Germantown, an historic neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, is not as well known as some of the city’s more prominent historic attractions, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Yet, as David Young, executive director of Cliveden, our community partner, and enthusiastic tour guide would say, “the long arm of Germantown” is intertwined with just as many threads of American history.
The neighborhood, oriented along Germantown Avenue (or just “the avenue” as it is known locally), creates a particularly forceful sense of place. The weathered, historic look of a locally quarried stone called Wissahickon schist on many of the buildings sharply contrasts with the contemporary fast food restaurants, gas stations, and business signs that now line the streets, a reminder that, despite having a colonial-era built environment on par with Williamsburg, Germantown’s past illuminates the present in very different ways. Home to sites that range from the first North American British paper mill, and an underground railroad stop, the cultural landscape here has the potential to draw out countless stories and experiences. Yet, in part because of a difficult and complex history of race, place, and belonging, Germantown’s preservation, and perseverance, has been, until recently, due more to being overlooked and neglected, rather than intentionally preserved. The past was there, but rarely invoked in a sensitive and effective way to inform the present and future of the neighborhood.
Through our Arts of Citizenship project, we too found ourselves connected to this place, partnering with the staff of Cliveden, an historic house on the northern border of Germantown. After a training with National Park Service staff and a debriefing about our project with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC, we headed to Philadelphia, where, over the course of two and a half days, David, Jason, and Libbie, the core team for Cliveden’s new interpretive plan, taught us much about the significance of Cliveden, past and present. Our direct experience with the materiality of the place (from musket holes in the wall, names etched onto window panes, and photographing the structure, to the less quantifiable experience of being surrounded by the presence of our object of research), challenged us to think about the literal presence of the past through bricks and mortar. Quite literally, Cliveden itself became a historical source, open to research, interpretation, and nuanced meaning like any other.
Completed in 1767, Cliveden was designed as the summer home for Benjamin Chew. In 1972, after centuries of ownership by the Chew family, it was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to be run as a museum for visitors. As a part of the historic landscape, Cliveden has primarily been remembered as the site of the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777 (the battle is reenacted every year), in addition to being a stunning example of late Georgian architecture in the United States.
Less acknowledged, until recently, are the dimensions of slavery, servitude, and labor that made this place, as well as the economic fortunes of the Chew family, function. Cordoned off from the surrounding neighborhood by a stone wall, iron fence, and dense foliage, as well as years of private use, Cliveden has an air of mystery about it, particularly from the perspective of the surrounding community. After years of being disconnected from the changing social and cultural landscape around it, Cliveden seems to constrict and conceal meaning, rather than elucidate it.
So, in addition to the everyday challenges of running an historic site (the air conditioner for the offices was found dismantled, and the copper harvested the day before we arrived), the staff of Cliveden is engaged with the intellectual challenge of redefining what this place can and should mean today, as a part of the cultural landscape of Germantown, some 40 years after it became a publicly oriented feature in the neighborhood. With continuing efforts to update the site’s tours and interpretation, Cliveden’s staff is using history, preservation, and community outreach to transform the meaning of the site today.
Through a collaborative effort, our contribution to this work focuses on research to update the site’s National Historic Landmark nomination. Since the original documentation dates to 1966, and focuses almost exclusively on the 1777 battle, updating it will ensure that official documentation demonstrates, in a complex and rigorous way, what made the site nationally significant (just as other forms of scholarship are revamped and reinterpreted in light of new evidence). Furthermore, the updating process presents opportunities for continued dialogues amongst a range of stakeholders, from neighborhood residents and board members, to the National Trust and Federal Government. In our work so far, it has been interesting, and at times challenging, to participate in discussions between the various organizations, each with its own perspective, that have a stake in our work.
One important lesson we’ve learned on our trip is that relationships between the academy and museums, between preservation organizations, and even the federal government, are not (and need not be) as rigid as we often make them out, and through genuinely collaborative work, such relationships can help illuminate both the past and the present.
In addition to nurturing new skills to communicate between the needs of different organizations, we’ve also found our work requires the well-honed skills of historical research and writing, digging through sources, and finessing the narrative arc and main points of our writing we’ve learned in graduate school. Through our discussions between Cliveden’s staff, historians at the National Park Service and National Trust, we’ve also found this type of historical work begs questions about the role and changing meanings of history as a form of public scholarship.
For example, over the course of our two and a half day visit to Cliveden, our discussions provoked questions, such as: Can the meaning, or reputation, of a place be changed? If so, how does this happen? What is the role, and responsibility, of historic preservation, museums, and intellectual work in revitalizing the social and physical fabric of American cities? And how might reflecting on such roles and responsibilities shape the way we think about our own scholarship?
While we’re still grappling with the constraints and potential of this type of collaborative historical work, we’re excited about the intellectual challenges and rewards that can sprout from cooperative endeavors. From traffic jams on I-95 and cozier-than-expected lodging conditions at a local seminary, to stimulating discussions about the meaning of the past in the present, our trip pulled us from our everyday work, and continues to challenge us to think outside of the scholarship and historical practice we were accustomed to as graduate students at the University of Michigan. The enthusiasm and dedication of the staff drew us in. We too, it seemed, were caught by the long arm of Germantown.