Guest Post: Historic Germantown
by Christina Arlt, DVRPC
I’ve lived in Philadelphia for the majority of the past seven years, but there are still neighborhoods I haven’t spent a great deal of time in. This summer, I decided to change that. First up on my list for exploration – Historic Germantown.
Germantown is in northwest Philadelphia along Germantown Avenue, west of Broad Street and north of Wissahickon Avenue. The neighborhood is conveniently located between the Chestnut Hill East and Chestnut Hill West SEPTA Regional Rail lines, and the two-mile long historic district is the longest in the nation. In the colonial period, Germantown was a village of German and Dutch farmers. Later it became a retreat for Philadelphia’s well-to-do, a stop on the Underground Railroad, and today it is home to African Americans working for the American Dream.
I planned my trip at http://www.freedomsbackyard.com/, which offers descriptions of the area’s 16 historic sites, program and event listings, maps, and information about opening hours. I decided to buy a Historic Germantown Passport, which entitles an individual ($15) or family of four ($25) to visit to all 16 Historic Germantown attractions within a one year timeframe. Some of the sites are only open on certain days and others are only open by appointment, so I opted to visit on a summer Friday afternoon, when at least four of the attractions would be open.
I took the SEPTA Chestnut Hill East train to Washington Lane, which offers direct access to Awbury Arboretum (open dawn until dusk), the former private estate of the Cope-Haines family, who were wealthy Quaker shipping merchants. From the station, I took the Station Path to the Francis Cope House (1862), a Victorian stone mansion, which is surrounded by 33-acres of rolling lawns, mature trees, special gardens, ponds, wetlands, and meadows being returned to native plants and wildflowers. I had most of the place to myself. Make sure you print out a map from the website before you go, or grab one at the Francis Cope House—some of the paths were not as clearly marked as I expected them to be.
I walked uphill on Washington Lane, made a right on Morton Street, and a left on Cliveden Street to get to Cliveden, where British troops sought shelter from American attack during the Battle of Germantown in October 1777. Later the home housed seven generations of Philadelphia’s Chew family. Since the home was lived in until just a few decades ago, there is a great deal of furniture and artwork on display. The seafoam green kitchen was an especially unexpected surprise.
From Cliveden, I walked southeast on Germantown Avenue. I passed the Upper Burial Ground—one of the two oldest cemeteries in Germantown, Concord School—a 1775 English-language school, Johnson House—one of the few remaining Underground Railroad Stations in Philadelphia open to the public, and the Germantown Mennonite Meetinghouse—the 1770 site of the first permanent Mennonite settlement in North America. Unfortunately, those four sites were all closed on the day that I was there, so I continued to walk a bit farther south to Wyck, a 2.5 acre farm owned by the nine generations of the same Quaker family, the Wistars and the Haines. The site includes a colonial house and historic gardens (including an extremely rare example of an early American rose garden), fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens, a smoke house, ice house, greenhouse, and carriage house. The Farmers’ Market was outside on the Friday afternoon I was there, so I got to see some of the freshly harvested fruits and vegetables from the site.
I had a little bit of extra time before my 3:15 pm tour of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, so I walked along East Walnut Lane and Tulpehocken Street to explore the Tulpehocken Station Historic District. This six block area includes stately homes built between 1850 and 1900 in styles including Carpenter Gothic, Italianate, Bracketed, High Victorian and Second Empire. After seeing the exterior of so many impressive homes, it was nice to go inside the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, Philadelphia’s only house museum focused on the Victorian period. The restored mid-nineteenth century house and gardens exemplify the domestic life of the rising middle class between 1860 and 1880.
All in all, I enjoyed my foray into a neighborhood I had never visited before. If you decide to follow my trek, make sure you wear comfortable footwear and bring plenty of water—I ended up walking close to five miles. You could also break the trip up into smaller trips–the Historic Germantown Passport expires one year from the date of purchase. Another great time to visit Historic Germantown is on Second Saturdays from 12pm to 4pm between May and October, when many of the attractions are open at the same time: http://www.freedomsbackyard.com/programs-events/second-saturdays/