Exploring Philadelphia’s Historic Germantown

Germantown is well worth the drive from Center City for history lovers.

Germantown is well worth the drive from Center City for history lovers. Photo © Jamesy Peña, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Founded by German settlers in 1881, Germantown is home to stops on the Underground Railroad, Philadelphia’s only Revolutionary War battle, and the country’s first paper mill. Today, it’s an urban neighborhood in the northwest section of the city that is well worth the 15-minute drive from Center City for history lovers. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop for a hike in the Wissahickon or lunch in nearby Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, or Manayunk.

The Germantown Historical Society (5501 Germantown Ave., 215/844-1683, Tues. 9am-1pm, Thurs. 1pm-5pm, and by appt., $10 adult, $5 student) has an extensive collection of artifacts and a small museum open to the public. It is headquarters for Historic Germantown, a partnership of 15 local attractions, including all of those highlighted here. A passport for admission to all 15 ($15 pp, $25 family) can be purchased in person or online.

Sights in Upper Germantown

Historic RittenhouseTown (206 Lincoln Dr., 215/438-5711, most weekends in summer noon-4pm, $5 adult, $3 senior and child) pays homage to the area’s earliest settlers—the German immigrants drawn to Pennsylvania for religious freedom. William Rittenhouse (originally Wilhelm Rittenhausen), leader and minister of a small Mennonite community, built North America’s first paper mill in this wooded enclave on the edge of Wissahickon Creek in 1690. He developed a self-sufficient industrial village containing more than 40 buildings, including homesteads, workers’ cottages, a church, a school, and a firehouse. Seven buildings remain and are open for tours.

During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Germantown took place on the grounds of Cliveden (6401 Germantown Ave., 215/848-1777, Apr.-Dec. Thurs.-Sun. noon-3:30pm, and by appt., $10 adult, $6 student). The stately Georgian home was built in 1764-1767 for Benjamin Chew, who was banished during the war due to his British ties. Lucky for him, he was absent during the bloody battle of October 1777. British troops on their way to Philadelphia broke into Cliveden for protection while American troops fired muskets and cannons from across the street at Upsala, another historic home.

The Johnson House (6306 Germantown Ave., 215/438-1768, Feb.-Oct. Thurs.-Fri. 10am-4pm and Sat. 1pm-4pm, year round Sat. 1pm-4pm, and by appt., $8 adult, $6 senior, $4 student), built in 1765-1768, was home to three generations of Quaker abolitionists and became an important station on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Wyck (6026 Germantown Ave., 215/848-1690, Apr.-mid-Dec. Wed.-Sat. 1pm-4pm, $8 pp, free during farmers market June-Nov. Fri. 2pm-6pm) was used by British troops as a field hospital during the Battle of Germantown, but its real interest lies in the nine generations of a Quaker family that lived there, seen through 100,000-plus artifacts accumulated over 300 years.

Just off of Germantown Avenue, the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion (200 W. Tulpehocken St., 215/438-1861, Thurs.-Sat. noon-4pm, last tour 3:15pm, $7 adult, $5 student), built in 1859, is a classic example of the lavish Victorian architecture popular in the area in the mid-19th century and contains a small exhibit space.

Sights in Lower Germantown

The Germantown White House (5442 Germantown Ave., 215/965-2305), also called the “Deshler-Morris House,” was home to George Washington on two occasions: in 1793 when he came to escape the yellow fever epidemic and again for vacation the following summer. Ironically, his enemy, British general Howe, also stayed here after winning the Battle of Germantown.

With a name straight out of a Harry Potter book, Grumblethorpe (5267 Germantown Ave., 215/843-4820, call ahead, $5 adult, $4 student and senior, $12 family, free under 6) was originally called “John Wister’s Big House” because it had multiple stories. Built in 1744 for wine importer John Wister, it’s a classic example of 18th-century Pennsylvania German architecture. General James Agnew stayed here after being wounded in the Battle of Germantown; he died in the front parlor and his bloodstains remain on the floor.

Stenton (4601 N. 18th St., 215/329-7312, Apr.-Dec. Tues.-Sat. 1pm-4pm and by appt., $5 adult, $4 student and senior, free under 6) is one of the best-preserved Georgian mansions in Philadelphia. Built in 1730 for James Logan, secretary to William Penn, the mansion, grounds, and barn are open for tours. The barn contains an exhibit of agricultural tools dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Philadelphia .

Leave a Reply