Our first Pennsylvania love letter comes to us from Margaret Wallis, the new chairperson of Preservation Pennsylvania’s Board of Directors. From 1992-2010, she served on the Board, and later the Advisory Board. During that time, she served two terms as President and was an active member of the Philadelphia Intervention Committee. She was honored with the Preservation Pennsylvania Chairman’s Award in 2010. She first became passionate about preservation while a docent at Cliveden and Andalusia, two historic sites in the Philadelphia area. Her valentine is for The Wissahickon Inn, now the home of SCH Academy, in the northwest section of Philadelphia.
To The Wissahickon Inn,
This month I would like to honor you as we celebrate Valentine’s day. As a passionate preservationist there are a number of noteworthy buildings in the Philadelphia area I could have chosen. However I have chosen you as you have played a major role in the lives of the people I love most, my children and two of my grandsons.
As part of the realization of Henry Howard Houston’s (1820-1895) real estate development, you were the jewel in the crown along with the Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields, and numerous single and double rental houses (where I lived for a number of years).
You opened as a summer hotel in May of 1884 with 250 rooms on what became known as Wissahickon Heights. You were designed by G.W. and W. D. Hewitt and constructed in the Queen Anne style, with wraparound porches, porte cocheres and magnificent turrets. You prospered during the 1880s but, due to the decline of cricket, the shift of the Philadelphia Horse Show to the Main Line, and the expansion of railroads, hotel occupancy fell off in the 1890s. Your owners looked for new sources of income and as a result, in 1898, Chestnut Hill Academy, which was reorganizing and expanding, opened as a day and boarding school for boys and assumed your identity for the ensuing years.
Although I passed by you regularly for a number of years (my daughter attended the nearby girls’ school Springside), you did not become part of my history until the early 1970s when my son entered kindergarten. At that time you were a boys’ day school, primarily serving the local community. For the next eleven years you were a regular part of my life: carpools, teacher conferences, sports activities etc.. My son left for boarding school and my daughter left for college in 1984 and almost twenty years passed without any direct involvement.
Fast forward to the early years of the twenty-first century and you entered my life again, as I became a grandmother. My daughter’s two sons are “lifers” at your school, one graduating in 2015 and the other in 2019. As the mother of a working daughter I spent many hours commuting to and from school as well as volunteering and attending sports activities.
One of my favorite memories is of serving as a Story Time volunteer to first graders, especially during the winter months. The boys would join me in front of the fireplace in the Exchange, originally the lobby where your hotel guests checked in. Another memory is of waiting in the carpool lane until the boys were dismissed from one of the original porches.
The school today highlights some of the many adaptations that have occurred over your history. Many times I sat in the chapel, formerly the ballroom, to hear concerts and talks as I gazed around at the stained windows created by the Willet Studios. The school’s Board of Trustees have been good stewards of the building, including the restoration of the Henry Memorial Library with a mural by Violet Oakley, whose murals also grace our state Capitol building.
Today, although I have many fond memories of time spent within your walls, my only connection is through my daughter. In 2010 Springside School merged with Chestnut Hill Academy to form Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH Academy). Today the halls are filled with Upper School girls and my daughter serves as Director of Development with offices in what served in years past as the headmaster’s apartment.
I miss having you in my everyday life but am proud of your legacy and love you for providing the historic backdrop (achieving listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979*) in which my son and grandsons received an excellent education and made life long friends.
With love and appreciation,
A devoted mother and grandmother
Click here to read the National Register nomination form with the history of this special place.