Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
By 1900 — the year the Detroit Photographic Company published this print—Cliveden had enjoyed a century of prominence because of its association with the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Library of Congress

By 1900 — the year the Detroit Photographic Company published this print — Cliveden had enjoyed a century of prominence because of its association with the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Library of Congress

Fifty years ago on October 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the federal government’s first official and all-encompassing policy designed to preserve and protect the nation’s irreplaceable historic, cultural, architectural and archaeological sites. The act spurred citizens throughout the country to actively embrace historic preservation (see “Before and After the Act: Historic Preservation in Pennsylvania,” Winter 2016). One family in Pennsylvania, the Chews, known in lofty social realms from Prouts Neck to Palm Beach and west to Chicago and Santa Barbara, made it a goal to preserve their own historic home Cliveden, in Germantown, approximately six miles from the center of Philadelphia.

Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) – jurist, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and family patriarch – engaged Mennonite master carpenter Jacob Knorr to build a commodious summer house over the course of four years, from 1763 to 1767. The house was necessary for the family’s health as yellow fever plagued Philadelphians in the 18th century, and their only recourse was to move from the city during the humid, sticky summer months.

Today, Cliveden stands as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the county, praised by architectural historians and critics. Even more unusual, it remained a private family home until 1972, when it was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With the exception of two decades, when the house had been sold by Chew in 1777 because of extensive damage it suffered during the Battle of Germantown (repurchased by him in 1797), the stately house remained the property of several generations of Chews through 209 years. During the family’s ownership, the battle of October 11, 1777, waged during the Philadelphia Campaign of the American Revolution, played out on the site. Cannonballs riddled the building’s exterior and horrified a subsequent visitor to Cliveden who described it as “looking like a slaughterhouse.” Of the 152 American soldiers who died at Germantown, 70 were killed on Cliveden’s grounds.

Cliveden was subjected to intense bombardment during the Battle of Germantown and bears the scars of cannonballs and gunfire, as seen in this photo on the house’s string course. Photo by John Boyd Henderson

Cliveden was subjected to intense bombardment during the Battle of Germantown and bears the scars of cannonballs and gunfire, as seen in this photo on the house’s string course.
Photo by John Boyd Henderson

Generations of Chews welcomed luminaries to Cliveden during its history. Benjamin’s son, Benjamin Jr. (1758-1844), hosted the Marquis de Lafayette on the morning of July 20, 1825, as part of the French general’s 1824-25 grand tour of the United States, when Americans feted him as a hero. “The reception is recognized as the first time a Philadelphia residence was opened as a museum,” says David W. Young, current executive director of Cliveden. “There were about 3,000 well-wishers who came that day. The family welcomed one and all, and the party ended only because the larder of liquor and provisions had been consumed.” Years later, to commemorate the momentous event, Samuel “Centennial Sam” Chew (1832-87) commissioned American artist Edward Lamson Henry (1841-1919) to create a painting entitled The Lafayette Reception, completed in early 1874. He also commissioned Henry to paint The Attack on Chew’s House during the Battle of Germantown, 1777, which the artist began in fall 1874. Both paintings still hang in Cliveden’s magnificent entrance hall.

Benjamin Jr. suffered severe financial distress because his siblings and children proved inept in managing the family fortune. He also chose to not leave Cliveden to his son, Benjamin “Bad Ben” Chew (1793-1864).

Bad Ben’s nickname was certainly justified, but Machiavellian would better describe him. After learning he would not inherit Cliveden from his late father, he launched a campaign of deceit and duplicity against family members. He attempted to persuade his mother Katherine Banning Chew (1775-1855) to ignore her other children in his favor. He forbade executors and heirs to examine his father’s papers in settling his estate. Bad Ben even coerced his mother to assist him in denying access to documents, stalling settlement for years.

Even at an early age, Bad Ben was the consummate troublemaker, frequently lashing out against fellow students and teachers at St. Mary’s College of Baltimore, a boarding school he attended with his brother Samuel. Even worse, he began pilfering rare objects and family heirlooms from the Chew House and selling them. During the nearly two decades of bitter legal battles over the disposition of his father’s estate, he often appeared in court, vocal and belligerent. His chronic drinking made him unreasonable and dangerous, perhaps even psychotic. He physically threatened his sister, Anne Sophia Penn Chew (1805-92), on more than one occasion. The family ultimately disinherited him. He remained estranged until his dying day.

Katherine bequeathed to her errant son furnishings from the house that he took to his own residence, Hermit Spring, in nearby Roxborough. He also began digging up trees and shrubs from the gardens at Cliveden to change the property’s appearance. He intended to dispose of the classical statuary on the grounds, which had witnessed the epic 1777 battle, but was thwarted by the family. Upon his death in August 1864 Bad Ben left the family heirlooms to Mary Bowman, his housekeeper. Mary died the following month and “her people,” as later described by his sister Anne, descended upon Hermit Spring and hauled away its contents. Anne recounted that possibly as many as several tons of paper and books were taken to a paper mill. Pieces of furniture were sold by the venerable firm of Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction house, established in 1805 in Philadelphia.

Despite her investment of considerable money, time and energy on Cliveden, Anne Sophia Penn Chew worried constantly that her family would think she failed in her mission to preserve it. courtesy cliveden, a historic site of the national trust for historic preservation

Despite her investment of considerable money, time and energy on Cliveden, Anne Sophia Penn Chew worried constantly that her family would think she failed in her mission to preserve it.
Courtesy Cliveden, a Historic Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Bad Ben’s sister Anne, whom her father called a “dear and excellent daughter,” realized Cliveden was a national treasure and tackled the daunting challenges of preserving the house, restoring the grounds, and finding and reclaiming valuables her brother had stolen. But the efforts to preserve and protect the property meteorically rose and fell with the Chew family’s chronically unstable economic status.

Upon moving to Cliveden in 1857 Anne found the great house had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. She embarked on refurbishing the large public rooms on the first floor. She owned a fractional share of the house and lacked the funds needed to properly correct the cosmetic and structural deficiencies. Nevertheless, she bravely continued with repairs to both the interior and the exterior. Three years later in 1860 Philadelphia lawyer, essayist and diarist Sidney George Fisher (1809-71), known for his witticisms as well as his snide comments, visited Cliveden twice and kindly portrayed it as “a fine picturesque old mansion with large rooms, but house and grounds woefully out of repair.”

Sensitive to the importance of protecting the architectural integrity of Cliveden, Anne carefully embarked on major projects, ensuring there would be no adverse alterations to mar the house’s appearance. Rather than destroy Cliveden by attempting to add only the barest of necessities in the main house, she added a two-story addition to the rear, making sure it could not be seen by passersby from the front. She installed an advanced heating system and gas lighting in the addition. Her other improvements included installing 23 new glass window panes, painting woodwork in the parlor and dining room, and plastering holes and cracks in various bedrooms. Her boldest move was to hang wallpaper in the dining room. She also purchased a small stove for the dining room, a heating grate for the parlor and an airtight oven for her chamber. And yet there was so much more work to be done.

While Anne prioritized projects based on available funds, she was joined at Cliveden by her nephew Centennial Sam, third son of her brother Henry. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia to practice law and became a steadfast helpmate to his aunt. They were so close that their relationship was compared to that of a mother and son. Together they worked hard to preserve and, when possible, update the mansion.

Centennial Sam’s impending marriage in 1861 to Mary Johnson Brown (1839-1927), a daughter of wealthy Philadelphia dry goods merchant and textile manufacturer David Sands Brown, prompted further improvements to the house, including painting and plastering. (The Brown family’s expansive country estate, Vanor, in Radnor, Delaware County, eventually devolved to the Chews.) The lack of potable water had plagued Anne, and in the mid-1860s she invested nearly $200 to lay a total of 250 feet of cast-iron pipe and construct a cedar hydrant. Although she spent much money on improving Cliveden’s interior, she did not neglect the grounds; she hired workers to plant a vegetable garden and later flowers and shrubs.

By 1867, a decade after taking up residency at Cliveden, Anne realized that despite the various projects undertaken to stabilize the house, the roofs on the main house and the kitchen dependency had been long neglected and required serious repairs and rebuilding of chimneys.

A fulltime occupant of Cliveden, Anne devoted her life to keeping the house in good repair, usually discussing work and contracts with her nephew. Centennial Sam, while not a historian, began collecting materials associated with Cliveden and the Chews. In the 1850s and 1860s he engaged photographers to record the house and grounds. He was determined to raise attention for what he considered a “shrine.” Centennial Sam ordered reproductions of Henry’s paintings and freely distributed them, rendering Cliveden a national monument.

Mary was devastated by Centennial Sam’s early death at age 55 in January 1887. Anne felt bereft not only because she dearly loved her nephew, but also because he wisely managed what money she had. Her greatest worry was how to keep the ancestral home in the family on such a meager income. Before her death in 1892, however, Anne embarked on several maintenance projects such as painting the exteriors of the main house and the washhouse and keeping up the gardens. Even before her demise, Cliveden’s future was being questioned – and not by family members.

Cliveden was subjected to intense bombardment during the Battle of Germantown and bears the scars of cannonballs and gunfire, as seen in this photo on the house’s string course. Photo by John Boyd Henderson

A current view from the rear of the house looking toward the grand entrance hall and the large front doors.
Photo by John Boyd Henderson

In 1889, acting on behalf of the Common Council of Germantown, Thomas Millhouse wrote in a letter to Mary, “It has always seemed to me that some way might be found by which [the house] could be placed on the city Plan by an act of Council, and yet differed to remain absolutely yours as long in the future as you might prefer.” Mary’s response is unknown but the outcome is obvious: The property remained in the family for another 83 years. Nine years after she received Millhouse’s proposal family ownership of Cliveden was again in peril.

According to an article appearing in Philadelphia’s Public Ledger of June 2, 1897, a member of Congress introduced a bill to take over Cliveden and part of the property directly opposite on Germantown Avenue, Upsala, for a national park, but the Chews were resolute and united in their dedication to preserving Cliveden as a family home and national landmark, despite the financial and emotional costs.

The family rebuffed the state legislature and Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker in 1903 after lawmakers had delivered a bill to his office appropriating $10,000 for the erection of a monument commemorating the Battle of Germantown. A newspaper predicted, “It is likely that an obstacle will be encountered in the person of Mrs. Samuel Chew, owner of the old Chew mansion.” The Chews once again prevailed.

Mary’s son Samuel Chew IV (1871-1919) inherited his grandaunt Anne’s property when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. He returned in 1893 but preferred living and practicing law in Philadelphia. His mother and sisters occupied the historic Germantown house.

In her 1993 book Cliveden: The Chew Mansion in Germantown, Nancy E. Richards emphasized, “All matters affecting Cliveden hinged on the matter of money.” Many, even her own family, believed Mary to be wealthy, but the cost of maintaining Cliveden, Vanor and a townhouse in Philadelphia, in addition to repeated requests for money from her children, strained her resources. “Money was also at the heart of Sam’s proposal in 1906 to set up a trust fund to administer the property he and his mother owned,” Richards continued. “The purpose of the ‘Cliveden Trust’ was to ensure that the property remained in the family.” When Samuel was unable to satisfy a bill for laying sewers on Chew Street, the city threatened to place a lien on the property. Mary paid her son’s bill, but he was terrified by the thought of losing the family home. Inevitably, he turned to his mother for financial assistance. At first Mary balked, but realizing her money might spare the historic house, she eventually acceded.

In a lengthy letter to his mother in late 1915 Samuel again broached the subject of Cliveden’s future. His lack of income prompted a demand to know what financial arrangements she had made. “I am anxious about the future of Cliveden – the taxes will increase every year – and I don’t want to find myself in a position where I would have to make any sacrifices of any kind whatsoever – like finding myself in such a quandary for money that I would have to mortgage it.” He closed his letter with a plea: “At least help me feel fairly safe about Cliveden.” Mary’s reply was encouraging; she asked her son to help manage her finances and make arrangements to preserve Cliveden.

The fate of Cliveden weighed heavily on Samuel. The following year he drafted a will in which he named a friend, Thomas Ridgway, as trustee of his “house and land known as Cliveden,” and making him responsible for maintaining the property, paying taxes and undertaking necessary repairs. He also directed that Ridgway offer the real estate to family members for a reasonable sum. If no Chews came forward, Samuel directed Ridgway to “convey the … property to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in trust to maintain the same forever, without material alteration of house and grounds, as a memorial of my ancestor, Chief Justice Chew, and as an example of colonial architecture for the benefit and inspection of the public at such times and under such regulations as may be deemed fit by the proper authorities.” Samuel then sailed for Europe to serve with the Red Cross Ambulance Corp during World War I. Before he left, however, he wrote his mother complaining about the deplorable condition of both house and grounds, accompanied by a catalog of work that needed to be done sooner rather than later.

 

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) deemed the house and related buildings and structures in the 5.5-acre parklike setting important enough to undertake documentation that is now available online from the Library of Congress. Library of Congress

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) deemed the house and related buildings and structures in the 5.5-acre parklike setting important enough to undertake documentation that is now available online from the Library of Congress.

Upon returning home in 1919, Samuel was shocked – the property had become even more “sloppy, untidy, tumbledown.” In a letter to family members written in March 1919 to rally support, he mentioned it would be “much better to present it to the Government, National or State, or Historical Society. . . . In fact, I consider it a disgrace.”

Samuel died at 48 and several months later, in July, his will proved to be complicated. Portions of his property passed on to his brother Benjamin’s four-year-old son Samuel Chew V. Elizabeth “Bessy” Brown Chew (1863-1958) served as guardian of the estate until 1936, when Samuel came of age at 21. Although her official guardianship of the estate ceased in 1936, she continued to reside at Cliveden until her death.

One of the first projects Bessy undertook was remodeling the rear of the washhouse, which had deteriorated over the years. No major redecoration had occurred since her mother’s refurbishment in 1894 nearly 40 years earlier; by the 1930s it could no longer be avoided. To save exterior elements, Bessy hired a worker to paint the house’s woodwork and the washhouse. She next tackled replacing the antiquated heating system with a forced-air furnace.

Cognizant of Cliveden’s history, Bessy allowed sightseers to stroll the parklike grounds, but only family and close friends were welcomed inside – except during the sesquicentennial observance of the Battle of Germantown, held October 1-4, 1927. The celebration attracted more than 500 spectators, and the family welcomed visitors “who wished to see the glories of the historic mansion.” The Chews even displayed the 18th-century coach used by their patriarch, the chief justice.

As the 1950s dawned, Bessy was nearly blind and spent most of her days upstairs. Without her constant supervision, the interior once again suffered deterioration by neglect. The buildings on the site also fell into grave disrepair, the most serious of which was the roof of the large carriage house. Upon her death in the summer of 1958, she left her considerable interests in Cliveden to Samuel “Sam” Chew V (1915-89), who had previously inherited shares of the estate of his uncle Benjamin. Bessy’s bequest made Sam the majority owner of the real estate.

 

Sam Chew V, the last owner-occupant of Cliveden, and his wife Babbie. Courtesy Sam Chew Jr.

Sam Chew V, the last owner-occupant of Cliveden, and his wife Babbie. Courtesy Sam Chew Jr.

Even though he had inherited the house lot decades earlier, Sam and his first wife, Barbara “Babbie” Dale Williams Chew (1921-63) lived at Vanor until after Bessie’s death. Moving to Germantown was attractive to the couple; the house was grander and more impressive than Vanor. There were many challenges to living at Cliveden, though; the house had not been updated since the 1930s. Nevertheless, Sam approached the renovation with conservatism, even caution, but he did consider the needs of his wife and their young children, Sammy and Anne.

Neither Sam nor Babbie were slavish to history, and they were not purists when it came to making alterations to Cliveden. Sam asked a contractor for estimates to correct inadequacies, including closets, bathrooms, laundry facilities and the kitchen. He also requested the creation of a small apartment for servants in the kitchen wing.

As he reviewed working plans for the updates, Sam accepted the need to balance Cliveden’s architectural integrity and his attempts to modernize it. To better understand how to proceed, he consulted museum professionals and solicited advice from Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969), whose former home in Delaware, Winterthur, opened as a museum in 1951. At a meeting in early 1959 at Cliveden, du Pont encouraged Sam to focus on the Colonial period, keeping only objects and furnishings dating to the late 18th and very early 19th centuries. Sam and Babbie sold or gave away Victorian-era furnishings that did not meet du Pont’s criteria. A nephew remembered Sam taking “tons of junk from the cellar and burning it.”

Modernization in 1959, including renovation of the cottage, totaled $56,500 ($460,370 in 2016). News of the work spread quickly. Articles on the house were featured in The Magazine Antiques, Vogue and National Geographic. Although Sam and Babbie encouraged publicity for Cliveden and its furnishings, they had no intention of opening their home to the public, but they did enjoy showing it to individuals representing historic house museums, preservation organizations, and historical and cultural institutions. Sam was exceptionally entrepreneurial and enterprising, and after remodeling the carriage house to serve as headquarters of his successful advertising agency, he relied on its cache to give the firm a sense of permanence and presence. He used the horse stalls in the building as small office spaces, similar to cubicles.

 

Sam Chew Jr. is the only living family member to have resided at Cliveden. Photo by John Boyd Henderson

Sam Chew Jr. is the only living family member to have resided at Cliveden. Photo by John Boyd Henderson

Little more than 10 years after Sam took over Cliveden, unknown arsonists leveled the carriage house in 1970, destroying the chief justice’s carriage, the doors that bore witness to the battle, an early 18th-century set of chairs and various pieces of furniture. Two years later, after being courted by the National Trust, Sam made the decision to transfer the property.

Sam Chew Jr. (1942- ), the last of the family to live at Cliveden, remembers the house well. “I was very, very happy at Vanor, where much of my family lived. It was beautiful and idyllic, not like the rapidly declining neighborhood of Germantown. Living at Cliveden was a privilege, but life there was bittersweet.

“I knew the house well before our family moved in because we visited dad’s Aunt Bessy, who was a remarkable woman. Cliveden is undeniably important because of its history and architecture. It’s a lovely property, but for me the experience of living there was touched with sadness. Mother died unexpectedly in 1963; she was only 42. Her death was crushing to my sister Anne and me.”

In June 1965 Sam’s sister, Anne Thompson Chew (1946-72), married John Rodman “Roddy” Wanamaker, great-great-grandson of the Philadelphia department store magnate, and the couple lived in the cottage at Cliveden before moving to Chestnut Hill. After their brief marriage ended in divorce, Anne married Yale-educated Drayton Valentine (1940-74) in 1970. She died suddenly in August 1972 from a pulmonary embolism, leaving behind her second husband and toddlers Barbara “Babbie” Wanamaker and Drayton Chew Valentine.

Sam recalls, “Dad signed over Cliveden in January 1972, and Anne died several months later in August. I’m the last Chew to have lived in the house, and I remember much about our daily routines and activities. We had several servants and an Indian cook. Our friends came in and we entertained them in a small den in the rear of the house.”

In summer 1968 Sam married Josephine Pearson “Effie” Taylor in Newport, Rhode Island. Coverage of the nuptial parties included mention of a soiree for the newlyweds and their young friends at Land’s End, the 50-room cottage owned by George Widener of Philadelphia. The die was cast: Sam and Effie moved to Beverly Hills without thinking of returning to Philadelphia’s exclusive Main Line. But Sam was a product of the East Coast and finally returned home, where he visits Cliveden and speaks at special events.

“I left for the West Coast and occasionally returned home to visit dad and other relatives. My father deserves utmost respect for caring so deeply about preserving Cliveden for our family and, eventually, for all Americans.”

 

Visiting Cliveden

Now in its 42nd year as a historic site, Cliveden has developed a series of vibrant programs to reach the community in new and novel ways. The latest in a series of initiatives to expand the interpretation of Cliveden involves a community-wide planning effort to preserve and program two kitchen spaces on the site. Living Kitchens at Cliveden is a project supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage that involves broad community and expert input to examine the role of the kitchen at the site over its 250-year history. One kitchen is a 1767 dependency building, which also served as a living quarters for Chew family slaves, and the other is a 1959 prefabricated Midcentury Modern kitchen with the latest modern conveniences for its time.

Another project, Emancipating Cliveden, uses animated maps of the battle, video technology and new exhibitions to introduce visitors to the house’s many stories. The project received a 2014 Leadership in History Award from the American Association of State and Local History.

Exhibits for these programs can be experienced during house tours and events, such as the Revolutionary Germantown Festival, which features Battle of Germantown reenactments, on October 1, 2016. For more information, visit the Cliveden website.

 

The parlor at Cliveden is appropriately decorated and furnished as it would have been during the early occupation by the Chews. The yellow sofa by Thomas Affleck is among the country’s rarest examples of early American furniture.

The parlor at Cliveden is appropriately decorated and furnished as it would have been during the early occupation by the Chews. The yellow sofa by Thomas Affleck is among the country’s rarest examples of early American furniture.
Photo by John Boyd Henderson

 

For their generous assistance during the research for this article the author thanks at Cliveden, Executive Director David W. Young and Director of Preservation Libbie Hawes; at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, President and CEO Page Talbott and Digital Services Archivist Kaitlyn Pettengill; and Sam Chew Jr.

 

Michael J. O’Malley III joined PHMC in 1978 as a public information officer and served as special features coordinator with PHMC’s press office, 1981–83. He was editor of Pennsylvania Heritage for 30 years, retiring in 2014.