The Chestnut Hill Historical Society
8708 Germantown Ave Philadelphia PA 19118
A visitor to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society may be delighted to come across a 1951 Springside High School yearbook among the Society’s extensive collection. Longtime volunteer archivist and board member, Meredith Sonderskov, gave the Society her yearbook for safe keeping. With the assistance of her mother, Sonderskov has faithfully saved clippings of her classmates’ wedding, birth, divorce and death announcements over the years within the pages of the yearbook. Sonderskov’s purpose in donating the book to the Society was to preserve it for future generations within the community.
The historians and volunteers at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society receive almost ninety percent of the items in their collection through donations. Meredith Sonderskov compares finding items to a treasure hunt. The Society also has a small acquisition fund for acquiring items and generous members of the Community may purchase items and donate them to the Society’s collection. The Society’s Collection Committee often finds items on auction sites such as EBay.
The Collection Committee at the Society has three main requirements for accepting an item into the historical collection. First, the staff at the Society is generally looking to collect paper documents, such as deeds, letters, photographs and maps. The staff’s reason for this policy is that there is a limited amount of space within the 1850s Victorian House which houses the collection. Secondly, the volunteers and archivists are looking for historical items which can be preserved for future study by members of the community. The staff often achieves this preservation by placing documents, such as newspapers in acid free folders and transparencies. And finally, the items within the collection at the Historical Society need to have a connection to the community to help tell the story of Chestnut Hill.
In summer 2012, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society began the process of scanning the documents within their collection into an on-line database. With the assistance of interns and volunteers, the Society created an on-line database of 21,000 items within their collection.
In addition to conservation of documents, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society works to preserve the historic architecture of Chestnut Hill. The members of the Society work with homeowners within the Chestnut Hill community to maintain the appearance of buildings as they looked when they were originally constructed in the 1700s and 1800s. The Historical Society also acts as a resource center providing owners of historic Chestnut Hill properties information about how to go about making repairs. It advises property owners what materials to use and procedures to follow to maintain their historic appearance.
Indeed, the founding of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society in 1967 was the result of volunteers within the Chestnut Hill community trying to save a building with historic significance. In 1966, the third floor of the historic VFW building in Chestnut Hill had begun to separate from the rest of the building. The owners of the VFW building did not believe that they had the funds to restore the location to its previous appearance. The building was saved through the fundraising efforts of three women: Ann Spaeth, Shirley Hanson, and Nancy Hubby. These women were instrumental in raising $4000 dollars in 48 hours to prevent the VFW’s demolition. The following year, Spaeth, Hanson and Hubby founded the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. From its inception, the Society members have worked to both preserve historic documents and advocate for preservation within the community.
In a 2013 Interview, the Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, Jennifer Hawk, described how the predominant style of architecture in Chestnut Hill was in no small part due to the efforts of Henry Howard Houston. In the 1840s, Houston served on the Pennsylvania railroad board. Houston purchased 3000 acres of land when he learned that the railroad was expanding out from Center City. During the late 1800s, Houston hired the best architects to begin developing the area known today as Chestnut Hill. According to Hawk, these architects built houses using the native rock, Wissahickon schist, which would appear similar to the natural environment. This approach to building came to be known as the ‘Wissahickon Style’ of architecture. Houston, according to Hawk, did not just build elaborate mansions. Instead, he wanted to provide residents of Chestnut Hill with a selection of different types of houses including well -designed twins and smaller houses.
Due to the preservation efforts of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, members of the community come to the archives, which are open to the public, and learn about the history of Chestnut Hill. These same residents can also walk down Germantown Avenue and witness examples of early architecture from the 1800s. In the words of Meredith Sonderskov, “it is an exciting thing to see how this architecture has lasted into the twenty first century.”