Preservation Victory

At long last, Germantown’s Urban Village officially joins the historic ranks of Philadelphia.

As anyone who lives in Northwest Philly can tell you, some of the city’s most significant history is here — especially in Germantown, which was its own thriving little township buzzing with craftsmen and cottage industries, where raw materials from across the region would be processed into finished goods for local markets.

Founded in 1683 on land from William Penn himself, Germantown was a diverse and welcoming community, home of the first anti-slavery protest and site of one of the largest engagements of the Revolutionary War. Big Wigs like John Wister, Benjamin Chew, William Rittenhouse, and even George Washington walked these same streets back in the day, while countless fugitives fleeing slavery found freedom and safe passage here. In recent times, all this great historic architecture was vulnerable to blight and gentrification, but now a newly-established “Germantown Urban Village District” helps ensure this legacy remains for all Philadelphians to appreciate.

Nearly six decades have passed since the National Park Service first recognized the significance of our Colonial-era buildings, crowning them with the prestigious title of a National Historic Landmark. Unfortunately, the NPS distinction doesn’t come with any local safeguards. Indeed, the specter of demolition has loomed large over Germantown lately, with several significant losses. This February, however, neighbors celebrated a monumental win for the community: a new historic district that not only acknowledges but actively protects our shared heritage.

Thanks to local preservationist and Germantown neighbor Oscar Beisert (who wrote the nomination), The Philadelphia Historical Commission unanimously approved adding , which protects 65 properties rich in history, spanning more than 250 years from our colonial roots to our days as a bustling industrial hub. The district, though smaller than some, is mighty in significance, showcasing architectural styles from the Federal and Georgian to the Colonial Revival. “It’s really a microcosm of the history of Germantown,” Beisert said.

“The district tells the story of various waves of settlement and immigration,” said Tuomi Forrest, executive director of Historic Germantown (who partnered with Beisert on the nomination).

Germantown Urban Village Historic District is a testament to the neighborhood’s vibrant history. It includes the bustling Market Square, once a rustic gathering spot for marketing, political activity, and public gatherings. Notably, it’s adjacent to the Deshler-Morris House, aka the “Germantown White House”: a residence that hosted President George Washington during the summers of 1793 and 1794, when the government temporarily relocated here during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

The district’s creation is a bright spot of hope and pride for the community. It’s not just about preserving buildings; it’s about maintaining the soul of Germantown and ensuring that the stories of those who lived, loved, and worked here before us are not forgotten. From the homes of prominent families and mill workers to the treasured landmarks like old family friends — each building has a story to tell.

What makes this designation especially meaningful is the collective voice of the community in support of it. Longtime residents, homeowners, and local historians came together, recognizing the importance of holding onto our city’s history here. Finally, formally it’s official:  yes, our past is important! And now future generations of Philadelphians will be able to find this out themselves, first-hand.

As we look to the future, we’re reminded that this victory is about more than just bricks and mortar. It’s about the spirit of Germantown, the strength of the community, and the shared commitment to celebrating our city’s history. The Germantown Urban Village Historic District is a vivid reflection of our past, present, and future. It represents our resolve to keep the history of this beautiful neighborhood alive for generations to come.

This article is a summary of Aaron Moselle’s excellent article for WHYY originally published February 12, 2024 and printed in March’s edition of The Local paper though a N.I.C.E. Shared Content agreement. 

Historic Germantown is a partnership of 18 extraordinary houses, museums and destinations in Northwest Philadelphia organized to protect, preserve and share some of our city’s most prized historical assets.

Historic Germantown’s Library and Archives include an incredible wealth of fascinating documents and publications — lots you can view online, and also available in-person and even via mail. Over 5,000 photos plus books, church records, deeds, scrapbooks and maps going way back to colonial times. Open Tuesdays (9AM -1PM) and Thursdays (1PM – 5PM), contact office for Sunday hours or additional assistance.

For more information about what YOU can do to help Historic Preservation in Philadelphia, visit keepingphiladelphia.org, a local effort to identify, evaluate, and successfully nominate properties to Philadelphia’s Register of Historic Places.

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them below in the Comments.

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