Although trained as a medical doctor, George Woodward practiced only briefly. His importance for Philadelphia architecture lies in his role as a developer in the northwest part of the city, particularly in the Chestnut Hill section.
Woodward was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the son of Sarah Butler and Judge Stanley Woodward, and completed an undergraduate degree at Yale before he came to Philadelphia to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. After earning his medical degree in 1891, Woodward traveled back to New Haven to begin practice, but he very soon returned to Philadelphia in 1894 to marry Gertrude Houston, the daughter of Henry H. Houston, railroad entrepreneur and real estate developer. After Houston's death in 1895, his heirs, including Gertrude and her husband George Woodward, and son Samuel Houston, continued the real estate development and management activities begun by the elder Houston.
Woodward's architectural activities logically began in close connection to the Houston family's, and Woodward would later credit his wife as his partner in his real estate ventures. In the decade after his marriage, Woodward became Secretary of the board of directors of Chestnut Hill Academy, which moved in the late 1890s to the Wissahickon Inn, the railroad hotel Houston had built in the 1880s. The archival records of the school make it clear that Woodward was soon very actively involved in architectural decisions there. Projects by Frank Miles Day & Brother were soon followed by ones by Duhring, Okie & Ziegler, the firms Woodward would use for his first development projects. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Woodward's building activities were conventional: he commissioned Day, Duhring, Okie & Ziegler, and other firms to construct substantial single residences on Houston Estate land and on adjacent property he acquired, as well as two groups of "twin" houses built for rental, much as his father-in-law had done before him. In 1909, however, he undertook a different sort of project at the urging of his wife and of Chestnut Hill clergy. Working closely with H. Louis Duhring (who would go on to design the majority of Woodward's projects), Woodward created what was intended to be high-quality housing for low-income tenants on Benezet Street in Chestnut Hill. But, as Woodward himself recorded in his ironically titled Memoirs of a Mediocre Man (Philadelphia, 1935), "we built the twins for working people but before we discovered the working people the white collars came along and rented every house in sight" (Pp. 105-106).
While the Woodwards' reform inclinations were neither unique nor completely actuated, the architectural innovations created under their patronage were unusual, and their developments are notable for the high quality of their design and workmanship. In this initial venture, Duhring created the first "Quads" (twin houses that share rear as well as side party walls), intended to solve the perceived refuse and noise "back yard problem" of the poor by eliminating a rear yard. More Quads would be built in Mt. Airy for Woodward soon after. Innovative planning would continue to be one of the hallmarks of Woodward's developments.
Woodward soon began to describe the location of his developments as "St. Martin's", renaming the area of Chestnut Hill his father-in-law had described as "Wissahickon Heights" for the Episcopal church built for Houston in the 1880s. This name change suggests the sort of English garden suburb feeling that Woodward intended in his projects. As the 1910s progressed, Woodward developed and fostered a remarkable working relationship with a triumvirate of architects who would create nearly 200 rental properties for him. Along with the more experienced Duhring, Woodward employed the young Edmund B. Gilchrist (who had first worked for Woodward while in Wilson Eyre's office), launching his independent career, and Robert R. McGoodwin, who had first constructed houses for sale for Woodward on Houston Estate land with his firm McGoodwin & Hawley. In his Memoirs, Woodward described the remarkable design studio he fostered in the 1910s: "[we] met every week in my office. Each architect had to submit his designs to the other two and myself for criticism. It was an achievement certainly to conduct a weekly conference between rival architects for several years without an explosion. Indeed, we were a happy, harmonious group working for the common good" (Memoirs, p. 109). This "harmonious group" would design a varied array of clustered and free-standing houses, using simplified historicist styles and modern, careful planning that knit them together with small parks and landscaping to make St. Martin's a "neighborhood within a neighborhood."
After a decade of intensive building with this group, Woodward planned to double their efforts and expand into a new area of Chestnut Hill to the north of Pastorius Park. Gertrude Woodward, however, had had enough of construction of extensive rental housing using her family funds and nixed the plans. Instead, the Woodwards turned to a slightly different development in which most of the properties would be large single residences for sale, with only a small percentage of rental houses. This, the French Village, was built in the northwesternmost corner of Mt. Airy, with McGoodwin working with the Olmsted Brothers as the chief planner and designer of the majority of the houses, while Willing, Sims & Talbutt were responsible for a number of other residences there.
With the advent of the Depression, Woodward's building activities slowed. His final large development was Duhring's Roanoke Court of 1931, although Woodward's successors, George Woodward Co. and the Woodward House Corporation, continue to operate to the present, renting the houses that he commissioned. At the end of the 1930s, the Woodwards endowed the Quita Woodward Wing of the M. Carey Thomas library of Bryn Mawr College, designed by Thomas & Martin, in memory of their daughter.