Chestnut Hill is celebrating its legacy.
The party’s on for what Henry Howard Houston and his son-in-law, George Woodward, started in the 1870s. Houston spent some of his fortune from the Pennsylvania Railroad on tracts of land for his envisioned community of Wissahickon Heights. Woodward continued the development of Chestnut Hill—that name stuck—designing, defining and carefully expanding, decades into the 20th century. Today, both are being “revered as pioneers in sustainability and pillars of the community…champions for creating, preserving and promoting the well-regarded quality of life in Chestnut Hill.”
But is it a legacy worth celebrating? Or is it more one worth rediscovering—and recognizing for what it really was?
“The real key to that community’s character,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in the Inquirer back in 1986, “is the rare brand of benevolent feudalism practiced there for more than a century by the Houston-Woodward family. Just as feudal lords protected their tenants from barbarian invaders, so the Houstons and Woodwards protected their tenants from the equally frightening forces of economic and social change.”
George Woodward, it turns out, was “something of an eccentric” with very particular, if not peculiar, preferences. He disliked cars with internal combustion engines (“loud and smelly”) so he drove electric models. He didn’t care for light from incandescent bulbs so he read by kerosene lamps. Woodward dressed in golf knickers and woolen stockings. He shared his ideas about life in an autobiography titled Memoirs of A Mediocre Man. And when it came to a vision for expanding and populating Chestnut Hill, Woodward had some very specific preferences as to who would get in—and who would not.
Woodward picked up one principle while a student at Yale, and later shared it in a talk titled Landlord and Tenant. According to Woodward, “we used to say in a college fraternity that one fool member always reproduced another fool member. Working on the reverse of this principle, one social asset reproduces his kind in a real estate venture.”
Implementing his vision of community for the many rental homes he built in Chestnut Hill around two private schools, a country club and the Episcopal Church his father-in-law dedicated in 1889 (St. Martin-in-the-Fields)—Woodward carefully selected tenants. As planned, the well off rented the high-end homes in his version of SimCity. More modest twin houses built by Woodward were intended for the working class. But to his mild dismay (and seeming amusement) the “white collars” were attracted to his sturdy worker twins “and rented every house in sight.” Ah, well.
Woodward put to work a second lesson learned at Yale, this one from the lectures of social scientist William Graham Sumner. The professor spoke of a new kind of American citizen, “The Forgotten Man”—“dependable, self-respecting, and quite unexciting.” According to Sumner:
He works, he votes, generally he prays — but he always pays — yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contributes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some occasionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the grocery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admiration.
Woodward relished his success at having created a community of 180 families where the folks with the lowest incomes turned out to be “exactly the people who pay their bills and seldom complain.”
Plus they were all White. And Protestant.
Woodward never rented to minorities: Italians, African Americans or Jews. In 1920, in “Landlord and Tenant” he proudly said so: “I have consistently refused to rent a house to anyone only because he happened to have the price. I have always inquired into antecedents. I have never taken a Jewish family or allowed one to be taken as a subtenant.” Other ethnics need not apply, either.
The legacy of exclusion in Chestnut Hill became an operating principle that stuck. In 1960, Chestnut Hill insider Barbara Rex broke free and “used fiction to unmask what she saw as inequities and injustices.” Rex described her community as “all-white, privileged, prejudiced, Protestant, aristocratic Philadelphia society, where exclusion was a beast that struck down the weak, unfit, or unwary.” In her novel Vacancy on India Street, Rex wrote of the deep worry about outsiders moving in:
Connie could not conceive of Joe Setteventi strolling around Flora’s yard, the stump of a cigar in his red face, and Mrs. Setteventi waving from the bay window. The Setteventi children were cat lovers, carried cats around in their arms all day. Now the birds would never come back.
‘Well, at least they are not Jews,’ said Connie’s friend. ‘You’re just as glad as I am we don’t have Jews on India Street! …Look what’s happened on Franklin Street. They’ve got Jews over there, three in a row. … Nobody lives on Franklin Street anymore.’
As for African-Americans, according to Rex, “no negro has ever so much as attempted to violate the special domain” of the neighborhood. “Houses come up for sale in the community, but it simply would not occur to a negro to apply.” Although one of Rex’s characters, Clayton Cruikshank, “had defiled his sisters memory by daring to sell her house to a Negro.” But Cruikshank wasn’t playing straight. He “had been seen drunk on India Street on Christmas morning, wearing a woman’s hat.”
There goes the neighborhood.
Chestnut Hill’s legacy? Attractive, well-built homes in a leafy, planned community built of Wissahickon schist, cemented with bigotry, engineered for consistency, complacency and comfort. And definitely not for everybody.
So, again: recognizing and remembering makes all the sense in the world. But why a celebration?
[Additional Sources Include: David R. Contosta, “George Woodward, Philadelphia Progressive,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 111: 3 (July 1987) and David R. Contosta, A Philadelphia Family, The Houstons and Woodwards of Chestnut Hill, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).]