Public utilities are a tough nut to crack, especially in urban settings, where the population density is greater—and so, consequently, is the demand for electricity, gas, water, wastewater, fiber optics, and so forth. With higher density comes greater intricacy of the conduit; there’s more of it, and it must be more economical with its use of space. At the same time, land values in high-density urban settings tend to be greater, so the deployment of utility stations and substations must be particularly strategic. Not only is it unwise for a power plant or a wastewater treatment operation to take up any more square footage than necessary, but the surrounding community (densely packed nearby) regards them as little more than a necessary evil—an affront to eyes, ears, and nose. A legally defined nuisance. So utility companies must tread lightly, especially when their substations sit squarely in the middle of an otherwise pedestrian-scaled setting, like an old neighborhood or the heart of a city’s downtown.
I can’t think of too many better examples of a carefully guarded neighborhood than Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.
The large district sits at the outer fringes, with the city’s boundary lines flanking the north and west side of Chestnut Hill itself. Way back during the Revolutionary War (before the City of Philadelphia had consolidated with Philadelphia County), Chestnut Hill was a popular summer getaway, due to its higher elevation and cooler temperatures—a village remote in character yet still only about eight miles from City Hall, the heart of William Penn’s “green country town” plan. After city-county consolidation in 1854, Chestnut Hill integrated more fully with Philadelphia, not just politically, but, in the ensuing decades, transportationally.
Today, Chestnut Hill offers an easy commute via SEPTA regional rail, buses, and, through much of the twentieth century, even trolleys. Thanks to heavy traffic, it’s often easier to get from Chestnut Hill to downtown via transit than a private car.
Notice the embedded light rail tracks and catenaries above; the Chestnut Hill trolley lines are currently inactive, but the infrastructure remains sufficiently intact that a restoration of one of the old trolley lines would not require much capital investment. SEPTA has maintained many segments over the years.
The trolley line cuts a swath into the pavement of Germantown Avenue, the primary arterial and commercial main street that bisects Chestnut Hill, seen in all the above photos. Germantown Avenue itself offers a compelling sociological case study, because the land uses reflect both historic trolley stops and the socioeconomics as one travels this sinuous path southeastward, toward Center City Philadelphia. To the east Chestnut Hill is Mount Airy, a sizable neighborhood of considerably greater racial and socioeconomic diversity—one of the first neighborhoods in Philly to welcome integration as African-Americans moved in from other parts of town in the 1960s. To this day Mount Airy remains well integrated, walkable, visually distinct, and, generally desirable real estate. However, Mount Airy’s commercial district (again along Germantown Avenue) lagged significantly behind the residential quarters. As recently as the mid 2000s, Mount Airy was a nice place to live but not to shop. Despite above average incomes in the neighborhood, the commercial strip was drab and largely vacant, especially compared to the quaint shops in Chestnut Hill. Only in the last decade or so did the Mount Airy portion of Germantown Avenue enjoy a revival.
Continuing along the old trolley line, Germantown Avenue ventures into the large Germantown neighborhood, even more socioeconomically diverse than Mount Airy but much more skewed toward lower incomes. The area, an independent borough much like Chestnut Hill (and founded a century earlier), has suffered heavily from white middle-class outmigration in the middle of the 20th century. Though many fine and historically significant structures in Germantown remain, the neighborhood has only witnessed the earliest evidence of a socioeconomic revival. It remains variegated, with some blocks showing reinvestment and others fairly blighted; and the Germantown Avenue commercial district only offering scattershot evidence of vitality. Germantown Avenue wends its way into some of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in all of North Philly, terminating just east of Temple University.
If not obvious already, Chestnut Hill is an outlier. As closer-in neighborhoods like Mount Airy and Germantown declined in the middle of the 20th century, Chestnut Hill staved off the exodus from Philly—a quarter million in the 1970s alone. One could easily speculate that a fair amount of NIMBYism characterized Chestnut Hill’s perseverance as neighboring districts struggled, but the resiliency leaves a strong imprint on the Germantown Avenue streetscape up to the present. And it isn’t just the vintage rail depot, the quaint storefronts, or those quaint Belgian-block pavers on Germantown that give it such a signature “streetcar suburb” look. Chestnut Hill treats its backstage uses just as delicately.
And this is where, at last, those switching stations come back into play. The above photo is of a structure that sits right along the approximately twelve-block commercial stretch of Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. I’m not going to split hairs about the architectural references to the building, mainly because I’m not well-versed enough to do so. But I can comfortably assert that its appearance is in keeping with the character of the rest of buildings that front Germantown Avenue in the neighborhood. As I first walked by, I thought it might be an old elementary or middle school building. (It’s not big enough to be a high school, at least not one constructed at the time period from which it was built, which I presume to be at least a century ago. Chestnut Hill was heavily populated back then, just as it is now.) So what is it?
These days, Verizon owns the place. It’s almost certainly a switching station within the broader cellular network of America’s largest carrier. Given the sensitivity of what takes place inside—both general public communications and for emergency broadcast—the place benefits from two-tier security: heavy fortification through through walls and limited openings, and relative obscurity by blending into the surroundings. At one point in time, the interior probably looked like this. Several years ago I noted a vaguely similar structure in downtown Worcester—a switching station owned by AT&T—but that was a brutalist hulk, certainly defensive in nature but hardly keeping with the 19th century New England vernacular. It was obvious something important took place within those austere, thick, windowless concrete walls.
This edifice in Chestnut Hill does a much better job of blending in. A magnificent job, really.
It replicates a conventional fenestration pattern on the side walls as well, even if the lower levels are bricked over. Perhaps it really was some other institutional use in the distant past, then it found a buyer in Verizon who decided to use it as a shell to house its hyper-sensitive innards?
Not likely. The concrete placard above the keystone to this service entrance says “Bell of Pennsylvania”, a subsidiary of Bell Atlantic Corporation, which emerged in 1982 as part of the federally mandated dissolution of the Bell Operating Companies. This dissolution occurred as the direct result of an anti-trust lawsuit leveled against AT&T in the 1970s. Bell Atlantic, one of the nine “Baby Bells” that emerged as a result, held an operating territory across the Mid Atlantic (from New Jersey to Virginia), with Philadelphia as the headquarters. After acquiring GTE in 2000, Bell Atlantic rechristened itself as Verizon back in 2000.
So this structure always was a disguise for a light-industrial telecomm use. It’s looked this way for decades, proving generally a good neighbor. Verizon maintains it. It doesn’t generate commuter traffic; it receives no regular staff. It just sits there quietly, doing its thing behind an unassuming visage that could be a lot worse: i.e., a Brutalist leviathan akin to my example in Worcester, or, worse yet, no architectural sheath at all—just a chain link fence, as is often the case with urban electric substations.
It’s difficult to find much online documentation of this nondescript building. It doesn’t register a pulse even among the staff at the Inky. One has to dig at the hyperlocal Chestnut Hill level, a neighborhood publication, to learn how many of these initial speculations are accurate. Yes, it is a Verizon switching station, filled with techie entrails that might look more like something out of one of the 1980s Superman sequels. It’s been this way for awhile, but not as long as I had surmised. Verizon—Bell Atlantic Corporation—purchased the property when it had previously housed the Belvedere Theatre, opened in 1914, eventually renamed the Chestnut Hill Theatre as it attempted to modernize itself to compete with suburban chains, though it succumbed to the competition and closed after screening A Clockwork Orange in 1973. Bell Atlantic demolished the old building and replaced it with the switching station, which ostensibly serves much of Northwest Philadelphia (Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Germantown, maybe nearby Roxborough and Manayunk), as well as suburban Montgomery County less than a mile away. But the Chestnut Hill Local article that I’ve cited suggests that the demand for physical switching equipment has plunged as more people shift to cellular, which uses computerized equipment. Estimates suggest that this property in Chestnut Hill is only 15% occupied, and, in the eyes of many locals, it creates a dead zone amidst lively commercial storefronts filled with boutiques and restaurants.
Civic associations in Chestnut HIll and Mount Airy have begun conversations with Verizon leadership about vacating the building for repurposing, or even a shared use that consolidates the equipment and allows residences on the upper levels. Presuming people would want to live above what is essential a quasi-industrial/utility use (won’t there still potentially be nuisance vibrations or buzzing?), the infrastructure is so spread throughout the building that it would be cost prohibitive for Verizon to entertain all but a truly visionary reuse. What neighborhood associations lack is money, and it’s going to take a well-heeled developer to persuade Verizon to sell its comfy perch on Germantown Avenue.
The fact remains that the edifice has operated unobtrusively for so long, seamlessly integrated with the rest of Chestnut Hill’s commercial façades. (It even has the patina of a much more weathered building than 50 years, perhaps a sign that it’s only minimally maintained.) But it’s a testament to the clout and commitment of this consistently affluent urban outpost—Chestnut Hill survived the worst of the Philly exodus in the 70s and 80s, and it did so while salvaging an architectural identity that makes it a regional attraction to this day. It still has above-average population density: nowhere near as crowded as a rowhome neighborhood in south Philly, but certainly more walkable than most of the suburbs. That density mandates second-tier hubs for utility networks, but community concern also prompt a public that can nurse its old properties to smarter and better uses as tastes and technology change. I’m not sure I’m praising or condemning Chestnut Hill for its conservatorship—probably a little of both—but it’s a testament to how well they’ve worked with a mega-business like Verizon that yoga studios and açaí shops can operate harmoniously in the shadow of what once was an offshoot of the largest telecom monopoly in the world. All behind the veneer of a brick schoolhouse! Brotherly love indeed.