Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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Chesterbrook retells the story of Wayne for the 20th century

Finding homes for people drawn here by technology isn’t anything new

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That could apply directly to two very dissimilar areas of Radnor today. But each was a result of technology creating a need and ambitious men filling it. Although they don’t look the same at all, each was its century’s response to changes caused by technology.

In the late 1900th century, the railroad had opened up the western suburbs for white-collar workers who wanted to escape the filth and disease of the city. It’s almost impossible today to imaging just how dangerous it was living in a large city and that didn’t even include crime.

Infant mortality was rife, and often mothers died in childbirth or from infections afterwards. Influenza today dreaded mostly for its discomfort killed tens of thousands each year. Men died young, maimed and broken in brutal factories. Everything was dirty, both from the coal smoke that permeated every space and from the animals which were ubiquitous.

But the trains made it possible for people to live and work in different places. After the railroad barons moved themselves along the Main Line, building monstrous estates, it was time for the middle class. The first development in Radnor designed to bring folks from the city was a 300-acre estate belonging to J. Henry Askins. Called Louella Farms, it was named after his two daughters, Louise and Ella.

In 1869 he began building houses some of which remain on Bloomingdale Ave. in Wayne clearly designed for middle-class families. But he was really too early, although he did create a community of sorts. The farm lay alongside the Main Line tracks. His mansion, also called Louella is now the Louella Apartments.

This was the center for further development in what would become Wayne. Askins liked the feudal nature of his “community” and encouraged development of other facilities south of Louella and the train tracks. This resulted in the Presbyterian Church, the Opera House and the Post Office, all built between 1870 and 1874.

A local newspaper, the Wayne Gazette, began in 1871 and so there were a furnishings store and a grocery store. There was even a Masonic Lodge, located on the third floor of the Opera House. Askins was progressive enough that there were gas generation and waterworks on his estate.

In 1880, Anthony J. Drexel, the banker, and George W. Childs, the editor of the Philadelphia newspaper, Public Ledger, entered into a partnership. They bought 600 acres, including Louella, which they named the Wayne Estate. Investing $500,00, they set out to attract those middle-class families ready to escape the city.

Childs already lived on the Main Line, in what is now St. Aloysius Academy. According to Radnor Historical Society President Bennett Hill, Childs had a quick answer to why he’d become a real estate developer. “He frequently told people that if they had to ride the train to Wayne, they’d have more time to ready the Ledger,” he says.

Advertisements of the day point our there were two newspapers, seven daily mails, and a casino for recreation.”The made sure that there were public buildings already here, so that the area would truly become a community,” Hill says.

Most notable in the advertising is the statement that all these were in a suburban town with “a salubrious climate where MALARIA IS UNKNOWN.” The ad-sheet even noted that “business and professional people” had already made their permanent homes there. They also knew that it would be decisive men who would move their families into the wilds of the remote Welsh Tract. That even if it hadn’t been remote or wild for almost a century.

They hired Will and Fred Price, who were up-and-coming architects to design the houses. “Presumably they worked cheap, but it made their reputation,” says Hill. The houses that were offered for sale are large by today’s standards, often 12 or 13 rooms. They had parlors, dens, pantries, kitchens, living rooms. There were up to seven bedrooms, so there was plenty of room for servants and children.

More important were the modern conveniences. “This was the first planned community outside of a major city to have electrical power and steam heat,” says Hill. In addition there was running water, sewage, telephone and telegraph, all in place before the building began.

Drexel and Childs built the Bellevue Hotel in 1881 to encourage city residents who spend their summer vacations in the suburbs — and discover they would love living in the countryside. Closer to the city, in Bryn Mawr the railroad was doing the same thing with the Bryn Mawr Hotel. The Bellevue was connected through a broad walkway to Wayne Station, just in case someone missed how easy it was to get from Radnor to Philadelphia. The hotel no longer exists, but evidently accomplished its mission..

Contractors Wendell and Smith built 50 homes south of the tracks. Also, 26 residents hired other contractors to build north of the tracks in 1886. Wendell and Smith started another 100 homes there in the following year. “The northern lots were smaller and closer together, the area looks like a suburb, but south of the tracks the lanes were laid out as if they were winding farm roads, and the lots were bigger,” says Hill.

With all of this development, and taking note of Drexel and Child’s development to the east of Wayne, the railroad opened another train stop, named St. David’s. The developers were probably delighted, because their advertising referred to houses for sale in Wayne and St. David’s.

A century later, transportation technology did it all over again. In the mid-1960s the state announced that it was turning Rt. 202, a two-lane highway running south from King of Prussia into a limited access four-lane highway. Radnor officials knew that meant urban sprawl was coming to Philadelphia’s far suburbs.

As part of a plan to help control the tide of growth Radnor created a unified development area on a 1000-acre plot alongside the highway. This meant that the rules as to density of population and other zoning and regulatory issues would be worked to encourage controlled development. The Fox Companies, headed by Dick Fox, bought up most of the land and although there were several parcels of land, by far the largest was Alexander Cassatt’s “country place,”Chesterbrook. Farm” He named the development for Cassatt’s farm.

Chesterbrook is a mixed development, with office buildings, several types and styles of houses and townhouses and open spaces.”Issues such as schools, open space, traffic and roads were defined to help counter urban sprawl,” according to Jim Hovey, president of The Fox Companies. “Cassatt’s farm was owned by a company owned by Bill Levitt, Jr. son of the creator of Levittown. The Fox Companies were able to acquire three of the four packages of land.

“At that time there were a few office buildings in the area, and they could only compete purely on prices,” says Hovey. But that was changing, and the construction of the GE Aerospace facility was a major step. “That’s when this area changed from industrial and distribution services,” he says. “But this was the 1960s and there were forces pushing people out of the city,” he says. “There were riots, the failure of urban renewal was clear and this was causing urban areas to decentralize.”

The Fox Companies didn’t build everything, but they developed and controlled it. “The scale was large enough for two or more companies for construction and retailing,” he says. “Part of what we wanted to do was create a community with a physical and social sense, and landscaping is very important for that. We wanted to create a sense of stability and mature landscaping does that. By locking in the landscaping we controlled the nature of the development,” he says. Hi also says they budgeted three to five times as much as a normal development would plan of spending for landscaping.

The original idea was to have a mix of housings. “We wanted teachers and cops to be able to afford to live here, for instance,” he says. “Unfortunately the economic realities of what happened to housing prices in the 1970s defeated that.” There are still different styles and price ranges grouped together, so that the 2700 units seems more to be clumps of housing.

One phenomena was that many of the occupants are women. “When this started, it was almost impossible for a single woman to get a mortgage,” he says. “But our third resident was July DiFilipo, now a township supervisor for Chesterbrook. Also the closed and secure nature of the development is attractive to a single woman, and many live there.

Being located near GE Aerospace meant a lot of people moving. “It was almost like the military. They’d come here for awhile and then be off on another assignment,” he says. One of the most interesting social aspects is that the neighborhood is there are many women and singles who bought years ago and have moved through life. “The singles life is now evolving into the breeding mode,” he says. “At one point there were hardly any kids at all, now there are,” he says.

A very important decision was to retain the heritage of the site. Although Cassatt’s main house had burned down earlier, the Frank Furness-designed barn was still standing. Furness, a local architect, was popular as a builder of many of the Railway Baron’s palatial mansions along the Main Line. Cassatt had been one of his better customers, and so Furness accepted the task designing the farm’s house and barn. The barn is a typical Furness design, with his signature chimneys and overhangs. This barn was robed in cedar shake, and is again today.

In addition there was a section owned by the University of Pennsylvania, upon which stood the house were French General Dupertail was quartered during the Revolutionary War. He was Washington’s chief engineer, and is considered the father of the Army’s Corps of Engineers.

While they were important to the local communities, they weren’t so important that anyone was willing to pay to restore or maintain. Hovey says Fox Companies wanted to preserve the heritage but weren’t able to just restore it and have it sitting there. They implemented what is known as “adaptive” use of historic facilities.

“With adaptive use you get virtually 100 percent of the architecture remaining intact. But there are requirements for access and safety that must meet modern codes. So we make that happen without damaging the heritage,” he says. “It’s certainly preferable to tearing down structures such as these.”

Today the barn is a day-care facility and the Dupertail house is a community center for Chesterbrook residents. While not the historically most accurate solution, few if any colonial buildings remained as they were. More importantly, these structures are still a part of their communities, and more people are touched by the structure’s heritage than if they were simply monuments.

So a century apart technology created communities. They were surprisingly alike, filled with the people who were ready to live a new lifestyle. Today, many residents of Wayne may not even know their’s was a planned community, thanks to the economic and social revolution the railroad caused. There aren’t many people in Chesterbrook that don’t know someone put a lot of thought into its planning. But they may not know it was every bit as much a response to another revolution the automobile.