Street Sheet: Germantown Avenue

A Brief History of one of Philly’s Most Historic Avenues 

Germantown Avenue is one of the most recognizable streets in Philadelphia, and for good reason. Running diagonally, Germantown Avenue weaves and winds in a northwest direction for 6 miles from Center City through Chestnut Hill. 

Culturally, Germantown Avenue is a stage of diversity. It moves through neighborhood after neighborhood, ever shifting, displaying, and celebrating the many cultures of Philadelphia.

Historically, it’s one of the richest roads in the United States. From its beginnings as a Lenape footpath, through its construction in the 1680s as the main road to the borough of Germantown, up to today, Germantown Avenue has seen its fair share of America’s journey over the last three centuries. Fortunately, it is still alive today to tell its remarkable story. 

Let’s take a stroll through space and time down Germantown Avenue.

Pre 1682: Leni Lenape Origins

Traditional Lenape-style Wigwam, photo via Flickr/Matt Green

Long before the German pilgrims made their settlement, today’s Germantown Avenue was an Indian footpath known as The Great Road. Strong diplomatic prosperity among the Lenape people and early European Settlers allowed for commerce and travel along the path. Sparked by Penn’s 1683 treaty, the long peace would last for nearly three-quarters of a century, ceasing with a massacre at Penn’s Creek in 1755.

1752: Germantown White House, a Refuge From Yellow Fever

Germantown White House, photo by Jack Boucher of HABS

Also known as the Deshler-Morris House (Deshler was its first owner in 1752, and Morris was its last owner before donating it to the National Park Service in 1948), Germantown White House, located at 5442 Germantown Avenue, is among the street’s most historically significant landmarks. During his presidency, George Washington himself made residency there twice.

His first stay was in November of 1793, as a quarantined refuge away from the yellow fever-plagued Philadelphia. During that month, he and his cabinet conducted important matters of national business, most notably arguing on the young country’s position over the war between France and Britain. The following summer, Washington would vacation at the residence with his family and four slaves, to escape the heat of Philadelphia. 

1802: America’s Second Turnpike

Carriage on Germantown Avenue in the 19th Century. Courtesy of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society

From its construction until 1802, Germantown Avenue was dubbed the worst road in America— dusty, muddy, and nothing less than a nightmare for the many travelers and merchants who used it on a regular basis on their way to conduct business in Philadelphia. It’s said that wagons and horses were often stuck in mud to a point so severe (especially in Fairhill), that the horses would sometimes need to be put down. Trips to town would take hours upon hours. Despite the many homes and businesses that popped up along the avenue, the street’s issues went ignored. Finally, in 1802, Germantown Avenue became America’s second turnpike, and was paved. Toll houses were installed every five miles, and from there, Germantown Avenue urbanized rapidly.

Circa 1805: Johnson House and the Underground Railroad

John Johnson House

Well-known for their pacificism and outspoken anti-slavery ideals, it’s no surprise that the home of a prominent Quaker family on Germantown Avenue served as a key stop on the Underground Railroad. Along with several others, Samuel Johnson offered his home to escaped slaves heading north for freedom. He and his wife, Jennet, offered safe refuge, food and fresh clothing to the slaves, before sending them on their way north. It’s speculated that Harriet Tubman herself visited the home. 

1926: The Beury Building, Post-Industrial Decline, and Modern Redevelopment

Photo via Flickr/Michelle Kinsey Bruns

Making our way down in space and time a few miles from the Germantown White House and Johnson House, we reach the significant intersections of Broad Street, Erie Avenue, and Germantown Avenue. In the Art Deco age, the most prominent landmark of that intersection would have been the 14-story National Bank of North Philadelphia, also known as the Beury Building, after the bank’s first president.

Often compared to the Divine Lorraine in its grandeur, style, and magnitude, the Beury Building’s story follows a similar trajectory. Designed by William H. Lee, it stood proud and prominently for decades, yet eventually fell victim to post-industrial blight.  For modern Philadelphians, the Beury building is likely not best remembered as a gorgeous and grand work of Art Deco architecture, but rather as a decrepit mass, complete with a huge display of graffiti, Boner 4ever, visible to all travelers down Broad Street. However, like the Divine Lorraine, the Beury Building is waking up from its hibernation, as the set of one of Philadelphia’s most notable real estate developments.

2012: Philly Painting Adds Color to a Corridor

Muhammad Ali Khalid [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Traveling a few more miles toward Center City, today’s Germantown Avenue gives travelers an undeniable glimpse of the remnants of a post-industrial decline that afflicts North Philadelphia. Yet, signs of revival are ever-present on one colorful stretch of the street. Around its intersection at Lehigh Avenue lives Philly Painting, a collaboration between local business owners, Mural Arts, and the famed Dutch artists, Haas & Hahn. In 2012 they teamed up to paint a large stretch of buildings with vibrant colors, adding life to the street, and bringing community members together through a project aimed to kickstart a neighborhood transformation.

Make your way down from Philly Painting, and you’ll see a rapid change in neighborhoods and culture. From North Philadelphia and Fairhill, Germantown Avenue weaves its way past Norris Square, into Olde Kensington and Ludlow, finally terminating on the borders of Northern Liberties, Fishtown and the Delaware River— not far from where William Penn made his peace treaty with the Lenape Indian’s who originated the road. 

Today, the landscape of Germantown Avenue’s southern terminus displays a vibrant, thriving Northern Liberties, full of historic houses and up-and-coming developments, beloved old and new restaurants, parks, businesses, and culture.

In its three centuries of existence, a lot has changed along Germantown Avenue, yet it continues to reflect the city’s commercial and economic diversity—from prosperous Chestnut Hill, to revitalized Northern Liberties and everywhere in between. As it winds through neighborhood upon neighborhood, Germantown Avenue tells the story of Philadelphia through its architecture, the people who occupy those spaces, their ancestors, and the events that have taken place within its boundaries.

All that adds to Germantown Avenue’s undeniable aura, making it truly one of America’s greatest streets.

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