A grand Germantown mansion with a fascinating — and bloody — history
Now a six-acre oasis in the middle of a bustling Philadelphia neighborhood, Cliveden is an estate in the suburb of Germantown with a rich, fascinating and bloody history. The mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972 — and, based on what’s happened there, it’s not hard to see why.
In an attempt to avoid the yellow fever outbreaks that plagued Philadelphia during mid- to late 18th century summers, Benjamin Chew purchased 11 acres of land in Germantown and constructed the Cliveden estate between 1763 and 1767.
Born on a Maryland plantation, Chew was the patriarch of one of the largest and latest slave-holding families in Philadelphia. The Chews’ wealth during the 18th and 19th centuries largely came directly or indirectly from slavery.
The Revolutionary War
The Cliveden estate played a major role in the only battle fought within the boundaries of Philadelphia during the American Revolution: the Battle of Germantown.
In the fall of 1777, the British occupied Philadelphia. In an attempt to reclaim the city, Gen. George Washington and at least 11,000 men decided to attack the city from the northwest — right through Germantown.
A skirmish up the road from the Cliveden estate alerted the British that the Americans were approaching. Dozens of British soldiers then holed up in the estate and, over the course of several hours, successfully prevented the Americans from taking the house. More than 1,000 men from both sides were either killed or injured during the intense fighting in battle, and the Americans retreated in defeat.
Don’t miss the so-called “Blood Portrait” on the estate’s second floor. The story goes that a British soldier, wounded fatally during the battle, used his final moments to etch a portrait of a loved one in his own blood on the wall of Cliveden.
And if you want to get even closer to the battle, mark your calendar for the first Saturday of every October, where the Battle of Germantown is reenacted during the Revolutionary Germantown Festival.
Chew sold Cliveden after the Revolutionary War, but repurchased it again in 1797. Chew’s son, Benjamin Chew, Jr. entertained the Marquis de Lafayette at Cliveden in July 1825.
Seven generations of Chews lived at Cliveden until the property was was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1972. All three centuries of the house’s existence are on display at the Cliveden estate today, from musket-ball-pocketed walls to authentic 19th century Louie Vuitton trunks to an equally authentic 1950s kitchen (a result of Samuel Chew V’s attempts to modernize the house for his family).
Upsala, another mansion built across the street after the Revolutionary War, can be rented for functions.
Some of the furnishings in Cliveden are among the few left anywhere from early American woodworking masters James Reynolds, Jonathan Gostelowe and Thomas Affleck.
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