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History of Mt. Airy

Mt. Airy’s rich history dates back to the beginnings of America. William Allen, Chief Justice of colonial Pennsylvania and financier of the State House (Independence Hall), built a country estate in 1750 on the site of what is now United Lutheran Seminary. He named it Mount Airy, which eventually lent its name to the surrounding community. (Allens Lane and Allentown are named for Allen.)

“Mt. Airy” as a name for the greater neighborhood started to take hold in the latter half of the 19th century, as the surrounding neighborhoods began to develop. It was once part of the original German Township, founded in 1683 by German immigrant Francis Daniel Pastorius, who purchased 15,000 acres from William Penn. This area now encompasses the neighborhoods of Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill.

The  Native American trail which ran from the Delaware River (in Northern Liberties) all the way to the Perkiomen Creek (in Collegeville) became the Great Road and eventually Germantown Avenue. It has served as the primary commercial artery of the Northwest for centuries.

On October 4th, 1777, the only Revolutionary War battle fought on Philadelphia soil centered on the Chew family mansion Cliveden, a National Historic Landmark on Germantown Avenue. One block away, the Johnson House stands as another monument to freedom, as a Quaker safe house for runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad in the 1850s.

The City and County of Philadelphia consolidated in 1854, bringing a parent, coterminous government and making outer rural and suburban areas like Mt. Airy part of the City. As the railroad and industry grew, so did Mt. Airy. The former George Carpenter Estate, Phil-Ellena, was sold and developed as Pelham, with its varied style of homes and apartments. East of the Avenue, Sedgwick Farms was carefully laid out by Ashton Tourison’s development firm. On the edge of the Cresheim Valley, George Woodward developed the French Village based on styles he admired from the French countryside.

Contemporary Mt. Airy really earned its reputation for diversity through the Civil Rights movement, when a band of real estate agents and religious organizations came together to fight blockbusting and redlining to encourage integration and racial harmony. We recommend reading Abigail Perkiss’ book Making Good Neighbors to learn about this fascinating and important part of the neighborhood’s history, and how it informed the founding of West Mt. Airy Neighbors and East Mt. Airy Neighbors.

After several sleepy decades, Mt. Airy has awoken to new growths and challenges. Mt. Airy CDC and its partners at WMAN, EMAN, and the Mt. Airy BID will help guide this development thoughtfully.

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