Sometimes Mother Nature’s resilience is insurmountable, in spite of humanity’s best efforts. Between Chestnut Hill and the Schuylkill River, the Wissahickon and Upper Roxborough, the northwestern corner of Philadelphia is also its most verdant, but 75 years worth of planning, including such high profile names as Paul Cret and Eero Saarinen, tried like the devil to turn it into something it would never become. Cathedral Road—a small part of which was developed between the Andorra Shopping Center and Wissahickon Valley Park—would have been its central artery, connecting Chestnut Hill and the Main Line across the estate of Henry Howard Houston.
Houston worked his way through the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad from an agent in its freight department to freight director after the Civil War to board of directors, which he served on for the last 15 years of his life. During those years, he also became the largest owner and developer of land in Northwest Philadelphia, and exercised his power to build a train line to conveniently serve his land holdings. What’s now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West Line opened in 1884; another line, unbuilt, would have crossed the Wissahickon into Roxborough via a spur at Tulpehocken Street—where Houston lived. A statue of him (and his dog) stand just off of Lincoln Drive at Harvey Street.
As far back as 1885, Houston and PRR President Alexander Cassatt lobbied for a connection between Chestnut Hill and the communities developing along the railroad’s Main Line (from which the famous suburban area takes its name). After Houston’s death in 1895, his son Samuel Frederic Houston became the main agent of the Houston Estate, and in that role acted extremely conservatively out of fear of lawsuits from other trustees and Houston heirs. One vision he made sure to maintain was the goal of connecting the tony locales via a new major boulevard.
In 1926, after years of support from several mayoral administrations but no implementation, the latest iteration for a Chestnut Hill-Bryn Mawr Road came from Paul Philippe Cret. Cret’s road would have started at Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore (where Suburban Square is now), followed Mill Creek Road in Lower Merion, crossed the Schuylkill River above Flat Rock Dam, ascended the hill into Roxborough through what is now the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, curved southeasterly east of Ridge Avenue, crossed Wissahickon Creek near Rex Avenue and the indian statue, then come into Chestnut Hill via Gravers Lane to Pastorius Park—which itself would become a traffic rotary connecting the new boulevard with extensions of Lincoln Drive and Bethlehem Pike. This plan was approved by City Council in 1927. But it wasn’t built.
In 1932, the Regional Planning Federation of the Philadelphia Tri-State District (a predecessor of sorts to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission) turned it into the Suburban Belt-line Parkway, bypassing Roxborough and Chestnut Hill for platting through Whitemarsh and Springfield Townships.
In 1935, as part of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s report of 1934-36, the boulevard, reworked again, was this time farther south, crossing the Schuylkill at Flat Rock Dam, paralleling Domino Lane through what is now the Roxborough tower farm, crossing through Wissahickon Park just below Valley Green. A new highway bridge would have gone directly over Devil’s Pool and split just above it—one branch of the road continuing up the Cresheim Valley to connect to the extant Cresheim Valley Drive, the other a spur connecting with Wissahickon Avenue at Allens Lane.
Concurrent to all these grand plans for a cross-county highway, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania had its own big ambitions. In 1922, the Diocese purchased 100 acres of the Houston Estate at the corner of Ridge Avenue and Cathedral Road from Sam Houston, whose father Henry built the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (designed by former Frank Furness partner George Hewitt) in 1888.
Guided by the big dreams of the Diocese’s Bishop Rhinelander and a design from parishioner Frank Watson, ground was broken in 1932 for what would have been the largest Episcopal Cathedral in the world—one 1000′ long and with a 300′ tower holding twelve bells cast at England’s Whitechapel foundry (where the Liberty Bell was cast). Between the Great Depression and the Episcopal Church’s redirection of efforts to the Washington National Cathedral (the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, built from 1907-90), only the apse and a side chapel, donated by Sam Houston and his wife (who are both buried under the chapel) were actually built. The side chapel contains a stained glass window by Nicola D’Ascenzo and an altar made of stone from Israel. The Whitechapel bells still reside in storage in the chapel’s basement.
When the church defaulted on its mortgage, 34 acres forfeited back to the Houston Estate. In order to make better use of the land it retained, the church sold some of it off for private development, where the western end of Cathedral Road effectively dead ends into a suburban style development; it also began construction on Cathedral Village, the popular retirement community with over 400 residents which opened in 1979. A porte-cochère connects the Village with the church, with Boys in the Park, a sculpture by resident Charlotte Stokes greeting visitors at the entrance.
Click any photo here for a mini-gallery of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Cathedral Road:
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As World War II raged across the Atlantic, the Houston Estate and Planning Commission were creating plans for the city after its end, including yet another effort to make Cathedral Road bridge the Wissahickon and bring Upper Roxborough and Chestnut Hill together. This time, the Houston Estate retained Eero Saarinen—not only for Cathedral Road, but for a community master plan of what is now Andorra, called Cathedral Hills in the plan. The plan was released to the Houston Estate in 1948, a year after Saarinen designed the Gateway Arch, the iconic landmark of St. Louis’ Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. His Hill College House opened at Penn in 1960.
Saarinen’s plan for Cathedral Hills, titled The Trustees of the Estate of Henry H. Houston Present Land for Large Scale Development in Suburban Philadelphia, was indeed prototypically postwar suburban, and not yet even into the Leave It to Beaver 1950s:
“Cathedral Hills has been designed for good urban living. The residential streets are narrow, quiet and safe for children. Through traffic is routed outside residential areas.
The shopping centers will be designed with efficiency and plenty of parking space. Unity of design made possible by single ownership and a calculable need—each center will serve 1000 families—will set a tone or character that is impossible in an unplanned development. The schools will be adjacent to the shopping centers, thus bringing the activities of mothers and children (the stay-at-homes of suburban life) into focus in one area. Homes are actually within easy walking distance of schools, stores, and transportation.
There are pleasant drives through the Estate land and the adjacent country. The completion of Cathedral Road and its bridge will make the McCallum Street-Lincoln Drive-Fairmount Park route to downtown Philadelphia readily accessible to Cathedral Hills commuters.”
Saarinen’s plan also included “interregional highways”: a “road to Harrisburg” along the Schuylkill River that eventually became the Schuylkill Expressway (independent of Saarinen), an expanded Henry Avenue, and a “Lafayette Parkway” that ran from Center City at Pennsylvania Avenue to 33rd Street and Ridge Avenue, up Midvale Avenue and then via Henry Avenue and into Lafayette Hill in Whitemarsh Township. His client, an aging Sam Houston, hoped to attract a large institution to relocate in the district, including Temple University and the United Nations, which briefly considered the location before John D. Rockfeller wrote a check for over $8M securing the New York site on the East River. Earlier, before selling the 100 acres to the Episcopal Church, Houston unsuccessfully lobbied the City to use his land for the Sesquicentennial, ultimately hosted in South Philadelphia.
Some of Saarinen’s Cathedral Hills plans came to fruition. In 1950, construction began on over 100 homes, and the Andorra Shopping Center opened the same decade. Cathedral Road was platted toward the Wissahickon as a tree-lined, four-lane boulevard with a landscaped median to Glenroy Road, where it ends abruptly and a trail continues down to Forbidden Drive—along the route of what would have been the largest bridge across Wissahickon Creek.
In 1951, a design for Saarinen was prepared by Philadelphia’s Richardson & Gordon engineers, who worked extensively with Cret’s successor firm Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson (now H2L2). In the bill to City Council proposing the bridge, its dimensions were presented side-by-side with those of the Walnut Lane Bridge:
Cathedral Road Bridge: 750’ long, 145’ high, 70’ wide (four very wide traffic lanes, sidewalks on either side)
Walnut Lane Bridge: 585’ long, 150’ high, 60’ wide (currently two wide traffic lanes with bike lanes and separated sidewalks on either side)
That the bridge went unbuilt proved unfortunate for one of the larger buyers into Saarinen’s plan for the Houston Estate: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. On a tract of land east of Ridge Avenue opposite St. Mary’s, the Archdiocese made plans for a new, modern cathedral of its own, contingent upon the bridge’s completion—providing access to parishioners from Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. In a letter to Houston Estate trustee James Gowen, Father Joseph Sullivan said, “if Cathedral Road is a dead-end street, we [will have] paid too much for the land.” Oops!
A final push to construct a bridge to relieve predictable congestion in Roxborough and at last provide Roxborough and Chestnut Hill a second option across the Wissahickon (after Bells Mill Road) developed in the mid-1950s. A revised plan did away with the large bridge and proposed a new, smaller bridge over Forbidden Drive and the Wissahickon Creek at Valley Green Inn. Via a new roadway that veered from Wises Mill Road on the Roxborough side parallel to and above Forbidden Drive, the low bridge connected to a widened Valley Green Road on the Chestnut Hill side. But this plan would have brought the widened road very close to Druim Moir, the giant home Henry Houston built for himself and his family. Finally, at the behest of Charles Woodward—son of George Woodward, the Chestnut Hill developer who married Houston’s daughter Gertrude—the plan died in 1959.
One of this last bridge’s added benefits would be to finally remove motor vehicles from the small portion of Forbidden Drive between Wises Mill and Valley Green Roads. Then, as now, cars destined for Valley Green Inn could drive on Forbidden Drive so called for its prohibition of motor vehicles; here, the Valley Green Bridge carries the roadway of Valley Green Road over the Creek from Chestnut Hill. A locked gate on the western side of the bridge intends to prevent through traffic from crossing over. However, several keys evidently exist for the lock, as the gate is rarely locked these days, allowing access for through traffic. It’s a problem that will certainly see exacerbation by the closure of the Walnut Lane Bridge later this year for renovation.
But even if there is an uptick in technically illegal traffic across the Valley Green Bridge, it will be a far cry from the traffic that would have traveled on a cross-county Cathedral Road.
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The author would like to thank Dave Schaaf at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Jim Duffin at the Penn University Archives & Records Center, and Wesley Parrott, organist at St. Mary’s Church, for their kind assistance.
Great article. But why was the bridge across the Schuylkill there never built? Just too expensive to attempt? I’ve often wondered why that corner of the city is so pleasantly underdeveloped…
Bradley, wonderful article to enjoy with my morning coffee! Reason why those roads and bridges were not built were due to the Great Depression and WWII and its rationing of steel. Then the postwar event with baby boomers and suburban living beckoning. And another reason why those roads and bridges were not built was the Eisenhower plan to have the government invest money in a national highway system which changed the way we built roads from doing it for ourselves to doing what is good for the common good as that was the only way to get highway building federal funds justified for such.
So we rely on the very same roads that were in place 100 years ago and that is what preserved the 17,000 acre Fairmont Park. Before the depression, we had plans to extend the Broad Street Subway to Germantown/Chestnut Hill,a bellmouth connector in an existing subway line in South Philadelphia and a possible extension to Northeast Philadelphia. All were scrapped due to the Depression and WWII. Had we built the subway extensions then, we would ahve saved billons.
This is fascinating! Thank you.
Currently along Valley Green Road: this wooden bridge carrying the Orange and White Trails would have been obliterated by a mid-50s plan for a bridge
I’m curious about this caption. If memory serves, the bridge pictured is only a few years old — built because the trail had eroded in this area. It would not have been obliterated by a mid-50s plan for a bridge because it would not have been built at the time.