Using History to Activate a Neighborhood Green Space

October 5, 2017, Department, by Carolyn G. Wallace

2017 October Future Leaders Using History to Activate Neighborhood Green Space 410

The Germantown neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia combines a diverse population with historic homes and easy access to lush green space. Founded in 1683 by 13 families from Crefeld, Germany, Germantown’s manmade and natural environments reflect its diverse history.

In the 18th century, Germantown was dotted with country homes to which the elites escaped the heat and disease in Philadelphia. The 19th century brought modernization, with the first train line in 1832, followed by industrialization and factories for textiles. A bustling commercial corridor during the early 20th century, the neighborhood, today, retains pieces from each period of its past. Occupying an entire city block, Cliveden, like Germantown, has a long and diverse history. Featuring a Georgian summer home completed in 1767 for the wealthy Chew family, the property is also a 5.5-acre green space that was the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown in 1777. It remained in the family for more than 200 years until opening as a museum in 1973 as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Interpreting this landscape to a diverse neighborhood requires changes in thinking, programming and accessibility; Cliveden is using history to engage the public with its physical environment.

Moving Past ‘The Battle’

The traditional interpretation at Cliveden focused heavily on the Chew family, the Battle of Germantown and the fine furnishings owned by the family. Since 1994, research into the Chew family papers held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania revealed nine plantations in Maryland and Delaware and a larger history of slave-holding and servitude. With this knowledge, and to make the history of the site relevant to an ethnically and economically diverse community, Cliveden embarked on The Emancipating Cliveden Project, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, to tell a more inclusive and authentic story. Focus group feedback during the project shared many insights, including that “Cliveden is a space that, at first glance, seems very closed off from the public.” The project started to address this issue through changes to the guided tour and use of the Carriage House Visitor Center, in addition to the overall programming vision and ways to engage people who just visit the property and its grounds without taking a tour. Preserved as a shrine to the founding of America, Cliveden has become a forum for the nation’s need to understand what “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” mean today.

Telling New Stories, Inside and Out

Cliveden’s tours and programs aim to tell the many stories of the people who lived and worked at Cliveden, and how they used the physical environment from the 1760s to the 1970s. Recent research and architectural archeology in the 1767 kitchen dependency led to a deeper understanding of the work yard that is now included on the guided tour. Directly behind the main house and between two service buildings, the kitchen dependency and the wash house, the work yard served as a space for cooking, laundry, livestock and the everyday work of 18th-and 19th-century life. The last owners of Cliveden installed a terrace in this space in the 1960s. Standing in the work yard to discuss the changes to landscape and built environment helps visitors see themselves in the many stories of Cliveden. 

Many people experience the grounds during one of the two community festivals — Mt. Airy Day and the Revolutionary Germantown Festival — that include reenactments of the Battle of Germantown. Both events open the  gates and property to thousands of visitors, many for the first time. In addition to tours of the museum, activities for children and adults provide opportunities to engage the history in an outdoor space. These activities feature diverse narratives of African-Americans, women and stories from the 20th century. Enjoying these activities in a space where these things happened brings a sense of relevance to the content.  

The landscape is also a backdrop for Liberty to Go to See, the award-winning dramatic event that explores the lives of three generations of the Chew family and its staff, enslaved and free. The first scene takes place on the front steps of the main house where visitors are asked to imagine Cliveden as it was in the 18th century with Benjamin Chew (1722–1810):

He does not see what we see now. He sees a rich and prosperous country estate. A real gentleman’s residence. Far away from the summer filth and disease of Philadelphia.

Actors walk through the wooded grounds, illustrating the work done by enslaved workers on the estate and provoking audiences to consider the difficult history of the site from their first encounter of the landscape. During the final scene, the narrator, James Smith, a freed African coachman and production narrator, walks off toward the tree-lined rear of the property, alluding to his death. In both the introduction and conclusion, the landscape sets the stage for the production.

A Welcoming Environment

The wider interpretation makes the community feel welcome. Since 2010, more people use the grounds as a park where they walk their dogs, play with children and picnic. The number of people engaging with the site increased from 10,000 in 2007 to 24,000 last year. Meanwhile, new partnerships with community institutions help neighbors engage with the physical environment. Project Learn School, a private K-8 institution located one block from Cliveden, activates the space as students use the front yard as a playground and the kindergarten classes use the space every Wednesday morning as part of their curriculum. Local Boy Scout Troop 358 completed Eagle Scout projects to help repaint the exterior fence, clean out the kitchen dependency and clean up the perimeter landscape. The variety of uses takes Cliveden beyond the sacred battlefield to an open community space.

Future Goals

The current programming only scratches the surface for ways to use history to activate Cliveden’s 5.5 acres. Feedback from program evaluations and focus groups helps structure research as Cliveden continues to contemplate new ways to share the history of the site. Self-guided tours and exterior signage, both inside the property and on the fence, will create opportunities for visitors to explore the property on their own, using site maps that share a broader view of the former battlefield landscape. Cliveden plans to undertake a cultural landscape study to inform further interpretation and preservation of the site. Activating the green space helps more people see themselves in the diverse history of the place.

Carolyn G. Wallace is the Education Director for Cliveden of the National Trust (cwallace@cliveden.org).