THE CRESHEIM COTTAGE
by Burt Froom
West Mt. Airy: Yesterday and Today
November, 2012 (Article 2)
West Mt. Airy is a pretty old place! We who live in the present, encounter buildings and street names every day that are loaded with history just waiting to be discovered! In this second article on the general theme, A History for West Mt. Airy, I invite us to investigate the world of the Cresheim Cottage, which is 300 years old — or nearly so. I want to thank archivists Irv Miller and Sam Whyte at the Germantown Historical Society for their good research help with this article.
What is the oldest building constructed by Europeans still standing in West Mt. Airy? One prime candidate for this distinction is the Cresheim Cottage, located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Germantown Avenue and West Gowen Avenue, just one block from the site of the Mount Airy mansion of William Allen. The Cottage takes its name from the village of Cresheim in German Township, founded in 1683 and named for the village Cresheim in the southern Rhine River valley of Germany. There was a Quaker congregation in that town in Germany and William Penn preached there in 1677. Mennonite settlers from Cresheim in Germany named their new home here for their birthplace. The name West Mt. Airy replaced Cresheim as the name for our neighborhood during the 19th century. Today, the Avenida restaurant, featuring Latin American cuisine, is housed in the Cresheim Cottage. Kim and Edgar Alvarez are the chefs and owners
The nearly 300 year old Cresheim Cottage, now home of Avenida restaurant.
When was the charming Cresheim Cottage constructed? The plaque affixed to the corner of the building in 1976 by the patriotic organization Daughters of the American Colonists says that it was built in 1700. (No further information is available by the DAC.) The house appears to have been constructed in stages, perhaps over some generations. Its architectural style can be called “German Colonial,” which describes houses in the Delaware River valley constructed of stone by German settlers here. Such houses began as simple one-room cottages and were enlarged with another full floor, and with additions for a kitchen floor – to accommodate growing families. The Cottage, with steeply pitched roof and shed dormer windows, looks older than early Georgian buildings in Germantown, arguing for an early date of construction..
The earliest map of the area, attributed to Matthias Zimmerman, is dated 1700 and depicts a house where the cottage is today and a nearby building, which no longer exists. This map shows about 15 structures in Cresheim, which stretched along Germantown Avenue from Carpenter Lane to Mermaid Lane. However, some historians are not comfortable with the date of 1700 for the Cottage because the original map by Zimmerman no longer exists. It was copied in 1764 by Zimmerman, and in 1766 by Christian Lehman (who was engaged n the nursery and fruit tree business in Germantown), and recopied in 1824 by his grandson Joseph Lehman. It is thought that mistakes could have crept into the earliest map, and historians say there is no hard evidence or independent confirmation that Cresheim Cottage was built earlier than 1746.
Who lived in the cottage during this nearly three centuries? Listings of land transfers at the Germantown Historical Society tell us that the property of the cottage was bought originally in 1697 from the Frankfurt Land Company, the repository of the land holdings of the Proprietor, William Penn, by Johannes Bleickers. The original property was 100 acres, stretching about two miles from Wissahickon Avenue to Stenton Avenue, centered on Germantown Avenue. The property was about 465 feet wide. It had access to water at the Wissahickon and Cresheim Creeks, and to other houses and Philadelphia via “Main Street” (also known as the “Great Road,” now Germantown Avenue.
Johannes Bleickers, was one of the first settlers of Mt Airy in the boatload that included 13 heads of pioneer families with their wives and children who reached the German Township after a three months voyage from England in the ship Concord in 1683. Thus, October 25, 1683 is the accepted date for the founding of Germantown. (Philadelphia was founded in 1681.) Bleickers’ occupation, or his position in society, is listed as planter (denoting wealth and high social standing). In 1700, the property was sold to Matthias Milan, who is called a yeoman (pronounced yō΄·man) (that is, a farmer who owns the land he cultivates, may sell his produce at market). Yeoman was the class between the landed gentry and tenant farmers, a kind of middle class.
Milan seems to have divided and sold the property in 1702 to Levin Harberdink and William Hosters, 50 acres each. They were listed as weavers (presumably growing their own flax for linen cloth). In 1721, Matthias Milan bought the property back and owned it until 1747. The Cresheim Cottage was presumably built or begun by one of these owners. It is my impression that the earliest owners would have built a home on their land to be close to their farming activities. The corner building of the present Cottage could have been erected at the earliest date
Note that the neighboring 50 acre property to the south was owned in 1692 by Garrett (or Gerhard) Rittenhouse (1674-1743), of the second generation of the Rittenhouse family who built America’s first paper mill in 1690, on the Monoshone (Paper Mill) Creek. This suggests to me that the locality of the Cresheim Cottage was prime farming land. It must have been covered originally by forest and meadows.
What did these land owners do for a living? These settlers were not farmers by occupation; they were craftsmen Records tell us that the occupations of later owners of the Cottage included many yeomen, and a butcher, stocking knitter, farrier (to do with the care and shoeing of horses’ hooves and some blacksmithing), powder maker, printer, victualer (pronounced vit’·lӘr) (supplier of food, perhaps innkeeper or grocer), and nurseryman. These occupations give us a picture of work and social relationships during the first 300 years of West Mt. Airy.
George Ernst (who was a woodworker) and his wife Kathryn Ernst, lived in the Cottage as their residence from about 1959 until George’s death in 1979. Thereafter, Kathryn was unable to care for the old building because her bad health confined her to the first floor, and the dwelling was badly deteriorated at Kathryn’s death in 1994. At that time, its 11 rooms included a living room with fireplace, a dining room, a breakfast nook, five bedrooms, and a full bath and two half-baths, and the property was 75 feet by 100 feet.
Ken Weinstein, local neighborhood activist and owner of the Trolley Car Diner, bought the Cottage in 1995. Ken spent more than $250,000 to restore the building and equip it as a restaurant, preserving it for the future and demonstrating the value of an active community. The restaurant opened in 1996 as the Cresheim Cottage Café, later owned by Donna and Lizza Robb. In 2008, street resurfacing disrupted the Café’s business. Kim and Edgar Alvarez purchased the restaurant and re-opened it as Avenida in 2009. The Cresheim Cottage’s past informs its future.