It was a cold December day on my visit to Cliveden in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, but that did not stop my visit to one of many fine properties in Historic Germantown. If you have not visited historic Germantown, i highly recommend checking out the organization that helps oversee the collection of properties under the slogan “freedom’s backyard.” According to their mission, “Germantown is a partnership of 16 extraordinary historic houses, destinations, and museums in Northwest Philadelphia that have joined together to protect, preserve, and share some of Philadelphia’s prized historical assets.
The property is the family home of the Chew family, where Benjamin Chew first built the house in the 1760s and it remained in the family until the 1970s. Cliveden has plenty of provenance and is significant not only for its architecture, but also for events that took place on site during the American Revolution as well as famous men who inhabited the site. Benjamin Chew led the Pennsylvania Judiciary System when both a Colony and Commonwealth, and was also Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania. From his legal mentor was Andrew Hamilton, and through this relationship he inherited Hamilton’s lifelong clients, many of whom were the descendants of William Penn.
Now that you have the context, I’ll take the next 10 minutes of my blog time to share my favorite observations and insights.
- A big problem with many historic homes is the lack of arrival space as well as a visitor center to become oriented with and acquainted with the site, its collections, and how the visitor experience is managed. With most historic homes, as soon as you knock on the front door, your experienced is obligated to begin. No lobby. No nearby bathrooms. No opportunities to look at tour prices and then change your mind if not interested. You’re often committed and don’t know what’s in store unless you’ve visited their website [if they have one], or have learned the experience through word of mouth. Stenton has addressed all of these conditions through a wonderful carriage house-turned visitor center that rivals the nicest ones seen at national historic sites. Complete with video orientation, bathrooms, interpretive panels, and, if I recall, even a gift shop. Amenities like this create a wonderful first impression and more importantly equips me with the necessary knowledge to ask questions, be curious, and glean insights into the subject matter. Also, It makes for a better relation and experience with the tour guide!
- Really cool landscape history! Parts of the Battle of Germantown were fought on the property in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War. I’m told they have great reenactments of this important part of history.
- The property is a dream for historic preservation buffs. Curators of Cliveden have made great efforts to show the differences between the old and new as well as the distinct time periods by simply being honest and transparent about their restoration efforts. By this i mean that they are completely open to talking about and interpreting every little project, paint chip, wall crack, and other imperfections that show change over time. Many historic homes like to hide these elements, but Cliveden makes them part of the narrative. The best example is a current restoration project where we were allowed to see how the technicians are mapping where former walls were placed over time. [see pictures]
- Interactive. Interactive spaces are becoming increasingly popular in museums to help people feel connected with the material in stronger ways. At Cliveden, at the beginning of the tour all guests are to select a pin to wear that represents one of the important characters in Cliveden history. Throughout the tour, the history is told through the lens of these characters and helps bring “aliveness” to the tour experience. This creates almost a role play setting and brings excitement into guest interaction. A great ice breaker and continual conversation starter. I found myself easily connecting with and talking to other strangers on the tour.
- And yes, of course the architecture and collections are great. Definitely needs to be seen in person. I always like how families personalized the home, and loved how the family used a window as a guest book of sorts throughout the years.
If you’re ever in Philly, check out all that Historic Germantown has to offer!