Repaired Mount Airy Gateway to make reappearance this spring

J. Patrick Moran cleans trash from one of the stone piers at Lincoln Drive and Johnson Streets. He was inspired by an old photo seen in a book.
J. Patrick Moran cleans trash from one of the stone piers at Lincoln Drive and Johnson Streets. He was inspired by an old photo seen in a book. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 08, 2013

As you rocket down Lincoln Drive, what are the chances you've seen the Mount Airy Gateway?

Slim to none, probably, and no one's suggesting you jam on the brakes to get a look. But the scene could change this spring.

The more-than-a-century-old ornamental gateway - a stone pier topped with a carved arbor-like pergola on either side of Lincoln Drive at Johnson Street - may actually be visible for the first time in 50 years.

That's because more than 150 volunteers, with some city help, have spent three years clearing the trash, repairing the piers, and ripping out invasive weeds and trees, replacing them with native species that, once established, should need less maintenance than their exotic counterparts.

The project's final phase - making and installing new white oak pergolas – is about to begin and should be done over the next few months, by fall at the latest, according to J. Patrick Moran, who was so inspired in 2009 by an old photo of the original gateway that he took on what he calls its "reimagining."

The photo was in the 2008 book Mount Airy: Images of America, by Chestnut Hill Historical Society archivist Elizabeth Farmer Jarvis. It showed not one, but two Wissahickon schist piers on either side of Lincoln Drive, each pair topped by a wooden pergola.

The pergolas and two innermost piers were lost when the drive was widened in the 1950s to accommodate growing automobile traffic. "In the years since, nature totally took over," said Moran, who bought a house on Lincoln Drive a decade ago.

But his ties to the area go back far longer.

"All four of my grandparents lived in Mount Airy, and talked about the neighborhood like it was Paris," said Moran, who works as the executive director of the Marian Anderson Award and has his own affection for French comparisons.

He calls Lincoln Drive - in the early 20th century, at least - "the Champs-Elysees of Northwest Philadelphia, a beautiful way of getting where you were going." Today, despite a 25 m.p.h. speed limit, it's more speedway than boulevard.

For Moran, that's all the more reason to resurrect the gateway. "Anything we can do to make people more aware of their driving environment is better done than not," he said.

A plaque on one of the Johnson Street piers indicates that the original gateway was underwritten in 1900 by the financier Edward T. Stotesbury. This was about the time Lincoln Drive was taking shape around Fairmount Park.

Designed in the 1890s, when the primary mode of transportation was horse-drawn carriage, the drive was built between 1900 and 1907, from Rittenhouse Street to Allens Lane, as an extension of the lower road, then called Wissahickon Drive.

"Lincoln Drive was more open then, but by 1910, that area was really being developed - and E. T. Stotesbury owned a lot of the land," said Alex Bartlett, Germantown Historical Society archivist.

The Lincoln Drive gateway is similar to another, more elaborate structure on Germantown Avenue at Cresheim Valley Drive that was restored in 2009. At the foot of Chestnut Hill, also bordering Fairmount Park, this one dates to 1909; its "angel" was the Woodward family of Chestnut Hill.

Architect Peter DiCarlo, who is designing the new Mount Airy pergolas pro bono, describes their style as "Asian-influenced, as the newspaper articles at the time characterized it, and a little bit on the arts-and-craftsy side, although the carving is classically-inspired.

"Call it regional eclecticism," he said.

Doris Kessler, a landscape architect and member of West Mount Airy Neighbors, the source of many gateway volunteers, is also emphasizing the regional in her contribution - a design for a "woodland edge"-style garden. In accordance with Fairmount Park's desires, she's using plants native to the Wissahickon, such as asters, viburnums, and serviceberry trees.

"The original landscape was a formal English kind of thing, pretty maintenance-intensive and very manicured, that had been let go into the jungle," Kessler said, citing fast-growing Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, and Norway maple trees that took over.

To finish the project, and set up a small maintenance fund, Historic Germantown and West Mount Airy Neighbors, gateway project partners, need to raise a final $40,000. (The total budget is $90,000 in cash and in-kind donations.)

But Moran doesn't sound like a guy who's ready to wrap things up anytime soon. Behind the gateway on the west side of Lincoln Drive are some old stone steps leading to an overgrown sitting area and fountain.

"There's an entrance to Wissahickon Park here that people don't know about," he said.


For information on the Mount Airy Gateway Project, go to www.wman.net

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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