketleap.com/admi
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