Awakened public interest in the site of the nation's first presidential mansion, on Market Street, doesn't seem to have resulted in increased interest in the Deshler-Morris House, at 5442 Germantown Ave. in Germantown. That's a shame, says Phil Sheridan, spokesperson for Independence National Historic Park (INHP). Unlike the long-gone residence at Sixth and Market streets, Sheridan points out, Deshler-Morris, where President George Washington stayed to escape yellow fever, conducted the business of state and enjoyed the summer with his family, "is extant, an existing resource."
Steve Sitarski, who manages Deshler-Morris, says, "It's the oldest presidential residence existing in the United States; it's also one of the most intact and well-preserved historic homes; 80 to 85 percent of the house is original."
Despite this fact, in 1996, just 677 visitors saw the place, which is maintained by INHP. In 2001, 1,487 people visited. According to Sitarski, this is a "relatively small" number in the world of tourist attractions, albeit an improvement. By way of contrast, approximately 1.2 million visitors visited the Liberty Bell in 2001, and that number represents a year that includes post-Sept. 11 fallout.
Why aren't more people visiting Deshler-Morris? Mostly, it's transportation. There is no regular tourist service from Center City to historic Germantown, even once or twice each week; SEPTA routes from Center City to the area (a few regional rail stops and at least one bus) are not adequate for out-of-towners who want to be deposited directly at sites outside of downtown. And if the city doesn't provide a way to get there, it's unlikely that it's promoting the spot as it could.
Given that there are several sites of historic interest in Germantown, not just Deshler-Morris, leaders of the historic preservation community are speaking out about the city's need to take advantage of a great opportunity to provide cultural enrichment and obtain more tourist dollars. Sheridan says, "With a little transformation, Germantown could be Williamsburg."
Christopher Zearfoss, director of transportation programs for the city's Office of Strategic Planning, says major cultural and historic attractions in Philly are taken care of by the Phlash bus, which city officials seem to see as being confined mostly to downtown. "We have buses going to all of the major attractions. We recently added the zoo; I think most people would agree that the zoo is a major, major tourist attraction."
Zearfoss explains that the city gets requests for special bus services all the time, and must say no. "We've gotten numerous requests from Manayunk, the Mummers Museum. We have a limited fleet of 10 buses and we're already stretched to the limit. We just don't have the resources or, if you will, the mandate. The original concept was to provide service to Center City. That's not to say there aren't other solutions, they're just not Phlash."
INHP and several tourist and historic organizations are working on bringing more visitors to the area. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Germantown, and special events, including re-enactments featuring hundreds of actors, are planned.
The Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau is spearheading a "Patriots or Traitors" June celebration that includes events in historic Germantown.
Private-tour shuttles will no doubt be the transportation mode, although the city occasionally provides trolleys for special events.
Anne Roller, public outreach coordinator for Cliveden, a historic house where much of the intense fighting during the Battle of Germantown took place, says city officials would be wise to get more involved in developing Germantown's potential. "If they're serious about creating a tourism economy, they need to look much beyond the historic district."