After living on the cusp of Chestnut Hill for nearly two decades and designing/remodeling dozens of homes in the area, I decided to take a more studious look at the history, architecture, and industrial development of Chestnut Hill. Ironically I have traveled great distances (Italy, France, Spain, etc.) to study culture, art, and architecture, yet I've neglected to explore my very own backyard. An oversight that proved to be unwise considering I am now completely fascinated by Chestnut Hill! This will be a 3 Part Post. This first post will focus on my exploration of the Water Tower.
My exploration started with a walking tour of the water tower and an overview of the industrial development of Chestnut Hill hosted by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and led by Architect Jean McCoubrey. Being as though this was my first walking tour in Chestnut Hill I did not know what to expect. I merely showed up to the Water Tower armed with my Nikon, dressed for comfort, and open to learn. The walking tour group consisted of about 20-25 people - mostly Chestnut Hill residents/owners of historical homes.
Within the first 10 minutes of the tour I had already written nearly two pages of notes. The tour covered a detailed account/history of the water tower dating back to its erection in the the mid 19th century. Prior to the erection of the tower Chestnut Hill was considered Philadelphia County and scarcely occupied as a vacation community for the affluent. Well-to-do's were attracted to Chestnut Hill for its restorative nature, tranquility, and proximity to the city. As vacation seasons speedily passed and the density of the inner-city continually grew, vacation-home-owners of Chestnut Hill begun to utilize their seasonal oasis as a permanent residence. With Chestnut Hill becoming a place to live and not just vacation the population increased and so did the need of running water. Such a need gave birth to the Chestnut Hill Water Works; a privately incorporated company created and managed by affluent businessmen and investors. The picture above illustrates the massive 5,000,000 gallon reservoir and the original water tower. The Water Tower held 40,000 gallons of water and stood 110 feet tall (with wood top), and was built with cedar wood and stone. The tall height was needed to create enough pressure to supply the local homes with water via gravity. The massive reservoir was fed by a spring right next to it which produced approximately 350,000 gallons of water per day. In addition to the spring there was also a well nearby the tower that produced 80,000 gallons of water per day.
For twenty years the Chestnut Hill Waterworks was able to supply a steady flow of water via gravity to all of the chestnut hill residents via the water tower. In fact, the water tower was so plentiful the Chestnut Hill Waterworks would frequently supply Mount Airy's reservoir with their excess water. In 1873 the Chestnut HIll Waterworks was purchased by the Philadelphia Water Company. As the years passed and the population grew further the water tower became more and more utilized. Within seven years the Philadelphia Water Company went from having an influx of water to not having enough water to adequately cover the demand in Chestnut Hill. This shortage in conjunction with speculated water contamination and the enhancement/development of the Roxborough Waterworks ultimately led to the abandonment of the water tower in 1911. It's hard to truly fathom the greatness and vitality of such a place given that today the same area serves a playground and recreational center (see picture below). Despite the fundamental change - the Water Tower will always be a symbolic representation of hard-work, ingenuity, and the pursuit of better living standards.