Germantown Avenue, stretching from North Philadelphia through Chestnut Hill, is one of the oldest streets in the country. Often referred to as a microcosm of the city, its geographic range through the city reflects Philadelphia’s own socioeconomic spectrum.
Being home to many sites of historical significance — the Deshler-Morris House, where George Washington lived; the Johnson House, a station on the Underground Railroad; and the Cliveden, where the Battle of Germantown took place, to name a few — hasn’t shielded the avenue from changing over the years.
The area that now encompasses the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods of Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill was formerly known as Germantown Township.
For archivist Alex Bartlett, the ways the area has stayed the same and changed are fascinating.
“Even though it is amazing to see how some areas of the old Germantown Township have changed over the years, it is equally amazing — and somewhat comforting — to see how other areas have remained so stable and unchanged over the years,” he said.
In the 1960s, for example, the Rowell’s department store that stood at the corner of Chelten and Germantown avenues was an iconic site in the neighborhood. So were Vernon Park, the Founder’s Monument, the Cliveden, the Route 23 trolley line and Woolworth’s.
“Happily, most of the views one saw along Germantown Avenue in the mid-1960s are still there today, though in an altered form,” said Bartlett.
An easy-to-spot “altered form” is that it is now the Route 23 bus that can be seen barreling down Germantown Avenue.
After a “ghost town” bout in the 1980s, Bartlett said he is happy to see fewer unoccupied buildings along the avenue today, though a great number of towering vacancies still remain, including the now-shuttered Germantown High School, Town Hall and the YWCA.
“I am hoping [investors] will see our history as a boon to both tourism and our local economy, and hope that they will invest in — and stay in — the community for many years to come,” he said.