Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Next Cliveden: A New Approach to the Historic Site in Philadelphia 

12-09-2015 17:35

A few years ago in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Upsala, one of the neighborhood’s 13 historic house museums, watched its attendance dwindle along with its endowment as it worked to address deferred maintenance and rising costs. With the difficulties it was facing, the Upsala Foundation sought a merger with its larger neighbor across the street, Cliveden, a Georgian mansion that is a co-stewardship site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Yet Cliveden was facing attendance problems of its own. In spite of its remarkable history, Cliveden has averaged just 3,000 visitors a year.

During discussions about the merger, Cliveden proposed turning Upsala into a visitor center for the historic Germantown neighborhood which is known for its colonial history. But a critical question was posed late in the process, “Why a multimillion dollar visitor center for only 3,000 visitors?” At that moment Cliveden embarked on a period of organizational planning that has resulted in a new mission and a renewed sense of purpose in the community, which now suffers from acute poverty and crime. The effort has involved planning, collaboration, new approaches, and staff changes. It has also involved coordination among staff and board, with sister institutions and other community partners, and across different departments of the National Trust.


Cliveden, a National Historic Landmark, was built as a summer home by prominent colonial jurist Benjamin Chew in 1767. Located on six acres in the heart of Philadelphia’s densely populated Germantown neighborhood, Cliveden was the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown, and home to the Chew family until 1972. During the 1777 battle Cliveden with stood an onslaught, and bullet holes and scars from cannon fire are still visible on the walls. A co-stewardship site of National Trust, Cliveden is managed by a local board of directors. Two floors of exhibit rooms display furnishings, paintings, and decorative arts owned by the Chews, including masterpieces of 18th-century Philadelphia craftsmanship. The museum building also houses additional offices and storage space for its 4 full-time and 22 part-time employees and guides, as well as hosts the Northeast Field Office of the National Trust.

By 2000 declining attendance and dwindling resources had forced Cliveden’s neighbor, Upsala, to seek alternative forms of stewardship. In 2004 Upsala (c. 1798) merged with Cliveden following a planning process. Today Upsala is used on a limited basis for Cliveden’s education initiatives, such as an after-school program and adult education classes, while Cliveden manages the site’s maintenance.

The merger served as a catalyst for change and sparked a long-range planning process which has helped to define Cliveden’s current mission, which emphasizes community revitalization, education, and preservation action.


In 2003 Cliveden commissioned a site master-planning process conducted by the landscape planning firm Olin Partnership and the architectural firm of Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell, and funded by the Heritage Philadelphia Program of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This plan began to assess and articulate the options for the expanded physical capacity of the site. Simultaneous exploration of possible programming directions for the Cliveden/Upsala property involved representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, Cliveden’s staff and board members, funders, and directors of other historic sites.

A two-day planning meeting held in January 2004 and facilitated by museum consultant Chris Mekal, yielded five potential programming models. The Strategic Planning Committee of the Cliveden board spent the spring and summer months of 2004 crafting a plan that pulled the strongest elements from the five models to create a vision for the future. The resulting document, The Next Cliveden: Moving Forward with Our Community and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, approved in December of 2004, charts a dramatically new direction for Cliveden: “Cliveden sees its future in building a closer relationship with its community and with the National Trust for Historic Preservation drawing on the strengths and resources of both to provide leadership to save our diverse historic places and revitalize our community. We believe that allying Cliveden more closely with our community is vital to ensure our own long-term viability and vitality and we hope to provide a model for the development of community revitalization activities for the National Trust.”

In April 2006 Cliveden’s new mission was formally approved: “to help people understand our shared history and motivate them to preserve it by providing access to the rich continuity of history and preservation in one community and family over time, and by offering direction and knowledge about preserving our built heritage and its value.”


The new direction came about partly from Cliveden’s own experience, partly from its community context, and partly from planning underway at the National Trust. Cliveden had attempted to capture tourists who come to Philadelphia, yet the site’s location in northwest Philadelphia, some six miles away from the downtown area and the city’s most popular attractions, have made heritage tourism less than an ideal growth market. Furthermore, a major tourism marketing study for Philadelphia’s Historic Northwest in 2001 indicated that Germantown’s historic house community should focus on more-recent history rather than on the revolutionary and colonial heritage.

Cliveden’s immediate neighborhood is challenged economically. Germantown, founded in 1683 and incorporated into the city in 1854, went through a major population shift in the 1950s. Census records from 2000 show more than 20 percent of the population of 46,000 is below poverty level. Germantown is very historic, with important landmarks in America’s political, industrial, and social history. The history of the community is evident even beyond its 13 historic sites, as many churches, neighborhoods, and schools are centuries old. The 2000 census listed more than 10,000 homes that were built before 1930. While there is a great interest in history within the region, the economic revitalization of the community has been hampered by lack of jobs or investment. Germantown needs more active approaches to economic revitalization within historic preservation.

Since the 1980s the National Trust has built community revitalization programs to leverage resources for creative re-use of neighborhood assets, most notably through the Main Street program. In the late 1990s, the Preservation Development Initiative involved a lot of activity within Philadelphia and seven other cities. Within this climate, the discussions during the Cliveden/Upsala merger wrestled with how to avoid the pitfalls of declining attendance or dwindling interest in colonial history. The consideration of the community’s needs began to emerge more formally, resulting in discussions of how Cliveden/Upsala could become a site that provided resources and focus to the National Trust’s activities, not just in the realm of historic sites but in terms of community revitalization as well.


Cliveden has moved ahead accordingly, trying new approaches to traditional programs and adding entirely new programs as well. Curriculum-specific programming targets fourth- and fifth-grade students in Philadelphia’s public schools; an after-school program in creative writing attracts middle and high-school age students from the city and nearby suburbs who are self-selected to participate. Local community organizations use Cliveden’s Carriage House for evening meetings and events for their members.

A partnership with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has attracted hundreds of local residents to workshops on preservation techniques for older houses.

Thousands of visitors participate in annual events such as the summer Jazz Fest and the community-wide Revolutionary Germantown Festival. On-site surveys have shown that these are predominantly local residents, reflecting a range of economic and racial backgrounds. Many attendees at these events have never toured Cliveden or attended other programs at the site. And Cliveden has been prominently involved with the business community; its director is a founder of the Germantown Avenue business improvement district.

Cliveden has also employed the resources of the National Trust, actively working with the community revitalization department and with the Northeast Field Office. Cliveden is working with the National Trust’s Department of Community Revitalization and a neighboring community development corporation to implement a revitalization plan two blocks away from Cliveden.

Cliveden has moved forward by collaborating with partners both traditional (other historic sites) and non-traditional (community development corporations). Its new approach has meant providing the community with use of the site for everything from meeting space for youth programs of the local police district to storage space for the sidewalk sweeping equipment of the business improvement district. Bringing National Trust resources where appropriate has been the rule, such as with board development consultants and community revitalization planners. In many ways the synergy among the departments of the National Trust uniquely positions Cliveden to put more of the Trust’s programs into action in the Germantown Community.


The full support of Cliveden’s board of directors has been essential in bringing about this change of direction. Cliveden was well prepared to make substantive changes, and the board was able to move from the planning process to community focus in a manner engaged by board members, staff, and committees alike. Conducting a search for a new director made the board articulate its new vision and hire accordingly. Community support has been strong, with three different community development corporations assisting on Cliveden projects. The other historic sites of Germantown have contributed with a 2007 planning grant for the consortium of sites (called Historic Germantown Preserved), which has provided excellent input from the local community.

There are several other encouraging signs of success. While museum visitation has remained consistent at 3,000, the number of people served has increased by over 40 percent in the last two years. Donations, grants, and memberships in Cliveden have increased, with sponsorships and business memberships indicating the support of some community partners. Ongoing evaluation will continue to be important, particularly since attendance will not tell the full story of Cliveden’s activities.

One surprise from Cliveden’s first years under the new long-range plan is the “as well” factor. Cliveden’s role in the community is not simply one of either-or: Cliveden cannot be either a traditional house museum or doing more community programming. Cliveden has to be both.

It still has to perform the traditional duties at a high level, such as scientifically preserving the buildings and offering the most up-to-date interpretation on tours. The work plans and priorities each year reflect movement on both the traditional museum as well as the community initiatives.

Cliveden’s new approach is building an organization that transcends the traditional house museum model of the “velvet rope tour” for visitors. The plan is based on the belief that long-term sustainability for Cliveden lies more in community engagement than in tourism. Four years into the long-range plan, the response has been encouraging, and, given the issues facing historic house museums across the country, the experiences of Cliveden and Upsala may be helpful for other historic sites finding traditional approaches challenged by daunting contemporary concerns.

Publication Date: Spring 2008


Author(s):David W. Young