Look to the past to build Chestnut Hill’s future

by Shirley Hanson
Posted 4/28/22

"As the Chestnut Hill Conservancy looks ahead and sees unique new challenges, we need to  leverage the tools we have and invent new ones if we are to face the future."

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Look to the past to build Chestnut Hill’s future


Shirley Hanson is one of the original founders of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy. She currently chairs its preservation committee. 

The 1969 book “Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History,” produced by Willard and Susan Detweiler, opens with a stark warning from Nancy Hubby, then president of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

“Chestnut Hill is on trial,”  Hubby wrote in an “Open Letter to Our Community.”

“Chestnut Hill is vulnerable,” Hubby explained, “because we are not an isolated entity. The sweeping forces of change that shape Philadelphia today also affect the character of our community. We could choose to ignore the warning signals, or we can make a determined commitment that will insure the survival of our historical legacy.”

Now, as the Chestnut Hill Conservancy (the Society’s successor) looks ahead and sees unique new challenges confronting Chestnut Hill,  we need to  leverage the tools we have and invent new ones if we are to face the future, and care for every one of our historic buildings.

Evan Turner, then director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a contributor to the book, delivered this challenge: “Every person in the community should play a responsible part in confronting the future.”

It was the Detweilers’ immersion into the nooks and crannies of Chestnut Hill’s past and present that inspired Willard and Susan to do just that - invest in its future.

After the couple moved here in 1977, Susan became president of the Historical Society in 1980. She was instrumental in gaining a matching grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to advance the restoration of the Gravers Lane Station.

Willard Detweiler, with his master’s degree in city planning from Harvard University and extensive planning experience, contributed his inventive mind and perseverance to the Chestnut Hill Community Association.  

“I held every position there including twice being elected as president,” he said. Willard’s achievements were recognized on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives where he received a certificate for his “community leadership.”

Throughout those years, Willard has seen many things change in Chestnut Hill. But one thing that hasn’t is the volunteer and community spirit that Willard and Susan brought to their task so many years ago. 

“The energy of volunteers!” he said. “I experienced it today in the gardens Beth Wright and her volunteers planted at the Highland Railroad Station.”  

At that station, Wright and others created three new gardens and are working on a fourth. Their activity included pruning, mulching, producing new bluestone pathways, and much more. 

The Detweilers’ book, published for the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, led to a unique recognition of Chestnut Hill, thus playing a part in its conservation. The prominent international architect Robert A. M. Stern singled out the neighborhood as “the largest garden suburb to be developed within the political boundary of a major city” in his book “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City,” written with David Fishman and Jacob Tilove.

And, “Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History” continues that work in the present day.  

Once again, Nancy Hubby put it best. In her letter of thanks to the Detweilers, she wrote: “Without your ceaseless devotion and thoughtful care, Chestnut Hill would not be blessed with this invaluable document. Chestnut Hill now is soundly equipped to meet future challenges.”