My hometown of Philadelphia is replete with houses that date from the country’s colonial era. Some are still lived in (usually by those well off enough to afford the preservation and care of such an edifice) while others have been “broken apart” either by neglect or sectioned off into smaller sub-units. However, a small number of these homes remain that have been restored to their former glory and are open to the general public. Cliveden in the city’s Germantown section is one of them.
Germantown is a neighborhood I had been to perhaps once or twice growing up, and as its name suggests, it was settled by Germans. Although today it is part of the city of Philadelphia, until 1854 it was its own town, just like Montmartre in Paris. It’s situated in the northwest section of the city at a distance of about seven miles from downtown. And just like its Parisian equivalent, Germantown back in the day was an area of immense farmland. Early residents of Philadelphia actually went to Germantown to “escape” the brutal summer heat of the city (now that I don’t miss) as well as the horrific yellow fever outbreak which struck the city in 1793. George Washington himself was a refugee to Germantown during the yellow fever outbreak when serving as the first president of the newly formed nation, and lest anyone think that Washington D.C. was always the nation’s capital, it wasn’t. Philadelphia served as the capital from 1790 until 1800. While today I’m pretty sure Germantown is just as ghastly hot and muggy as other parts of the city in the summer, I’ll take the word of historical accounts that it was a lot more pleasant in the warmer weather.
Cliveden was a home I had always heard a lot about, specifically the famous family that occupied it (thanks Ann Rinaldi)-the Chews. The head of the household at the time the house was built was Benjamin Chew, the Pennsylvania Judiciary System under both the colony and commonwealth and who also served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania. Construction of the house lasted from 1763 until 1767.
Most notably though, the house was the site of some of the fiercest fighting during the 1777 Battle of Germantown. The British ended up occupying the house and fought off the attack from the Continental Army forces with muskets and bayonets. George Washington’s Continental Army was defeated and forced to retreat back down Germantown Avenue, while the house itself incurred considerable damage.
Cliveden served as the residence of seven generations of Chews, the last one living at the house up until 1972. While the signs of city life are present around you, the house is set back from the main drag it’s on, an area encased with fencing and situated on acres of verdant greenery. It’s easy to imagine the house being basically it in terms of development. I learned on the tour that the home’s total acreage is considerably less than what it once was. However, I read that over 200 varieties of trees and shrubs can be found on the grounds, quite impressive I thought.
Cliveden is an example of Philadelphia Georgian architecture, the stone masonry house being praised for its fine interior woodwork. While Pittsburgh has historic homes for sure, they are obviously of a different historical time and a different architectural look as well. One glimpse at the gorgeous outside of Cliveden and I was reminded on just how much I miss this style of home.
Tours of the house are guided, although they are limited to the first floor. The website differs from what we actually paid for admittance; we were charged $2 a person for what was supposed to be a 15 minute tour (ours was a lot longer as our guide was extremely informative and very receptive to taking and answering questions). There weren’t any set times for tours, it was more when there were enough people a tour occurred (for reference, my party was four people along with a fifth person). However, we visited unknowingly on Mt. Airy day (Mt. Airy being the name of an adjacent neighborhood), a very large community celebration that was taking place on the grounds of the house so perhaps that one day things were done a bit differently.
Upon entering the home from the outside, you are immediately struck by the main hall colonnade. Here was a house that would at least impress guests when they first entered, even if not anywhere else. The staircase was befitting of any historical house, one in which you could imagine a woman coming down wearing a beautiful gown while her suitor awaited against the backdrop of candlelight. On a funny note, the guide informed us that the grand staircase was reserved for adults, and by adults I’m referring to the well off occupants of the house, not the servants. They and the children were required to use the less glamorous and more out of the way side staircase.
While the house would be thought of as immense by today’s standards for a family of four, it seemed quite small considering how many people lived in it at one time (the patriarch, Benjamin Chew, had eight children). And when Chew and his immediate brood lived there, the house was not as large as it is today; descendants of his in the 1860s added on to the house.
The guide who gave our tour was extremely knowledgeable, giving detailed accounts of some of the home’s occupants over time and background information on features and fixtures of the house. However, very little was actually said about the house during the Battle of Germantown and also the original Chew family, especially since both are incredibly important in the early history of the state of Pennsylvania as well as the city of Philadelphia. It was also a bit of a letdown that visitors don’t get to see the upstairs. Seeing as how the house has been a National Historic Property since 1966, it seems odd that the upstairs has never been restored (that’s my conjecture as to why visitors are not allowed to see it).
So much of Philadelphia is living history before your eyes. Cliveden is just one example.