Tuomi’s Time Machine: Historic Intersection

The vibrant intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, 1921. The pic was taken from the northwest corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues, with the shops on the east side of the 5600 block of Germantown visible towards the center of the photograph. The site of the building with the arched windows at the far-left side of the photo would later become that of the C. A. Rowell department store. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/ Historic Germantown

The intersection at Germantown and Chelten has anchored one of Philly’s most fashionable residential and shopping districts over the years

When one thinks of Germantown and its business district, the intersection of Germantown and Chelten avenues may immediately come to mind as it is perhaps the most prominent, well-known intersection in our area. However, it is far from the oldest, with Chelten Avenue being not opened until around 1852. The arrival of Chelten Avenue would alter the character of the area forever, and would help create one of the most important intersections in the entire Philadelphia region.

By the early 1850s, the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad’s branch to Germantown had been open for 20 years, and its arrival meant that center city Philadelphia and Germantown were much more closely connected to each other than ever before. The Railroad’s opening of its depot at the southeast corner of Germantown Avenue and Price Street helped to create an “anchor” around which many businesses would open, in the second half of the 19th century.

However, there were no principal “east west” streets in the vicinity to help with traffic circulation; the opening of Chelten Avenue would help to fill this void. Chelten Avenue was originally opened as Market Street; its unusual 80 foot-width was designed to accommodate a public market which never happened.

Regardless, Chelten Avenue began to develop as a residential street, and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s line to Chestnut Hill in 1884 – now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line – attracted further development. By 1890, West Chelten Avenue was lined with single and twin homes and would remain a fashionable residential street until the end of World War I. It would then undergo a period of redevelopment into a thriving regional shopping district, which continued through World War II and beyond.

Meanwhile, Germantown Avenue had continued to be developed with businesses through the remainder of the 19th century, and the intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenue became the center of much development and investment.

Black caterer John S. Trower clearly noticed the rising prominence of the intersection, as he relocated his catering business from the 100 block of East Chelten Avenue to 5706 Germantown Avenue – just up Germantown Avenue from its intersection with Chelten Avenue – in 1887. His business would thrive there long after his death in 1911; it would last into the mid-1920s, and the success of his business could in part be attributed to Trower’s astute awareness of the development of the area.

The Germantown/Chelten intersection would continue to flourish through the 1960s. The presence of the route 23 trolley on Germantown Avenue and routes J, 26, and 52 on Chelten Avenue would provide easy access to the area and would help it become a regional shopping district, one of the largest in the Philadelphia area. In 1949, the local dry goods store Rowell’s purchased the old Germantown Trust Company building at the southeast corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues. Rowell’s incorporated the back portion of the Trust Company building and opened its department store there. Despite a decline of the intersection and the surrounding business district in the 1970s, the department store remained at the location and flourished.

In 1974 Black entrepreneur Curtis Sisco Sr. purchased the name and inventory of the store from the estate of Clarence A. Rowell and when he did, Cisco became the first Black department store owner in the United States. His department store continued to operate into the 1990s, before it eventually closed. This left a large void at the busy intersection; it was later filled by the arrival of a Walgreen’s pharmacy, which left the location earlier this year.

Note: Historic maps of the area and back issues of the Germantown Crier helped to inform this article. Visit here for more info about the Crier.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

About Alex Bartlett 25 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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