His passions: Preserve, purchase Richard W. Snowden has become a Chestnut Hill power, buying buildings up and down Germantown Avenue.

Posted: February 25, 2002

At 44, Richard W. Snowden is a bridge between two Chestnut Hill worlds. By birth, he belongs to its patrician class. By inclination, he is a leader of the brash new business class transforming it.

His old-money credentials are impeccable, his aggressive real estate acquisitions impressive.

Snowden, whose family roots in Chestnut Hill go back 120 years, has pursued two passions - historic preservation and buying real estate.

Purchasing buildings up and down the Germantown Avenue business district, Snowden has emerged as a neighborhood powerhouse. His family-owned real estate partnership has spent $8.5 million to buy more than 40 buildings, renovating many of them.

In 1995, Snowden and his grandmother, Virginia C. Wilmsen, now 93, shared in a community award for "tasteful restoration and preservation of the physical fabric of Chestnut Hill."

Still, Snowden is square in the middle of the long-running and emotional debate in Chestnut Hill over the commercialization of the business strip.

Some worry that the trend is spoiling the villagelike quality of the neighborhood, and hold Snowden partially responsible. Others say he has helped the business district, renting only to high-quality tenants and installing them in top-notch buildings.

"Richard can be a controversial figure," said Howard Kittell, a former executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. "I think anyone who is dynamic and does big-picture thinking is."

Snowden and Wilmsen have long been philanthropic and financial allies.

Both are members of the Social Register. In December, Snowden served as president of the Charity Ball, the yearly dance at which debutantes are presented. His grandfather and uncle had previously chaired the ball.

Wilmsen's late husband, Richard D. Wood 2d, was heir to a coal fortune. The estate he left for Wilmsen was valued at $8 million in 1992.

Today, Snowden is a partner in the Wood family's Cotiga Co. - an acronym for coal, timber and gas. Cotiga owns mining, drilling and logging rights to 50,000 acres in Mingo County, W. Va. Leases there have authorized strip mining, mountaintop removal and underground mining.

Wilmsen and Snowden banded together in the late 1970s, while Snowden was a student at Kenyon College in Ohio, to fight extensive development of 22 acres of woods behind Wilmsen's house in Wyndmoor, near Chestnut Hill.

Today, eight luxury homes nestle around a cul-de-sac in the middle of the tract. Construction is banned on the remainder of the ground.

In 1981, Snowden and his grandmother teamed up again, as business partners, to convert Anglecot, an old Chestnut Hill estate that had been used as a nursing home, into high-end condominiums. Their partnership also placed an easement on Anglecot to preserve the property.

Wilmsen joined Snowden when he created his real estate firm, Bowman Properties, in 1987. She later withdrew as a partner. Today, the partnership consists of Snowden; his mother, Juliana W. Snowden, 66; and his two sisters, Virginia P. Snowden, 37, and Jocelyn L. Snowden, 34.

Snowden's mother and two sisters live in Oregon, where his father worked as a newspaper editor until his death in 1997.

Since 1990, Snowden's home has been an estate on Norwood Avenue in Chestnut Hill. He also has maintained a residence at the Andalusia estate in Bucks County, where he is registered to vote.

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