Germantown: Historic Arboretum Stands Test of Time

From left: Gay Johnson, Mark Sellers and Karen Anderson share stories of Awbury's past.

Like the better-known Fairmount Park, the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown has long been a natural sanctuary from the built environment of Philadelphia, but few urbanites know of the well-kept history of this community within a community.

Even in winter, Awbury's trees are full of color.

Awbury was founded in the early 1850s, said longtime Awbury resident Gay Johnson, when Thomas P. Cope, an owner of a shipping company, bought the property.  His Quaker family was interested in having a community built in the English style of the time. They also wanted a “green place for the quiet contemplation of nature,” said Mark Sellers, chairman of the Facilities Committee for the Awbury Arboretum Association.

“The founders were before their time in the field of agriculture,” said Karen Anderson, the association’s executive director. The Cope family imported a system of moveable pasture fences to ensure their livestock would always have fresh grass even as they rotated their crops. They also “edited nature,” said Sellers, “by crafting the natural landscapes to include rolling hills and importing a number of different trees.” The association has continued this tradition by maintaining the ecosystem. For example, the Norway maple needs to be kept from smothering its shorter neighbors with its immense shade.

From left: Gay Johnson, Mark Sellers and Karen Anderson share stories of Awbury's past.

In 2009, the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places added the Awbury Arboretum to its registry. This was a victory for both the Association and the community, which have fought to maintain independence from the urban landscape since Awbury was made public in 1916, said Sellers.

“Germantown’s pretty much fully developed. Beyond Awbury, there’s not a lot of open land around here. What we’re concerned with is not just inappropriate additional development but insensitive alterations to buildings that are already here.”

The arboretum is open to the public year round. Admission is free. For more information, visit .

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