As you rumble along the cobblestone avenue into the historic heart of Germantown, the street suddenly opens up to reveal a charming town common that looks more New England than Philadelphia.
Known as Market Square, the half-acre park at Church Lane is bordered by an evocative mix of early American architecture. You can easily imagine Martha Washington haggling over produce brought in by horse wagon from Montgomery County farms when Germantown was home in the 1790s to the summer White House.
Germantown Avenue's Market Square is the kind of formal park you might expect William Penn's planners to have created. But even though the square looks as if it's been around since colonial times, many of its buildings are of a more recent vintage.
The land has been in the public domain since 1703, when Germantown - then an independent municipality - acquired the property for "the common good." A William Britten painting from 1820 shows a wooden shambles, or open-air market hall, in the center of the block. So many farmers used Germantown Avenue to drive their cattle and sheep to market the street was lined with slaughterhouses. Some of the processed meat was probably sold in the square.
But by the 1830s, Germantown's center of commerce had shifted north to Chelten Avenue, near the train station, and the area around the common began to develop into a posh residential neighborhood. In 1883, the square was given a more formal look when a handsome Civil War monument was installed at its center. Five years later, Germantown Presbyterians hired George T. Pearson, noted for his ornate Victorian house designs, to construct an impressive new church: an asymmetrical stone building with a large circular stained-glass window and oversize arched entry. By the 20th century, whatever traces of the square's colonial past had existed were long gone. (The church is now home to the Impacting Your World Christian Center.)
The modern additions didn't sit well with Germantown's elite, according to David R. Contosta, a Chestnut Hill College historian. Fired up by Cold War rhetoric of the 1950s and a desire to reconnect with the values of the American Revolution, they began to re-colonialize Market Square. Victorian houses were replaced with Colonial-style buildings. The Germantown Historical Society, on the southeast corner, was remodeled to look like an early American country inn.
The colonial-izers believed the transformation would turn historic Germantown into a "miniature Williamsburg," said Contosta. But they pushed things too far when they tried to remove the Civil War monument and knock down the church.
Today, the park is a genteel mix of Victorian and 1950s Colonial Revival architecture, but unfortunately it doesn't get much use. Historic Germantown, the group that promotes the area's authentic Colonial buildings, has been trying to program more events in the space. Now that farmers' markets are so popular, Market Square's future may lie in its true past.