Germantown was founded in 1683 by a group of Netherlanders fleeing religious persecution. Francis Daniel Pastorius, rose to leadership, contacted William Penn, obtained land, and directly stimulated migration. Pastorius arrived on August 20 of that year, the other settlers reached Philadelphia on October 6. Germantown remained predominantly Dutch until 1709, when large numbers. of Germans began to settle there. Those immigrants overwhelmed the settlement and gave it a decidedly Germanic character for most of the 18th century.
The town grew rapidly. William Rittenhouse founded America’s first paper mill on the Wissahickon Creek in 1690 and it was followed by textile mills and tanning yards. By 1758 some 350 houses stood in town, most of them occupied by Germans. The community was important enough to attract the attention of British General Sir William Howe who, after embarrassing the Americans at the Battle of Brandywine in the American Revolution in 1777, took a circuitous westerly route to occupy Germantown before marching on Philadelphia. General George Washington staged a bold counterattack on the British along today’s Germantown Avenue and, although denied a great victory, infused his battered troops with critical confidence.
George Washington would return to Germantown after the war, this time as President of the United States. In 1793, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a Yellow Fever epidemic drove the government away from the foul air of the city and set up shop in Germantown. President Washington would come back the following summer to escape the heat of the city and establishing America’s first “summer White House.”
Germantown remained independent until 1854 when it was absorbed by the city of Philadelphia. Five years later the street car ran from downtown up Germantown Avenue to the 6700 block, providing an immediate and lasting effect upon the commercial nature of “Main Street.” Despite the influx of shops and services, Germantown Avenue retained much of its mixed usage of churches, residences and schools. In 1965 the Colonial Germantown Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark and many of its historical sites have been well preserved.
Our walking tour will take place entirely on Germantown Avenue that started as an Indian path and was enlarged into a road into the interior of young Pennsylvania. The thoroughfare boasts an unbroken 300+-year heritage of residential and commercial use. We will begin in Market Square that was the center of the British line during the Battle of Germantown...
Germantown Avenue between Church and School House lanes
This half acre became was carved out for a market place as early as 1703. Crammed into this small space, in addition to the whirl of commerce was the engine house of the Fellowship Fire Engine Company, one of three Germantown volunteer groups, and the prison with its public stocks. Today the public space has evolved into a passive park dominated by a Civil War Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. This 1883 mustachioed soldier with gun in hand crafted by John Lachmier stands on a piece of granite brought from the Devil’s Den, scene of fierce fighting at Gettysburg. The cannon on the north side was from the British frigate Augusta, sunk by the Americans during the Revolution. Four memorial tablets list the names of soldiers who served in the Union Army and were residents of Germantown or who resided and died in Germantown after the war. One Confederate soldier is memorialized with his name inscribed on one of the cannons.
Impacting Your World Christian Center
5515 Germantown Avenue
This is the third church building on this site, the first having been erected in 1733 for the Church of the German Reformed Congregation of Germantown. Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, German religious and social reformer and bishop of the Moravian Church, preached his first sermon in America here in 1741. During the Battle of Germantown the British captured a battalion of Virginians in the Ninth Regiment and locked them in the church until they were marched into Philadelphia after the battle was over. George Washington worshiped when President of the United States and while a resident of Germantown. The old building was replaced in 1839 by one which made way for the present structure in 1888.
WALK SOUTH ON GERMANTOWN AVENUE.
The Germantown Historical Society
5501 Germantown Avenue
Housed in a Colonial Revival brick building he Historical Society offers to the public a library and archives dating back to the 17th century. The museum on the ground floor has a changing exhibit from the Society’s collection of over 20,000 artifacts. The organization was founded in 1900 as the Site and Relic Society of Germantown.
5442 Germantown Avenue
This fine Georgian house was built in 1772 by merchant David Deshler; British General Sir William Howe occupied the house after the Battle of Germantown. In 1793 a Yellow Fever epidemic swept through the nation’s capital of Philadelphia sending people from the city into the fresh air of the surrounding countryside. President George Washington and his cabinet sought relief in Germantown. Washington lived and conducted business in this house, then owned by Colonel Isaac Franks. Colonel Franks and the President had some disagreements about the rent and costs along the way. Franks charged Washington $131.56, which included Franks’ traveling costs to and from Bethlehem, the cost of furniture and bedding for his own family, the loss of a flatiron, one fork, four plates, three ducks, four fowl, a bushel of potatoes, and one hundred bushels of hay. Despite these extra costs, Washington returned to the house the next summer with his family. Later the house was sold to Elliston and John Perot, and in 1834 to Elliston’s son-in-law, Samuel B. Morris. Inside the house there is a portrait of the earlier Samuel Morris, signed by Washington. The Morris family lived in the house for over one hundred years before donating it to the National Park Service in 1948.
5425 Germantown Avenue
Louisa May Alcott was born here on November 29, 1832. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was teaching at a Boston school when an invitation came in December, 1830, to teach in Germantown. Alcott started out writing sensational stories about duels and suicides, opium addiction, mind control, bigamy, and murder. She called it “blood and thunder” literature, and she said, “I seem to have a natural ambition for the lurid style.” She published under male pseudonyms to keep from embarrassing her family. But in 1867, an editor suggested that she try writing what he called “a girl’s book,” and she said she would. The result was the now iconic Little Women, which was based on her own family and her own experience as an aspiring writer. Alcott was disappointed at how popular Little Women became, because she was obligated to keep writing more books in the same vein.
Trinity Lutheran Church
19 West Queen Lane at Germantown Avenue
Trinity Church dates to 1836; the church house was constructed in 1860, replacing the printing shop of Christopher Sower who manufactured America’s first German Bible in 1743. The first Bible printed in America was in an Indian language. The first English-language Bible followed 40 years later.
5267 Germantown Avenue
John Wister, a German immigrant worked in his brother’s button factory before building his own fortune in Philadelphia as a merchant and wine importer. Grumblethorpe was built in 1744 as a summer home. Stones for the house were quarried on the property and the timbers were hewn from oaks in the surrounding Wister Woods. The Wisters were staying in another home during the Battle of Germantown. General James Agnew occupied the house during the battle. He was wounded and died in the front parlor. His blood stains can still be seen on the floor. During the Yellow Fever epidemic the Wister family left Philadelphia and moved here full-time; family members lived here for over 160 years. Everything in Grumblethorpe, now open to the public, belonged to the Wister family. The equipment that Charles Jones Wister used for his accomplishments as an astronomer, botanist and chemist is in pristine condition, so is the desk where Owen Wister wrote The Virginian.
5106 Germantown Avenue
This house was owned by Commodore James Barron in the 1840s when he was commandant of the Philadelphia naval yard. Barron rose to prominence as commander of the frigate USS Chesapeake that confronted its British counterpart Leopard in 1807, one of the precipitating events of the War of 1812. Barron did not prepare the ship properly and quickly surrendered. The Chesapeake affair was considered a disgrace to the US Navy. Barron was convicted at a court martial and suspended from service in the Navy for five years. He sailed on merchant ships, and wound up spending the years of the War of 1812 in Denmark. When he finally returned to the United States in 1818, he tried to rejoin the Navy. Stephen Decatur, the nation’s greatest naval hero based on his actions against the Barbary Pirates and during the War of 1812, opposed Barron’s reappointment to the Navy. Barron felt that Decatur was treating him unfairly, and he began writing letters to Decatur insulting him and accusing him of treachery. Matters escalated, and Barron challenged Decatur to a duel. The two men met at a dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside the Washington, D.C. city limits, on March 22, 1820. The men fired at each other from a distance of about 24 feet. It has been said that each fired at the other’s hip, so as to lessen the chance of a fatal injury. Yet Decatur’s shot struck Barron in the thigh. Barron’s shot struck Decatur in the abdomen. Decatur died the next day. He was only 41 years old. Barron survived the duel and was reinstated in the US Navy, though he never again commanded a ship. He died in 1851, at the age of 83.
Thones Kunders House Site
5109 Germantown Avenue
The Thones Kunders House was the site of the first meetings of the Society of Friends in Germantown. And it is where the first protest against slavery in the New World was signed in 1688.
Lower Burial Ground
corner of Logan Street and Germantown Avenue
In 1692 Leonard Arets set aside by deed a half-acre of ground for burial purposes for Lower Germantown. By 1750 this cemetery was becoming crowded so the trustees limited burials to citizens of Lower Germantowns, and, as in so many cemeteries of the time, a space was designated as “Strangers’ Ground.” Here among the old trees, rose bushes, and weathered stones lie 41 soldiers who fought in the Revolution and soldiers from War of 1812, the Seminole War, Mexican War, and Civil War. One of the graves of interest is that of Sergeant Charles S. Bringhurst, who three times climbed to the rampart atop Fort Sumter to replace the flag when it was shot down by Confederates during the opening engagement of the Civil War. The earliest tombstone is of Samuel Coulson who died at the age of nine weeks on October 18, 1707. William Hood, a Germantown resident, gave the money for the front wall and gate in exchange for being allowed to select his own burial spot near the entrance. Hood died in Paris in 1850 and was buried in the grave he had chosen on the very day the work was completed on the entrance gate and wall.
4650 Germantown Avenue
This imposing home has stood on a perch at the gateway to Germantown since 1801. The east end was built first and the opposite end followed in 1810. The stately Greek portico came along in 1830. It is named for Loudoun County in Virginia from where builder Thomas Armat hailed. There is some evidence that this site could have been more prominent still - had Philadelphia remained the nation’s capital, the capitol itself would have been built where Loudoun now stands.
TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK UP GERMANTOWN VENUE TO MARKET SQUARE AND BEGIN AN EXPLORATION OF UPPER GERMANTOWN.
John W. Sutton House
northwest corner of Chelten Avenue and Germantown Avenue
The Wister Mansion in the park was built in 1803 by James Mathews and sold to A. John Wister in 1812. At one time part of the park was owned by Melchior Meng, a founder of Germantown Academy and a horticulturalist whose gardens were noted for their rare trees and shrubs. John Wister preserved and added to the collection while he lived here. The statue by the entrance is of John Wister, erected by his great grandson.
Green Tree Tavern
6023 Germantown Avenue
The Green Tree was built as a tavern by Daniel Pastorius, grandson of Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown. High in the side wall near the roof is a stone lettered “DPS 1748.” The initials identify Daniel and his wife Sarah as the owners and builders. It operated under a variety of names including The Hornet’s Nest, after a large one that was kept there as a curiosity. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison in 1793 after the government had relocated in Germantown during the Yellow Fever epidemic that he had found a lodging for the both of them in a private home, “They will breakfast you,” he wrote, “but you must mess in a tavern; there is a good one across the street.” The Tavern is now owned by the First United Methodist Church and is used for church offices. The church moved the Tavern 100 feet up the Avenue in 1930, so that the Memorial Chapel could be added to the church.
6026 Germantown Avenue
Wyck was home to nine generations of the same Quaker family; the middle portion of the house dates to around 1700. Famous architect William Strickland did the alterations on the farm in 1824. Wyck’s grounds include a nationally known garden of old roses which grow in their original plan from the 1820s and early outbuildings that were part of Wyck’s farm.
Germantown Mennonite Meetinghouse
6119 Germantown Avenue
This fieldstone meetinghouse was erected in 1770, replacing the “little log church” that was the first Mennonite meetinghouse in America, standing since 1708. In 1683 thirteen Mennonite and Quaker families sailed from Krefeld, Germany led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, and landed in Pennsylvania. The first permanent settlement of Mennonites in the new world was in Germantown. Later Mennonites moved westward to Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, and beyond. But Germantown was their first home. The first Quakers and Mennonites held meetings in their homes. By 1690, however, the two groups split due to a conflict of interests. The Mennonites wanted a minister, and the Quakers did not. William Rittenhouse, known as the first paper maker in the colonies, was the first Mennonite minister here.
6306 Germantown Avenue
This house was built in 1768 for John Johnson. During the Battle of Germantown the Johnson family hid in the cellar as musket shot and cannonballs struck the house. This was home to three generations of a Quaker family who worked to abolish slavery and improve living conditions for freed African Americans. In the 1850s this house was a station on the Underground Railroad. Here and in smaller buildings on the property, men and women escaping slavery found shelter in their way to freedom.
TURN RIGHT ON PHILADELPHIA STREET.
6309 Germantown Avenue at Washington Lane
The Concord School House, the first English-language school in Germantown, built on the corner of the Upper Burying Ground at Washington Lane and Germantown Avenue, was opened to students in October 1775. The burying ground was created in 1692 and the high front wall was completed in 1724. Here are buried fifty-two known and five unknown soldiers of the Revolution, as well as eleven from the War of 1812 and one from the Mexican War. The school was supported by subscription and neighbors contributed to the fund, allowing any family that could afford the fee to enroll its children (around $2 per quarter, plus .25 for spelling books), including families of African descent who rented the school house in the 1850s. It served as a school room until 1892.
6430 Germantown Avenue
Upsala is one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in Germantown. Dirck Jansen owned the land before 1775. The older, back part of the house was built around 1740. John Johnson Sr. is said to have bought the land in 1766. There is speculation over whether father or son owned the house first. John Johnson III, inherited the property in 1797 and built the much-admired front section of the house.
6401 Germantown Avenue
Cliveden, built from 1763-64 as the country estate of Benjamin Chew, stands as both one of America’s finest examples of Late Georgian architecture, and as the nation’s most important surviving battlefield landmarks from the American Revolution. In the dense morning fog of October 4, 1777 George Washington, desperate for some sort of victory for his Continental Army, launched a counterattack against the British, who were occupying Germantown on their march into Philadelphia. General John Sullivan smashed into an outpost led by Lt. Col. Thomas Musgrave and forced the outnumbered British into a rare retreat. Musgrave and about 120 men holed up in Cliveden. The main American force approaching down the Germantown Road encountered the British-fortified Cliveden and General Henry Knox demanded Musgrave’s surrender. Despite standing impotently isolated behind American lines, Musgrave refused, Knox began pounding the thick stone walls with six-pound cannon shells that produced no effect. A frontal charge achieved only American dead. The rebels attempted to burn the British out, but there was little that was flammable in Cliveden. The fruitless half-hour assault gave British forces bought the British valuable time and the American attack disintegrated into chaos in the still foggy morning. Although sent in disorganized retreat the Battle of Germantown buoyed the spirits of the Americans. Washington’s audacious strike convinced European observers of American commitment to freedom and french military assistance would be shortly forthcoming. Chew, a Colonial chief justice of Pennsylvania, refused to endorse either side in the conflict and was jailed for a time in 1777. He once again became a justice in pennsylvania after the war, serving until 1808, two years before his death. The main house, with its battle-scarred walls, is fronted by garden statuary, including two stone lions on the doorstep, which observed the events of the morning of October 4, 1777.
TURN AND WALK BACK DOWN GERMANTOWN AVENUE TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.