Imagine yourself feeling welcomed in a relaxing, natural area where the paths are obviously frequented. A pleasurable escape for all passersby or bench sitters who enjoy the inviting atmosphere created by birds, wildflowers and quiet, itself. This experience begins and ends for all (horses, leashed dogs and people of all ages) at the Wissahickon Environmental Center/Tree House.
The Wissahickon Environmental Center (WEC) was originally part of the Andorra Nursery. Read more about this on the Trails to the Past section on the Andorra Natural Area.
Soon after Andorra Nursery was established, employee and foreman Adolph Steinle, a German pioneer, became the Nursery’s “propagator” of trees and shrubs. In 1890 he added a porch to the house, constructing it around a nearby sycamore tree, letting the tree grow through the porch’s roof, adjusting the hole every few years to the growth of the tree. This unusual practice got the attention of many and his residence became known as the Tree House—an identity it still holds.
After Steinle, there were two other resident employees in the house: The Cressman, then Lightcap families. From 1940 through 1977, the last residents were the James Lupica, Sr., family. Mr. Lupica was a master gardener for the Andorra Nursery until it closed in 1961. He stayed on as a tenant of the Houston Estate until 1977 when the Fairmount Park Commission established the Andorra Natural Area for educational purposes.
In 1981, when the sycamore tree growing though the Tree House’s porch roof became 230 years old, it was cut down by Fairmount Park due to possible liability issues. The next year the Wissahickon Environmental Visitor Center began. It preserved a large slice of the sycamore tree, which is on display today. The first director of the Wissahickon Visitor/Environmental Center was Sioux Baldwin, who served in that capacity from 1980-2000.
In 2018 the Tree House, now called the Wissahickon Environmental Center (WEC), had its back porch modernized (the same porch the sycamore tree grew through), sporting colorful artistic railings and balusters and a “green” porch roof. It still has the original interior of a 130-year-old building. A pictorial history of the building is on display inside.
The WEC is well-known for its regular environmental education walks and classes for both children and adults, staffed by wonderful Environmental Educators through Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.
Written by James T. Charnock, FOW Trail Ambassador
- Research by Thomas Keels, archivist, from From Private Estate to Public Preserve, September, 2000. Keel is a former chairperson of the Board of Directors of Chestnut Hill Historical Society/Conservancy.
- First recorded resident of the 1750 House in 1979 (the year the house burned down): Cantrabone, tenant (Fairmount Park Archives, File 131N15—9).
- Interview with Patricia Fries, Director of the WEC.
- Source of some residents: 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census records.
- Interview with James Lupica, Jr., former resident of the 1750 House and the Tree House, whose father worked for the Andorra Nursery.
- David Contosta and Carol Franklin, Metropolitan Paradise, St Joseph’s University Press 2010
Check out this Google Map to explore this and other unique historical points of interest, and become acquainted with the many trailheads in Wissahickon Valley Park!
Explore more Wissahickon-related historic points of interest, stories, art, videos, games, and much more on our Virtual Valley!
You probably don’t need us to tell you how special Wissahickon Valley Park is. It’s 1800 acres provides habitat to wildlife, refuge & recreation to over a million visitors per year, and protects the drinking water for one third of Philadelphians. The park can’t take care of itself, however. It needs responsible park users and stewards to keep this special place clean and sustainable for generations to come.