Buttercup Cottage

Take a hike through history!

Watch this video video researched and created by volunteer Trail Ambassadors, Carol Scully and Linda Gdowik.


In the Wissahickon Valley Park, on Mt. Airy’s Cresheim Valley Drive, stand the ruins of Buttercup Cottage, originally a 6-bedroom farmhouse, built in 1812, surrounded by meadows of buttercups and wild strawberries. In 1887, it was enlarged to provide 23 working girls a weekly summer retreat 8.5 miles away from Philadelphia’s congestion, heat, and pollution.

From 1860-1910, the city’s population had tripled to 1.5 million people. It was not unusual for 8 or 9 families of immigrants to be crowded into its 3-story row houses. By 1882, Philadelphia employed 60,000 textile workers. At that time, laborers worked 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, with no child labor laws.

Buttercup Cottage opened in 1889 to give young girls over 16 a chance to spend 2 or 3 week vacations for a dollar a week from June through October. Since it was close to the city’s highest elevation, its cool breezes gave them much-needed relief from the city’s hot summer temperatures to enjoy a sylvan playground with an apple orchard, as well as streams and pools to explore.

The cottage’s program was the humanitarian vision of the progressive Houston and Woodward families, dedicated to improving the spiritual and physical health of those less fortunate. Gertrude Houston Woodward was the president of its all-female board of 13 that managed the program, very unusual for the time. Her father, Henry Howard Houston, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest men, purchased and enlarged the farmhouse to 16 bedrooms. Perhaps his motivation was triggered by the death in Italy of his 19-year-old son caused by typhoid fever. He was most likely aware of the perils of fecal matter in the water supply, and when building the Chestnut Hill commuter train line and developing in an affordable residential suburban community, he might have been responsible for the design of its water supply that kept sewage separate from drinking water.

Because of its large population, 19th-century Philadelphia had been plagued with many recurring epidemics, so Buttercup cottage was not only a chance for young women to escape the exhaustion of their work environment, but also to provide them with clean water, clean air, and the peace of mind to regenerate their physical and spiritual health. The last year any stories of Buttercup Cottage appeared in any local papers was 1911. After that summer, the cottage stood unused for many seasons. Now, the only structure that remains is the barn that was vandalized by arsonists in April of 1982, burning down the doors and charring the windows.

The three-story wood frame cottage that the Houston family so generously provided to give so many young women so much pleasure was finally demolished in 1958. In 1964, Fairmount Park was deeded the property by the Woodward estate, continuing their philanthropic legacy.

Gertrude Houston’s husband George Woodward, a pioneer environmentalist, was a founding member of the Friends of the Wissahickon, who are now the stewards of Philadelphia’s treasured Wissahickon Valley Park. Prior to the fire, the barn was used for girl scout events and outdoor theater. Families could also rent out the barn for their own celebrations.

Today, if you have the chance to wander through these remains, you can almost imagine hearing the laughter and joy experienced by so many people here over the years. If you want to visit these ruins, drive up Wissahickon Avenue toward Chestnut Hill, bearing right on Allens Lane, turning left at Amylin Street onto Cresheim Valley Road, between the stone towers of the French village that George Woodward developed. Sometimes during the summer months when the woods are lush and green, it’s easy to miss the ruins of Buttercup Cottage on the left before reaching Germantown Avenue. It’s concealed behind mounds of wild tangled vines hiding the mystery in history that it holds–an inspiring example of the important rewards of charitable giving.


Check out this Google Map to explore this and other unique historical points of interest, and become acquainted with the many trailheads in Wissahickon Valley Park!

Explore more Wissahickon-related historic points of interest, stories, art, videos, games, and much more on our Virtual Valley!

You probably don’t need us to tell you how special Wissahickon Valley Park is. Its 1800+ acres provide habitat to wildlife, refuge & recreation to over a million visitors per year, and protect the drinking water for one-third of Philadelphians. The park can’t take care of itself, however. It needs responsible park users and stewards to keep this special place clean and sustainable for generations to come.