A stroll along Germantown Avenue -- and through America's past
Philadelphia — For nearly 300 years Germantown has been at the forefront of social change in America. The shuttered gray stone houses along its cobblestoned main street have witnessed German and English settlement, antislavery protests, revolution, constitutional debate, the coming of the railroad, urban decay, and, finally, a wave of restoration that promises to preserve an impressive past for generations to come.
Just six miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia and within the city limits, Germantown is as good a place as any to savor the historical and cultural richness of American life. Strolling along Germantown Avenue, a street declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968, one can easily visit a wide spectrum of historic houses and sites within the course of a day.
Like so many other places in the surrounding area, Germantown owes its origin to William Penn. In 1683 the wealthy English Quaker set aside a tract of land for a group of Dutch-speaking immigrants from Krefeld, Germany. Soon afterward these settlers began building their log houses along the Indian trail that was to become Germantown Avenue.
These earliest settlers were Mennonites and Quakers who were drawn by the promise of religious freedom in the New World. By 1708 they had built the first Mennonite meetinghouse in America, a log structure that was replaced in 1770 by the tidy gray stone church still in use today.
The Mennonite meetinghouse on Germantown Avenue, in continuous use for over 200 years, is a logical place to begin a walking tour of the district. In one corner is the small writing table where four Germantown settlers signed the Proclamation of 1688, an early protest against slavery.
Wyck, the oldest house in Germantown, is just a few blocks down the avenue from the meetinghouse. It was built in 1690 by a Mennonite named Hans Milan. Occupied continuously by the same family until 1973, when it was opened to the public, the charming stone dwelling contains many of the original furnishings and memorabilia.
It is easy to imagine the sort of family life lived in the light-filled rooms decorated with family china and portraits. Nearly as venerable as the house, and equally inviting, is the rose garden dotted with wildflowers and rare shrubs which lies to the rear.
Although originally a German settlement, Germantown soon had English settlers as well. Among the earliest and grandest English homes in the area was Stenton, the Georgian-style home of James Logan, Penn's secretary and agent. It is an elegant square brick structure off Germantown Avenue at Courtland and 18th Streets.
Stenton's high-ceilinged, magnificently paneled rooms very much reflect the cultured, scholarly tastes of its first owner. The books lining the walls of the second-floor library were part of Logan's collection of 3,000 volumes, the largest in the colonies at that time. The most famous figures of 18th-century Philadelphia were entertained at Stenton.
During the Revolution both the British and American forces occupied the house: first George Washington in August 1777, then Gen. Sir William Howe, who used it as his headquarters from which to direct the battle of Germantown.
A Germantown home with much more of a Washington association is the Deshler-Morris House on Germantown Avenue, where President Washington lived during the fall of 1793 when an epidemic kept him from his townhouse in Philadelphia. He and his family returned the following summer for an extended, far more relaxed stay.
As the 18th century progressed, Germantown became more fashionable. Two splendid examples of the kind of country homes wealthy Philadelphians built at that time are Cliveden and Upsala, which sit almost squarely across from each other on the upper end of the historic section of Germantown Avenue.
Cliveden, built for lawyer Benjamin Chew in 1767, is a vivid reminder of how the good life was lived 100 years ago. Owned by the same family for well over two centuries, the house contains many of the original locally crafted furnishings and even the 18th-century Chinese porcelain made specifically for the Chews.
Both the Cliveden and Upsala properties played pivotal roles during the Revolution -- on opposite sides. While British soldiers occupied Cliveden during the Battle of Germantown in 1777, General Washington's soldiers shelled them with fire from cannon placed on what is now Upsala's front lawn. After the war John Johnson built the house called Upsala, a Federal-style gem replete with Doric columns, marble fireplaces, and carved wooden cornices.
Quite a change of pace from the Colonial Germantown houses is a Victorian fantasy called the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, at Greene and Tulpehocken Streets.
A Norman Gothic structure complete with three-story tower, it looks like a fairy tale castle plopped down onto a suburban street. Still being restored, it gives visitors a chance to witness an impressive work in progress, particularly the re-creation of some of the most elaborate wall stenciling in North America.
Maxwell Mansion was built in 1859, when the new railroad system was enabling businessmen to build their homes in Germantown and commute downtown. Perhaps the most interesting period in the mansion's history occurred in the mid-1970s, when the decaying structure was threatened with demolition and replacement by a gas station. A large group of neighbors organized the Maxwell Mansion Committee and bought the house. They have been actively engaged in its restoration ever since.
Besides house touring, a visit to Germantown should include the delightful complex of small museums at the Germantown Historical Society on Germantown Avenue. Six 18th-century limestone, rubble, and brick houses contain the everyday items used by the early Germantown families -- among them charming collections of kitchenware, toys, costumes, and quilts.