Chestnut Hill: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


In his 1975 report to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, well-respected preservationist Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., of Pittsburgh wrote, "Without question, Chestnut Hill remains one of the most beautiful residential areas in the United States." It was not only important to save the neighborhood's architecture, he said, "but the landscaping. Rarely does one see such a fine collection of great trees and shrubs."The neighborhood's landscaping, known as "The Wissahickon Style," has been emulated throughout the country. Following the topography of the land to shape the neighborhood, this style of landscaping relies on the use of native plants, Wissahickon schist and fieldstone, and other materials of the Wissahickon Gorge, which formed the neighborhood's southwestern boundary and encompasses today's 1,400-acre Wissahickon Valley Park.

Designated Area

Boundaries of the neighborhood are Northwestern Avenue to the north; Stenton Avenue to the east; Wissahickon Creek to the southwest; and Cresheim Valley to the southeast.

Historic architecture abounds in Chestnut Hill, which has nearly 2,000 buildings that contributed to the neighborhood being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Photo courtesy Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

Planning Excellence

Development of Chestnut Hill began around 1704 at the intersection of Germantown Avenue, which opened in 1687, and Bethlehem Pike, dating to 1703. Both were Native American trails long before they became part of the road network of Philadelphia County. The community remained part of Philadelphia County's German Township until incorporated into the City of Philadelphia under the 1854 Act of Consolidation.

The arrival of two local railroads connecting the community to Philadelphia's Center City, the first in 1854 and the second in 1884, led to a veritable housing boom. The houses were not only large summer residences and mansions built for wealthy Philadelphians, but also housing for the carpenters, stone masons, gardeners, and other tradespeople living and working here. More than 85 architects were hired to design homes in range of styles including Classical Revival, Georgian, Federal, Italianate, Second Empire, Shingle, Tudor, Cotswold, and Queen Anne.

The first steps to protect the neighborhood's scenic character and environmental resources began with the Fairmount Park Commission being given authority to protect the Wissahickon Valley's water quality and recreational attributes in 1868. Friends of Wissahickon was founded in 1924 to support the commission's efforts.

Three additional neighborhood organizations were formed during the next four decades: the Chestnut Hill Community Association in 1947, the Chestnut Hill Business Association in 1955 and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society in 1967. They have been staunch allies focused on protecting the community's architectural legacy, its quality of life, and the prosperity of the neighborhood's 225 businesses, stores, restaurants, and professionals located along the streets where Chestnut Hill got its start — Germantown Avenue and Bethlehem Pike.

Gingko trees are planted in the neighborhood's commercial district along Germantown Avenue, which still has some of its original granite block paving. Photo courtesy Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Physical Attributes, Amenities

  • Flanked by the Wissahickon Gorge and Cresheim Valley; neighborhood shaped and developed by natural topography of area
  • The Wissahickon Style found throughout Chestnut Hill: residential gardens, parks, median strips, traffic islands, fountains, fences, ornamental walls; indigenous materials provide cohesiveness
  • Currently served by SEPTA's East and West Lines; predecessors were Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad, renamed Reading Railroad (1854) and Pennsylvania Railroad (1884)
  • Germantown Avenue, Bethlehem Pike still have granite block paving along some blocks; electric trolley line served neighborhood until 1992
  • Garden Club of Philadelphia founded in Chestnut Hill (1903); Garden Club of America also founded here (1913); Chestnut Hill designated Philadelphia's Garden District (1996)
  • Wissahickon Valley named National Natural Landmark (1964); fewer than 600 in U.S.
  • Schools in neighborhood include Chestnut Hill Academy (1861); Springside School (1879); Chestnut Hill College (1924);
  • Other amenities: Free Library of Philadelphia branch at 8711 Germantown Avenue (1907); Woodmere Art Museum; Philadelphia Cricket Club; Morris Arboretum; Pastorius ParkChestnut Hill Community Association publishes weekly online newspaper, Chestnut Hill


  • Nearly 2,000 buildings in neighborhood named contributing properties when the Chestnut Hill Historic District added to National Register of Historic Places (1985)
  • Buildings in National Register of Historic Places: Gravers Lane Railroad Station (1883), Frank Furness; Wissahickon Inn (1883-84), G.W. and W.D. Hewitt; Anglecot (1883), Wilson Eyre.
  • Margaret Esherick House, 201 Sunrise Lane, by Louis Kahn's (1961); in Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places; other works by post-World War II architects Robert Venturi, Romaldo Guirgola
  • Detwiler House at 8220 Germantown Avenue is oldest building in neighborhood (1744); listed in both state and City of Philadelphia registers of historic places
  • Most original frame buildings date to after the Civil War when Mower Hospital, the largest Civil War hospital in Philadelphia, was demolished; wood reused by Chestnut Hill residents


  • Henry Howard Houston considered to have shaped and planned western Chestnut Hill more than any other person; capitalized on the Pennsylvania Railroad's extension to Chestnut Hill; built the Wissahickon Inn, Philadelphia Cricket Club, about 100 houses
  • Through advocacy, Chestnut Hill Historical Society leads efforts to protect the architectural heritage of Chestnut Hill against inaccurate alterations and unnecessary demolitions
  • Charles Taylor, Samuel H. Austin among other developers to build summer houses for affluent Philadelphians; Austin builds modest residences at the same time for workers, craftsmen
  • Wissahickon Watershed Overlay district approved for northwestern Philadelphia neighborhoods including Chestnut Hill (1975); "Steep Slopes" overlay district adopted (2012)  
  • Chestnut Hill Community Association develops "The Chestnut Hill Land Use Guidelines" (1982) to ensure compatibility of new development with existing architecture, neighborhood character
  • "Germantown Avenue Urban Guidelines" developed by Chestnut Hill Community Association's Aesthetics Committee to maintain character of neighborhood's commercial area (1991)
  • Friends of the Wissahickon and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society in 1994 launch joint conservation and facade easement program; to date program has 35 easements valued at more than $10 million, protecting more than 70 acres and 12 historic facades
  • Philadelphia City Council, mayor approve Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District (2004)
  • Special Purpose-Institutional overlay district approved for Chestnut Hill College (2011)
  • Neighborhood Commercial Overlay approved for Chestnut Hill's segment of Germantown Avenue; addresses building heights, widths, and floor area (1995)
  • Chestnut Hill Community Association becomes strong advocate for measures protecting neighborhood character; negotiates deed restrictions, covenants when necessary

Period lighting and benches make for a pleasant stroll in Chestnut Hill's commercial area. Photo courtesy Philadelphia City Planning Commission.