The Wissahickon Inn, Grand Old Lady of Willow Grove Avenue

 

The details of this history are taken from the book, The Lure of the Wissahickon Inn, by former CHA/SCH history teacher Paul Hines ‘03. 

The Wissahickon Inn has been a distinct feature of the Chestnut Hill landscape since 1884, when she was built by visionary entrepreneur and real estate developer Henry Howard Houston as a summer getaway for Philadelphians. Houston, who made his fortune by operating freight lines during the Civil War, purchased 3,000 acres of land north and west of Germantown with plans to create a suburban oasis that would attract city dwellers tired of the industrial pollution, heat, and noise of Philadelphia. The inn, along with Druim Moir (Houston’s private mansion), the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, were to be the centerpiece of this development.

The inn was situated on what was called Wissahickon Heights overlooking the wild natural beauty of the Wissahickon Gorge and expansive green vistas now occupied by Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s (SCH) athletic fields. Designed in the Queen Anne style, the U-shaped building made of Wissahickon schist featured a wraparound porch, multi-paned windows, red roof, and distinctive turrets. The original entrance faced northeast looking over St. Martin’s Green, a landscaped arboretum and open space designed for the enjoyment of inn guests, which extended north from the inn to St. Martin’s Lane.

The inn prospered during the 1880s and 1890s. In the summer months, carriages were loaded up with picnic baskets for swimming or hiking excursions. During the winter, sleds were rigged for sleigh rides in the Wissahickon. Roller skaters used the inn’s wraparound porch for exercise in winter or inclement weather, gathering when they were finished around the fireplace to eat sandwiches and drink hot cocoa.

Beginning in 1892, the inn hosted the annual Philadelphia Horse Show, held on St. Martin’s Green. Houston constructed a viewing stand for the horse show that seated 2,500, as well as 125 stables and 140 stalls. Over the years, the crowds grew, eventually reaching 10,000 and requiring the event to be relocated to fields owned by the Houston family west of Willow Grove Avenue and across from the inn. In 1908, the Philadelphia Horse Show closed down and is believed to have merged with the Devon Horse Show. Today St. Martin’s Green and the West Fields are home to a different form of competition as the playing fields of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH).

By the late 1890s, the inn was beginning to experience a decline in hotel occupancy, in part because expanding railroad lines were opening up new vacation spots along the Jersey shore and in part because popular interest in cricket was declining, for which Houston had constructed the nearby Philadelphia Cricket Club. With occupancy and revenues decreasing, the inn owners began a search for other uses for the space. This search coincided with the reorganization and expansion of a local school known as Chestnut Hill Academy (CHA).

CHA’s school building at 8030 Germantown Avenue (on the site of the current Venetian Club) had become too small for its growing student population and it was looking for a larger space to occupy. The Houston/Woodward families, owners of the inn, took an active interest in CHA as a community resource, providing the school with significant financial support. In a move that would satisfy the interests of both parties, the family offered to let the school occupy a portion of the inn during the off season at no charge. CHA accepted the offer and moved to the inn in 1898. Thus began a relationship between building and school that has thrived for over 120 years.

In 1900, the Houston/Woodward family decided to close the inn permanently as a resort, enabling CHA to take over the entire building year-round. Gradually, the school converted the inn’s hospitality spaces to educational purposes. The large reading room at the southeast corner of the building became the school’s Henry Library, named after Charles Wolcott Henry, brother-in-law of George Woodward who was the son-in-law of Henry Houston. Above a section of books in the library hangs a three-part mural by the renowned Philadelphia muralist Violet Oakley depicting the biblical figures of Solomon, David, and the Christ child as boys. Next door to the library, in what was the inn’s dining room and is now the library media room, a wall drawing by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt is painted over the fireplace; four more wall drawings by LeWitt grace the long hallway outside the library and media room, installed with a generous gift from SCH parent and alumnus Hank McNeil ’61.

The inn’s ballroom in the building’s northeast corner became first a school gym and then, in 1905, the Epiphany Chapel, which was used for school graduations, assemblies, and events. Stained glass windows, five of which were designed by Chestnut Hill’s Willet Stained Glass Company, adorn two walls of the chapel. On the east wall, beneath three windows depicting the Epiphany, are etched the biblical words “Your young men shall see visions” and “Your old men shall dream dreams.” The north wall holds the Willet stained glass windows, each of which explores a different form of understanding to which students should aspire—spiritual, cultural, societal, scientific, and self-understanding.

In the early years of the school, CHA’s student body included boarders, many of them from outside the Philadelphia area. During the school’s boarding years, students came from 32 states and 14 countries, including Cuba, Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Siam, which sent its young prince to learn at CHA. Boarding students’ rooms were on the third floor of the inn. But in 1934, the school made the decision to close its boarding department as a cost-cutting measure during the Depression.

Over the ensuing 86 years, the school continued to evolve and change as it responded to external events and internal needs. Perhaps the most dramatic change was the merger, in 2011, of Chestnut Hill Academy and Springside School into a new entity, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Following the merger and the implementation of a 10-year Campus Master Plan to integrate the two campuses and relocate the school’s three divisions, the inn became home to an entirely new body of students—SCH’s coed Upper School. 

While the last 123 years have involved a continual repurposing of the inn’s spaces, much of her original architecture remains, providing a deep sense of continuity and connection with the past. Today, SCH students look out the same large windows across the same green fields where horses once paraded and inn guests strolled. They clamor up and down the same stairs, a little creakier now, that generations of students have climbed before them. They walk down the same wainscoted halls and curl up in the same nooks, corners, and windowsills where, like their predecessors, they daydream about their future.

Although her role as an inn was relatively short lived, this grand old lady of Willow Grove Avenue has endured as something much more important in the hearts and minds of those who were educated within her walls or who pass by her on their daily errands and commutes. She’s a link to our community’s past and a reminder that this past informs and enriches our present, even as she continues to evolve and change to meet the needs of the future. 

 

Copies of The Lure of the Wissahickon Inn can be purchased @ https://sch-alumni-store.myshopify.com/

 

Photo:

A view of the inn from the east or Springfield Avenue side showing the wraparound porch, the original main entrance on the right, and the current main entrance on the left.

 

 

 

 

 

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