Architecture

Sacré Bleu! Mount Airy’s French Village is Magical

February 24, 2022 | by Stacia Friedman

The grand entrance to the French Village at Elbow Lance and McCallum Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

When developer George S. Woodward commissioned Philadelphia’s leading architects to design a French Village in the late 1920s, he had a specific tenant in mind. Woodward wanted to lure the wealthy elite from their inner city mansions to escape the same “undesirables” that had inspired his father-in-law Henry Houston to create Wissahickon Heights, now known as Chestnut Hill.

Houston began to develop Northwest Philadelphia in the 1800s. He built everything needed to make fellow industrialists feel at home in Chestnut Hill: an Episcopal church, a hotel (now Chestnut Hill Academy), a cricket club, and large formidable homes of Wissahickon schist. More importantly, he helped bring the Philadelphia, Germantown and Chestnut Hill Railroad  to their front door, creating an easy commute to and from the city.

Houston was one of the largest landowner in Philadelphia in the 1880s, and his home was his castle. Literally. The 30-room Druim Moir Castle on the corner of Willow Grove Avenue and Cherokee Street was designed by the Hewitt brothers in 1885. Today, it has been subdivided into million-dollar homes. Woodward, having married into this Gilded Age family, wanted to build and expand upon Houston’s real estate success.

A home in the French Village under construction in the early 1920s.| Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Woodward carved the land for his French Village out of the remaining Houston estate which bordered what is now West Mount Airy. The major departure from homes commissioned by Houston was that Woodward sought to replicate the French Normandy style popular with some American designers at the time. The result is a rural village within Philadelphia’s city limits, hidden behind homes built at a later date along McCallum Street and Allens Lane.

Woodward’s tenants for the village were the crème de la crème. Bankers, surgeons, and fellow industrialists. Homes were not sold, they were leased. One of the more prominent residents of the French Village over the years was former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth.

The French Village is comprised of 24 homes designed between 1924 and 1929 by architects Robert R. McGoodwin, Edmund Gilchrist, and Willings, Sims & Talbutt. The homes reflect European Revival architecture with ideas from the Arts & Crafts Movement. Inspired by medieval farmsteads and manors of the Normandy countryside, these charming homes are difficult, if not impossible, to see from the main roads, which was implicit in their design and landscaping. The only obvious indication of their existence is the presence of an alluring gate house at the corner of Emlen Street and Allens Lane.

Homes within the village are incredibly intact and lovingly cared for. | Photo: Michael Bixler

If you have been putting off travel due to the pandemic, pick up a crusty baguette and spend a morning sauntering through this extraordinary little  enclave. You will not be disappointed. Walk down the aptly named Elbow Lane, just off McCallum Street, or Gate Lane off of Allens Lane, and you will be transported to Normandy without having to be screened by a TSA agent. If you don’t drive, hop on the R8 Chestnut Hill Local to the Allens Lane Station. From there, it is a short walk and well worth it. In spite of the neighborhood’s exclusivity and affluence, the only roads that provide access to the homes are some of the most pothole-filed and damaged in Philadelphia County. Drive too fast and you will blow a tire. According to locals, residents there have purposely allowed the asphalt to degrade to stave off through traffic.

Once you enter the French Village, you will see round and octagonal turrets peaking over tree tops. Steeply sloped gable roofs with multiple soaring chimneys indicate up to four working fireplaces per house. The neighborhood includes three types of houses: villas or chateaus, cottages, and gate houses. Each home has its own identity, but most share specific characteristics, including octagonal and circular stair-towers, hipped roofs with overhanging eaves, and dormers. Fanciful weather vanes, decorative stone carving, wrought iron balconies, six gas street lamps, an abundance of French-inspired doors and plateaued gardens make this one of the most romantic planned communities in the region.

Woodward’s original plan for the French Village was represented in a model which is currently being stored at George Woodward Company, a property management company he established in 1921 in Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately, the model is no longer on public view. Today, the Woodward Company is dedicated to sustainability. It recently retained Re-Vision Architecture and Gardner/Fox Associates to plan and construct four new homes, the first twin houses built in Pennsylvania to be certified as a Platinum-rated LEED home.

In November 2021, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted unanimously in favor of placing the French Village Historic District on the local register of historic places. The nomination, prepared by Jenna Farah and Libbie Hawes, was submitted in 2009.


Take a stroll around Philadelphia’s little Normandy. Photographs by Michael Bixler.




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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

21 Comments:

  1. ARTHUR m HOLST says:

    One year the PWD featured the French village in its Flower Show display, which I designed.

    1. Jill M says:

      Down my street when I lived at 224West Mount AiryAve. Not quite as glorious but a really nice house and Street.

  2. Louise says:

    Great article — thanks! One of the houses on Elbow Ln is obviously vacant. Do you know anything about plans for that one?

    1. Stacia says:

      Contact the George Woodward Company in Chestnut Hill. They own and lease these properties.

  3. lisa palio says:

    Is there any place where you can see pictures of the inside of the homes?

  4. Cyndi Haden says:

    Great article. We used to pass the gatehouse on the way into Center City.

  5. Rich Mcilhenny says:

    Good article A couple of inaccuracies though. Henry Houston was born in 1820, and wasn’t turning farmland into chestnut hill, mt airy, roxborough and Andorra in the early 19th century. He moved from the city to Germantown in the mid 1800s and started buying a lot of property there before developing much of the West side of Chestnut Hill and parts of West Mount Airy and building many beautiful homes on smaller parcels to create a European village feel. Of course there already were many homes there from the 18th and early to mid 19th centuries and the neighborhoods already existed albeit with some farms mixed in. Not sure what he did in Andorra and roxborough Also, pretty sure he didn’t have anything to do with the Chestnut Hill East Line coming out in 1854. He was instrumental in getting the Chestnut Hill West line to come out to the community he was developing on the West side in the 1880s though

  6. Joanne Mcclary says:

    I love all the posts as I am from Philadelphia but never knew all the suburbs and I live in Ohio now so it is nice to see the fancier homes there, thank you for sharing this ❤

  7. Elaine Arch says:

    Do they have a fund raising open house tour of the homes?

  8. Karrie Gavin says:

    Joanne, in reference to your comment, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill are not suburbs but are part of
    Philadelphia proper. While they bear resemblance to some of our suburbs, it’s an important distinction for those of us who grew up here and it’s part of what makes them unique and special neighborhoods.

  9. Eric Sternfels says:

    Yes. Houston’s position at the Pennsylvania Railroad allowed him to personally buy up all the prime land that adjoined the route he was planning in the 1880’s [As noted, 1854 was the start of the Reading Railroad’s endeavor with its president setting up a summer home on Gowen Avenue Mt. Airy]
    Many of the houses in French Village back onto Wissahickon parkland (along the Cresheim Creek), thus allowing for a level of privacy and exclusivity that aligned with the taste of the elite residents Woodward hoped to cultivate.

  10. Dan Z says:

    One of the gems of Philadelphia. Always enjoyed walking those streets/lanes when I lived on West Mount Airy Ave in the 70s-80s.

  11. Sonia Robin says:

    Bonjour! Great article!
    I work for a French cultural center and would love to organize a walking tour there. Does anyone know someone who could be our guide ? Merci

  12. Jonathan Harris says:

    The third photo is noted as being a home under construction. More likely it is a barn that is partially dismantled, perhaps not even connected to this neighborhood. Other than the small openings along the rake, note that there is no other provision for windows in the stone walls, so it certainly is not residential. The gable on the near side has partially collapsed, or is at least incomplete. Also, there is no staging/scaffolding or raw materials about that would be a part of any active construction site.

  13. James Goodwin says:

    Wanted to add something about the generosity of Henry Houston. He was approached by someone and asked if he could donate 100 plus acreage of farmland to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

    He agreed and PSD built is Chestnut Hill Schist campus in 1892 where it remained until it moved to it’s present campus on School House Lane in 1984.

  14. Barbara E Lavinson says:

    Will be looking for house tours to benefit so many organizations that contribute to history of Phila. or similar projects!

  15. barbara says:

    Great article! We can never know enough about where we live. I worked at PSD in the 80’s before they relocated and never knew this little enclave existed but always marveled at the beautiful stone homes in the area! Would love to hear about house tours, etc. Thanks!

    1. Elise Rivers says:

      If you love walking tours of old houses, check out Take A Walking Tour of Tourison coming up on May 14, 2022. Learn about the stone homes of East Mt. Airy. While not an “enclave” like the French Village–there is much beauty and history to enjoy!

  16. George Gounley says:

    Henry Howard Houston was never President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was the railroad’s General Freight Agent from 1852 to 1867 and one of a member of its Board of Directors from 1881 to 1895.
    As others have noted, the Allen Lane station is not on the former Reading line, opened about 1854, but on the PRR’s paralleling line to the West, which was not opened until 11 June 1884.

  17. Laurie says:

    I loved this article! I’ve often driven past this area on Emlen street and always wondered about this unique residential enclave.

  18. Denise Robertson says:

    My daughter wants to give her daughter an authentic HOGWARTS. Birthday party.. she’ll be 10 years old.. Approximately 50 guests including parents who MUST accompany them.. One room would suffice.. we have a decorator for in inside.. It’s about the whole entrance castle affect.. Hope you can help.. Her birthday is June 28th

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