Category Archives: Historic Sites

All is calm: Wartime Christmas

 “It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.”
W. T. Ellis 

March In: 19 December (2010) Valley Forge

It is well documented that over the past 12,000 years of human existence, there has never been “peace on Earth” on any day. Is there a more visceral holiday wish for anyone that’s ever been fighting in war, or even amidst a war?

Holiday season, 1970, Dublin, Ireland. I am a 20-year-old student spending my 3rd year of university at Dublin’s National University (UCD). Walking back to my flat from a party, some time after 3:00 AM, through the peaceful quiet of St. Stephen’s Green, I pause to admire my favorite statue – Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion. It wasn’t the first time I’d admired the striking, 10 foot modern bronze on its 3 foot tall square polished granite base. In the early morning Dublin mist, the abstract visage made me particularly mindful of the sacrifice (his life) that this wealthy Protestant gave to Ireland’s Nationalist cause. It was sometime after 3:30 AM when I continued on. Sometime shortly after 4:00 AM the statue vaporized – plastic explosives on the back side  hidden by bushes. Fortunately, the only damage was to property.

interior of hut: Valley Forge December 2010

19 December 1777, the Continental Army marched in to its 6-month winter encampment at Valley Forge. The village of Valley Forge was in the middle of the Great Valley, the wealthiest agricultural and industrial region (water powered mills) of the 13 colonies. Yet the enlisted men suffered through that Christmas nearly starving on “fire cake” (fried flour & water). For three weeks food was absurdly scarce to feed between 8,000 – 10,000 troops all due to incompetence and lack of central planning. Neither the enlisted men’s diaries nor Washington’s letters were kind during these weeks. By mid-January, the food issue was solved, but it was a bleak Christmas.

For me, the Web’s greatest asset is its ability to tell people’s stories. The earliest tragedy of World War I was its failure to be over by Christmas 1914 – as so much propaganda had predicted. Of all the poignant moments within the catastrophe of that pointless war was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. In the late 1980’s singer/songwriter John McCutcheon told of this event with heart-rending lyrics. The creator of this U-Tube video of John’s song has paired the lyrics with moving art and photos.

The bitterly satirical 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War effectively dramatizes this seminal event:

In recent years, revisionist have questioned this incident citing that it romanticized war. Recent scholarship indicates such Christmas Day truces, unofficial although many may have been, did exist – and not just in World War I.

Yet the bitter irony of juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is belted out later in Oh! What a Lovely War when a soldier sings, “It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said, We don’t want your puddings, you can stick them up your tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy. It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing ’round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls. He said, Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy…”     (Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

World War II Christmas Decorations at the Wall House

The Wall House in Elkins Park, PA, dates from 1688. It has seen a lot of war. Two rooms are devoted to its World War II era residents. Besides letters to and from the Front among family members, holiday trees reflected the realities of war. In the picture above, center, is a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon/paper and painted tongue depresses. To the right, is a small living room tree decorated in paper and tin ornaments. The prized German-made glass ornaments were unavailable and unpatriotic.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: decorated for Christmas 2009 (http://travelphotosbydave.shutterfly.com/)

“I had always thought there was no recognizable smell for impending death, but this country reeked of it…It was everywhere, no one left unscathed, no one left untouched, no one emotionally unscarred…It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt a mutual, unconditional love for man and mankind…”       James Worthington, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam

I traveled in Vietnam in March 2010. That same 20-year-old kid that escaped being vaporized in 1970 along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, narrowly missed being drafted earlier that year in the first military draft lottery, or at best this might have been my second trip. I know/knew Vietnam Vets, some are no longer alive having succumbed to the demons of post-war life. I was lucky. Instead of Vietnam, I was in Ireland that Christmas. In his memoir, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam, John Worthington reminds me what Christmas 1970 may have been like.

Peace on Earth, a tenuous dream that we humans never want to give up, yet never want to try. Worldwide, we celebrate our cycles of rebirth year after year – solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah – hoping that some year the magic will work. Let’s not stop the hope.

the big blue marble: Earth (Paul Winter Consort, December 2009)

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Pennsylvania Christmas: 2 Eras

In 1937, while occupying the almost finished mansion, Raymond and Mildred opened Glencairn to the community for the first annual Christmas concert. Enlisting friends from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Academy and Cathedral choirs, the Glencairn Sing continues to this day. Set in the Great Hall, which  seats 300, there are few venues more impressive in which to hear a concert. Leopold Stokowski, who played many concerts at Glencairn, praised the acoustics of the Great Hall. The Glencairn collection of nativity crèche is on display during the Christmas season and spans the centuries from early Medieval to the 20th century.

Glencairn
Glencairn “Castle”

Driving on Huntingdon Pike, just north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, only the most jaded driver would not be impressed when Glencairn comes into view. The family home (1930s-1980s) of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn, their nine children and 50 servants, Glencairn was intended to be more than just an ostentatious display of limitless wealth. Designed by Raymond Pitcairn in the Romanesque style of an early European medieval castle, Glencairn was to incorporate, display and bridge the historical continuum in art and design from the ancient world through the Renaissance.

Cairnwood

John Pitcairn, Raymond’s father and founder of PPG Industries,  started the  acquisition of a vast collection of ancient art in the late 19th century as part of his philanthropic support for the Academy of the New Church. John had constructed his own mansion, Cairnwood, in the early 1890’s, but of greater significance was his funding of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Everything in Bryn Athyn is more than it seems. John Pitcairn and other devoted believers in the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg  purchased the land that would become the Borough of Bryn Athyn  in the Philadelphia’s suburban Montgomery County as  an enclave for The New Church. With John Pitcairn’s vast wealth the Academy of the New Church (kindergarten through college) was established and in 1913 a unique building project was undertaken.

John’s eldest son, Raymond Pictairn , had not only become fascinated with Byzantine and early medieval art but in the medieval way of life, especially the interaction between the patron of a great project and the artisans that built and crafted the structure. Collaborating with his father and the architects, Raymond oversaw not only the construction of the Cathedral from 1913 to 1928, but the creation of an entire medieval artisan village on the grounds of the estate.

Hundreds of European and American crafts people worked and lived in the village from 1913 until 1939. Craft shops were constructed for making authentic tools necessary to create every item. Everything from stone cutting to stained glass was done on site.  From a design concept, the Cathedral structure has evolved from Romanesque through early Gothic.

the Great Hall at Glencairn

1928 marks the dedication of the Cathedral – although work continues in perpetuity according to the Pitcairn trust – and the beginning of construction on Glencairn. The story goes that Raymond was unhappy that the cathedral project was concluding so he decided to continue the process, and the life of the artisan village, by constructing his own castle. Glencairn would rise nine stories, and the 42,000 square foot palace would incorporate within its interior some of the greatest treasures of the ancient and medieval world while reviving such crafts as exquisite Byzantine mosaics. It would take eleven years to complete – 1928-1939.

the Glencairn Sing: Christmas 2010 – Choir of the Academy of the New Church, brass horn quintet

Glencairn, Cairnwood, and the vast art collection, were bequeathed by Mildred Pitcairn to the New Church in the early 1980’s. Glencairn today is a stunning house museum professionally administered. Among its collection are rare Southwest Native art and artifacts. Cairnwood hosts special events, but the Cathedral and the beautiful park grounds are both accessible to the public.

Glen Foerd (on the Delaware River in Torresdale, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
interior details of Glen Foerd

If the Pitcairn’s represent the ultimate in what great wealth can devise, the gracious Delaware River mansion of Glen Foerd tells the story of Philadelphia’s 19th century Victorian merchant families. Built when the Torresdale area of Philadelphia was a bucolic enclave along the Delaware River, Glen Foerd was home to three merchant and manufacturing families.

Charles Macalester, son of a wealthy Scots merchant, built the mansion in 1850. Charles, a staunch Presbyterian and philanthropist, founded the acclaimed Macalester College in Minnesota and Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, now Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Since 1975, Glen Foerd  has been owned by a non-profit conservation corporation. The Delaware River mansions were the ultimate Philadelphia status symbol from the late 18th through the late 19th centuries. Often weekend and summer homes, they afforded a refuge from the hot, humid and disease ridden summers of Philadelphia streets. It was not uncommon for residents to travel by boat to each others’ estates.

Christmas decorations at Glen Foerd

Christmas transcends history which makes viewing, and discovering, the holiday through the “eyes” of Philadelphia’s historic houses all the more interesting.

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Christmas in Penn’s Colony

A Christmas menu 1685

 “A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in Order.: Oysters. 1. A collar of brawn. 2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones. 3. A grand Sallet. 4. A pottage of caponets. 5. A breast of veal in stoffado. 6. A boil’d partridge. 7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast. 8. Minced pies. 9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce. 10. A made dish of sweet-bread. 11. A swan roast. 12. A pasty of venison. 13. A kid with a pudding in his belly. 14. A steak pie. 15. A hanch of venison roasted. 16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves. 17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste. 18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded. 19. Two large capons, one larded. 20. A Custard.

The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons. 1. A Young lamb or kid. 2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded. 3. A pig souc’t with tongues. 4. Three ducks, one larded. 5. Three pheasants, 1 larded. 6. A Swan Pye. 7. Three brace of partridge, three larded. 8. Made dish in puff paste. 9. Bolonia sausages, and anChoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish. 10. Six teels, three larded. 11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon. 12. Ten plovers, five larded. 13. A quince Pye, or warden pye. 14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded. 15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c. 16. A dish of Larks. 17. Six dried neats tongues. 18. Sturgeon. 19. Powdered Geese. Jellies.”
The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, facsimile 1685 edition [Prospect Books:Devon] 2000 (pages unnumbered)

In the later 1700’s George Washington would have finished his dinner at Mount Vernon with his own recipe for eggnog:

  1 quart of cream, 1 quart of milk, 12 eggs, some sugar,  2 cups brandy, 1 cup rye whiskey, 1/2 cup rum, 1/2 cup  sherry.

And we thought all our founding fathers were Puritans?  

 

Thomas Massey House (1696 brick section)

Anglican and Catholic Southerners did celebrate Christmas with considerable feasting, unlike the Puritan, Congregationalist, Quaker, and Mennonite Northern colonists but both traditions blended in the keystone colony of Pennsylvania. The prior history of the Delaware Valley and William Penn’s inclusive policies created an ethnic and religious mix not found in the other twelve colonies. Swedes, Germans, French Huguenots, Welsh among others settled and celebrated their traditions next to their simple Quaker neighbors. The prosperity of Pennsylvania led even  Quaker families to decorate their homes with greens and dine on the bounty of the colonies. Thirty and forty course dinners in wealthy Philadelphia homes were not uncommon by the 1770’s. 

Massey House interior - (Top) view of stable & blacksmith shop, 17th century floor boards, chaise lounge, (Bottom) faux painted moulding on stair case, 18th century Swedish wick trimmer

Thomas Massey, a prosperous self-made Quaker farmer with over 300 acres,would have celebrated Christmas in a restrained manner in these early years (17th century) of the colony. At the recent (11 December 2010) Christmas reception at the Thomas Massey House – a Pennsylvania Historic Site –   the variety of holiday traditions in colonial Pennsylvania was celebrated – minus the thirty course dinner. 

 

 

 

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original 1696 sitting room

 Quaker simplicity is evident in the sparsely furnished and decorated sitting room. Dried fruits and gingerbread were both seasonal luxuries and celebratory foods.

Swedish settlement in the Delaware Valley preceded William Penn, and they remained an important part of the colony.  They brought over their pre-Christmas festival of St. Lucia (above left) its saffron bun (Lussekatter) and simple woven decorations (lower right). Although there is no evidence that the Christmas tree was used by Germans in the colonial period, they did decorate with boughs of greens, made pretzels (praying hands – see center picture) and a number of cookies that have become American traditions – Lebkuchen, PfeffernusseAnisplatzchen. 

18th century reflective hearth rotisserie with pork roast
Massey House blacksmith making a 4" iron nail
Wall House, 1682

On an original William Penn land grant, Richard Wall began construction on his house in 1682. Like all surviving houses from this era, additions were numerous. Even though both the Wall and Massey houses remained private residences for over 250 years, major structural renovations seem to have ceased  by the early 19th century. As a house museum, the Cheltenham Historical Society interprets the interior of the Wall House to reflect the changing taste in furnishings and fashion during 250 years as a home and the events that shaped the lives of the residence.

The parlor is Victorian with early crocheted decorations (center). A room devoted to World War II memories displays a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon, paper and painted tongue depressors (left). The entrance tree is aglow with 19th and early 20th century German glass ornaments (right).

(top) water pump, hearth, 2-storey spring house, (bottom) mid-19th century soup tureen, late 19th century bread mixer

The Wall House kitchen contains an extraordinary collection of 18th and 19th century tools and well as a well restored hearth. In honor of the season, the table was set for Christmas dinner in true 18th century fashion – all the dishes on the table at once.

An 18th century Quaker Christmas dinner at Wall House

Having served as a Quaker Meeting House in its very early years,  a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the home center of the Shoemaker-Bosler Mill complex until the 1920’s,  the Wall House reflects the human stories that are history and displays with great care the objects of everyday life.

(left) one of many 19th century "eggbeater" drills, (center/top right) late 18th century tree trunk sewer pipe, (bottom right) early 19th century shovels made by the nearby Rowland Shovel Factory

Today, toys are always Christmas, although not in Colonial times. Among the many everyday treasures at the Wall House is a stunning 5 foot tall, 9 room doll house. Constructed in 1915, furnishings were painstakingly assembled over the next forty years.

the Cynthia Langsdorf Wilkinson doll house

 Nearly everything within the house was hand-made or adapted. Miniature electrified chandeliers glow, a sub-miniature electric train operates and even an attic is appropriately cluttered including a discarded toilet. It’s awesome whimsy – just the spirit Christmas is supposed to generate. The Wall and Massey Houses prove that in Pennsylvania we have been enjoying that spirit for centuries.

 

Philadelphia: A Tale of One City/Two Neighborhoods

“…here I dwell, where these sweet zephyrs move,

And little rivulets from the rocks add beauty to my grove.

I drink the wine my hills produce; On wholesome food I dine;

 My little offspring ‘round me Are like clusters on the vine…”

 Thomas Livezey, circa 1750

It’s Friday evening and we’re sitting on the great marble staircase having a drink and listening to jazz at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Art After Five. Stepping out into the courtyard, the city at night glitters and hums like an urban engine. The following day, we leisurely stroll down Forbidden Drive in bucolic Valley Green after having lunch in an 1850 Inn. Mounted horses pass at full gallop and geese float down the Wissahickon Creek. We’re still within the city. Like all great urban centers, Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Like all great cities, these neighborhoods evolve, and so it is with William Penn’s original square mile city of Philadelphia as well as leafy Chestnut Hill/Valley Green. The future doesn’t always preserve the past, and sometimes that’s good.

an original 19th century stable and one the few remaining trolley lines
Swan Fountain (Alexander Calder, 1924) at Logan Circle

William Penn’s original square mile city, bounded by the four squares of Rittenhouse, Washington, Franklin and Logan, still retains an orderly grid. The absence of a glass and steel jungle blotting out the sun, and the presence of 300 year old alleyways lined with colonial houses allows Philadelphia to feel like a home for humans, rather than just an economic engine. Visionary city planners as early as the late 1700’s designed the grand boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, that stretches from City Hall/Logan Circle to the Art Museum. It’s hard to experience a finer entrance to a city than the tree-lined, flag bedecked, fountain anchored Parkway. Its space, like a giant front lawn, is shared by commuters, strollers, special events, runners, frisby players, three generations of Calder family sculptures and many cultural institutions. Yet one square mile Philadelphia was an urban economic engine in the 18th and 19th centuries with all the accompanying issues of pollution, muddy streets, poor sanitation and summer “fever” epidemics.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The 1920’s Greek temple that is the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands, appropriately, on a hill at the far end of the Parkway. Its galleries contain priceless collections spanning millennia. Music and social events are not new to museums, but Art After 5 (every Friday from 5:00 to 8:00) has become a fixture in Philadelphia’s “TGIF” venues. There are a limited number of tables that fill quickly but sitting on the  smooth marble of the grand staircase, under the gaze of an enormous backlit “Diana,”  creates an amphitheater feel. The central hall rises up one floor to a broad mezzanine where it’s possible to sit as well. Two full service bars and a professional, personable wait staff serve light fare and drinks. It’s an informal, club atmosphere and people wander through the adjoining galleries while the music filters in as doors open adding to the visual experience.

Art After 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

From the gazebos that sits on a rocky promontory outside the museum there’s a nice view of the Waterworks and Boathouse Row.

(top) Boathouse Row, (bottom) the Waterworks

An engineering marvel when it opened in the early 19th century, the municipal Waterworks pumped fresh Schuylkill River water directly into an ever-expanding city. Today its restored buildings house a pricey restaurant, small museum and provide public space as part of Fairmount Park. Boathouse Row stretches just beyond. This collection of late 19th century stone and wooden houses represent generations of private university associated sculling clubs. Although the sport is often thought of in the same league as polo, dressage and fox-hunting, the skill necessary to compete in sculling is achieved only after arduous physical training. In Philadelphia, it’s a serious sport.

Fairmount Park's Valley Green, (top right) Livezey House, 1740

The 1740 Livezey House has that stately look of so many of the well-preserved antique houses in Valley Green and the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. From the Art Museum it’s possible to hike or bike the five miles on trails that meander through the thickly forested Park, along the river and creek, directly to Valley Green and Chestnut Hill. Yet except for the pre-1870 houses, little of this countryside was bucolic as late as the 1870’s. The banks of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek had been denuded of trees for nearly 200 years and over built with a series of small company towns while its polluted waters were harnessed to provide energy for the mills that were part of  Philadelphia’s economic engine. Mr. Thomas Livezey made a nice fortune from his Wissahickon Creek mill but his surroundings were certainly not as attractive as today. 

Rittenhouse Town

It was the threat to Philadelphia’s drinking water that spurred the building of the long-planned 9,000 acre Fairmount city park. Its serpentine shape deliberately included both the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek within its boundaries. Gone were dozens of Colonial and early 19th century mills, houses and entire small company towns. The Park-owned historic Rittenhouse Town is an exception and provides a glimpse of life when it was a company town/suburb to Philadelphia’s one square mile city. Yet since the town’s business was paper making one can be sure few trees existed when it was purchased by the Park Commission in the 1870’s. Restoration of the watershed, over a century later, is still ongoing. These generally affluent neighborhoods today have the look and feel of story book versions of leafy, bucolic Colonial villages, and yet they’re within the bounds of a 21st century city.

interior of Valley Green Inn

The Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive (cars were banned in 1920) has been open since 1850 but with a checkered history. In the past few years it seems to have secured its future as a venue for fine interpretations of classic American and Continental fare. It’s setting directly on the Wissahickon Creek with its antique decorated dining rooms make it an ideal venue for any occasion. There’s nothing better than taking a walk along the 7-mile Forbidden Drive after lunch nearly any time of the year, and if you’re riding your horse, you can still hitch it to the posts outside the Inn.

Valley Green Inn, 1850

A Street Fair in the land of the Bentley?

slight of hand still enthralls

That’s just the first surprise in Palm Springs.

Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley below

Nestled in the Coachella Valley, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a favorite spot for winter living for at least 500 years. Sheltered by the  San Bernardino Mountains (11,500′ elevation) to the north, the  Santa Rosa Mountains to the south (8,700′ elevation), the  Little San Bernardino Mountains  (3,700′ elevation) to the east and the San Jacinto Mountains to the West (10,800′ elevation), the Coachella Valley sits on top of, for the time being, a still sustainable aquifer. Winter daytime temperatures (October through March) average 80 (F)/25 (C).

It’s true that day time temperatures April through September average over 100 (F)/33 (C), and I know it does little to mention that the humidity is near zero. Yet, like lizards in a desert, why would anyone want to go out in the mid-day sun? There are other hours of the day – the cool of a summer evening when a dry 80 (F) does feel wonderful, or the equally pleasant morning hours, and then there are always the mountains and lakes within 30 minutes to an hour drive where temperatures  average 20 to 30 (F) lower !

Life adapts and the weekly Thursday evening Village Fest on Palm Canyon Drive is proof that life in a summer desert can be quite enjoyable.

Bottom: caramel popcorn being prepared
center picture: Rainier Cherries (click to enlarge)

Village Fest is  any street fair anywhere – musicians, horse rides for the kids, activities such as the rock wall climb, street performers, shops open until 10:00 pm and food!! Naturally, the restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive are open, but remember this is a street fair in an agricultural region that has  abundant access to farms using natural methods (organic, chemical-free). Available at stalls is a wide variety of produce, flowers,  grains, fruits  (fresh and dried) along with fresh-baked products, arts and crafts.  Being a street fair, you’ll also find cotton candy, Philly cheese steaks (no, I didn’t have one…diet…), grilled brats and fresh caramel popcorn prepared in an improvised gas cooker made with a Hobart commercial dough mixer bowl ( resourceful). The fair stretches for blocks.

Unlike many street fairs, Village Fest is always in the evening which adds to the festive air as twilight colors the sky, the mountains darken in shadow and the lights of Palm Canyon Drive and Village Fest sparkle. Palm Springs may be the land of the Bentley (more per capita than Saudi Arabia) but it’s home to many average cars as well. All their owners seem to enjoy the timeless pleasure of a  simple village fair.

Palm Springs Part 2: architecture

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Reinventing Reading

No, the frog has not become the mascot of Reading, Pennsylvania. They are two of four outdoor sculptures from the annual June Arts of the Avenue Festival. They  grace the grounds of the four businesses on Penn Avenue in West Reading that commissioned them for the 2009 festival.

Once a coal choked industrial city in the hills of Berks County, Reading is reinventing itself as a center for arts, education, restaurants and natural food. On the subject of food, it helps that Berks County farms are part of the Pennsylvania Dutch agriculture region famous for their all-natural farming methods.

part of the VF clothing outlet complex in West Reading

Founded in the 1740’s, along the Schuylkill River, by two of William Penn’s sons, Reading quickly became an important link for access into Pennsylvania’s interior and a center for the growing iron industry during the Revolution. Reading boomed until the 1930s, when its population reached nearly 120,000. Coal from Pennsylvania’s mountains flowed through Reading like a black river fueling the city and the nation’s industrial might. The city not only was a center for heavy manufacturing but its proximity to New York and Philadelphia retail markets created a vibrant textile and clothing manufacturing sector. The Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company founded in 1899  changed its name to Vanity Fair in 1911 and is now the major clothing manufacturer VF Corp. In the early 1970s, the original factories were developed to create the VF Outlet Village, the first outlet mall in the United States. The mall is so successful that it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Reading every year.

Reading from Mount Penn

From the 1940s to the 1990s, however, the city saw a sharp downturn in prosperity and population (80,000 in 2008) largely owing to the decline of heavy industry and railroads on whose wealth Reading had been built. Yet even as the city struggled with urban blight and a deteriorating downtown, by the 1990’s a certain stability had been reached. The revitalizing Penn Avenue commercial center – from Mount Penn to tony Wyomissing – played heavily in the December 2007 NBC’s Today show featuring Reading as one of the top four “Up and Coming Neighborhoods” in the United States.

 A great example of adaptive reuse is the Goggle Works. Founded in 1871, the Wilson Co. manufactured industrial goggles and glasses until 2002.  The idea of the 145,000 square-foot brick complex  deteriorating just blocks from Penn Avenue stirred strong interest in local leaders. Extensive restoration to the factory resulted in the 2005 opening of the Goggle Works Center for the Arts. Included in the Center are performing arts spaces, galleries, studios and workshops encompassing a wide selection of the arts.

Just across the bridge from the Goggle Works is West Reading where walking along plant bedecked Penn Avenue is a nice shopping stroll past locally owned small shops, restaurants and cafes. I did not see a single national chain store among the lot. The profusion of plants exist, according to the post-office women I stopped to ask, due to the persistance and persuasion of one businessman – the owner of Curious Antiques and Secret Garden, 605 Penn Ave, which is well worth a visit. A branch of the Young Chef’s Academy, 703 Penn Avenue, is in an attractive space. It was filled with eager kids taking cooking classes. The shop carries a line of kid-friendly kitchen tools and uniforms for the budding chef.  Visit the West Reading Main Street site for a list of special events, festivals and shops.

Top center: Haute Chocolate Cafe (a killer Frozen Hot Chocolate), Bottom center: Brassiere Papillion,right: interior of Cafe Harmony

I’ve had numerous reasons to visit Reading over the decades but not for interesting restaurants. The good German stock of Berks County consume high quality meats, vegetables and baked goods from the local farms but there was never much variation in preparation – generous portions of simple hardy food. Yet change has come to Reading and great ingredients are being imaginatively prepared by a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners. Once more, Penn Avenue in West Reading seems to dominate the cafe scene for five blocks from the classic West Reading Diner, 411 Penn Avenue, where you can still get that hardy food, to Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar, 622 Penn Avenue.  At Go Fishi you can dine in an attractive front room, or purchase an extensive selection of fresh fish, seafood and salads from the market in back.

Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar

Breakfast at Good Eatz Green Cafe, 701 Penn Avenue, is not only imaginative and healthy but good for the environment.

Eggs Sardou

The 30 month-old cafe (almost at the magic 3-year survival mark) serves meticulous, mostly vegetarian/vegan dishes but wisely offer items for carnivorous. Besides being green and natural, an atmosphere of “old town cafe” pervades as a couple of low-key business conversations are carried out over coffee, a few  people at single tables read the paper, backgammon games and books are in a bookshelf and customers walk-in for take-out (natural beverages, prepared sandwiches & salads).

Green Eggs & Ham

My wife had Green Eggs and Ham, an omelet with prosciutto, tomato, basil pesto and provolone served with three perfect corn cakes – crisp exterior, soft fresh corn interior ($9.00). I enjoyed Eggs Sardou, a variation of Eggs Benedict with spinach and artichoke hearts (no Canadian Bacon) topped with two perfectly poached eggs and real homemade Hollandaise Sauce. They were accompanied by Yukon Gold hash browns ($8.00). The presentations were attractive and the dishes carefully prepared. The Good Eatz Green Cafe is not for customers looking for a quick sitdown breakfast but, as mentioned, talk-out is available.

Even that once venerable bastion of old-school dining, Stokesay Castle, 141 Stokesay Castle Lane, has changed ownership after many decades and entered the world of modern fine dining, sensible portions and artistic presentations. Set in a sprawling 1920’s English stone manor just outside Reading on Mount Penn, the view from the covered bar patio is bucolic and the interior dining space understated, elegant and spacious. The Tuesday and Thursday four-course prix fixe dinner menu is an excellent choice.

Top: stately High School & the Hampden Heights, Bottom: art deco Olympian Ballroom & 50's signage

Many of the once well crafted urban row-house neighborhoods are in bad need of repair, as in many cities. Yet there is evidence of slow progress in renovating these blighted areas. Very positive is the determination of residents around Penn Avenue, Albright College, Berks County Park (spotless, safe restrooms) and the still beautiful 1920/30’s hill-side neighborhood of Hampden Heights to maintain the original architecture and landscape.

Driving into Reading, especially at night, a visitor can’t miss a large, brightly lite red Japanese Pagoda looming over the city 900 feet up Mount Penn. Built in 1908 by a Reading quarry millionaire, plans to open it as a hotel/club/restaurant quickly fell through. It was purchased in 1910 by another Reading millionaire who promptly gave it to the city. Like all “white elephants” it’s useless and beloved. Having gone through a number of restorations over the years, the Pagoda is in beautiful condition, and the city has recently constructed nature walks in that area of Mount Penn. It seems only open on the weekends, contains a small gallery and an oriental themed cafe. There is talk that perhaps the city will restore the Pagoda to its original purpose as a hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Perhaps it will reinvent itself yet again.  In which case, the Pagoda is a fitting mascot for the city it oversees.

God buys a beach house – Ocean Grove, NJ

The beach at Ocean Grove, NJ

The great organ surges with power. The behemoth American-made 1908  Robert Hope-Jones pipe organ easily fills the 100-year-old, 6,000 seat Great Auditorium with body vibrating sound waves. The National  Anthem plays and at the last chorus, the large wooden American flag over the broad stage lights up in a carnival display of patriotism. The show commences: Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder enter the stage and enthrall the audience of the sold-out concert for the next 2 1/2 hours.

The Reverend William B. Osborn may not have approved even this mainstream entertainment when he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting of the United Methodist Church in 1867. The Rev. Osborn was following a well established tradition along the Jersey Shore, starting in the late 18th century, of creating havens of calm in the barrens along the ocean, far from the bustle and temptations of urban life in Camden and Philadelphia. Although Cape May, Ocean City, Vineland and many other shore towns that started as Protestant camp meetings morphed into resorts, Ocean Grove remained true to its original mission. That mission in the 1860’s included open support for racial and women’s civil rights, education reform and prohibition. Ocean Grove is still a dry town (Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are right next door) but its relaxed fundamentalism encouraged non-camp followers to settle. Today the Rainbow Flag flies from nearly as many houses as the United Methodist Church banner.

Ocean Grove: America’s largest concentration of 19th century Victorian architecture

The houses of Ocean Grove are stunning. The one square mile has national historic designation with the largest concentration of original late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Rarely will anyone find real estate that exemplifies the ultimate in wood craftsmanship, and this exuberance for decoration keeps many 21st century craftsmen employed by the demands of constant maintenance.

Victorian Gingerbread

Ocean Grove, a mere 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, is still a glimpse of what the Jersey Shore used to be like. The boardwalk is a walkway – no food vendors, no video arcades. Pedestrians rule and with most streets narrow, driving faster than 25 mph is difficult. On summer weekends parking is impossible. Most people arriving Thursday or Friday for a weekend never move their cars until leaving. Ocean Grove is a perfect walking town where Main Avenue is never farther than a five-minute walk from your B & B, and kids are safe riding bikes and skateboards. An evening’s biggest treat is catching a concert in either the Great auditorium,  Wednesdays and Saturdays, or the boardwalk’s pavilion and always having ice cream at  Nagles or Day’s  – very partisan as to which one is the best!

The Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove, NJ

The center of Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ. This all wood, barrel-vaulted 6,000 seat structure is an engineering marvel with acclaimed acoustics making it a sought after summer concert venue by A-list performers. Besides concerts, the auditorium is the focal point for the Camp Meeting’s summer religious activities including an active youth program. Anyone’s invited to participate in Camp Meeting activities. Surrounding the Great Auditorium is an oddity to all new visitors. Dozens of white tented structures in close formation are what remain of the original tent city that was the camp meeting. As affluence allowed for the building of the Victorian houses, the number of tents diminished. The remaining 142 half tent/half wood cottages are on long-term lease to Camp members and frequently passed down to the generations.  Spreading majestically for at least a 1/4 mile from the Great Auditorium  to the beach is the wide, landscaped Great Lawn. Closer to the building itself, numerous antique and craft markets are held from July through October.

Tents in summer season, off season: tents removed and stored in bath/kitchen hut
Main Street, Ocean Grove, NJ

The commercial district is small, occupying the better part of six blocks along Main Avenue and a few blocks off Main. Being northern New Jersey, Ocean Grove is not a winter ghost town. With direct train links to New York, half the population is permanent,  providing a base for shops and restaurants that are not all post cards and cotton candy.

Cheese on Main, 53 Main Avenue, offers more varieties from more countries and animals than you imagined. The Emporium At Ocean Grove, 63 Main Avenue, and Ocean Grove Trading Company, 74 Main Avenue, have imaginative, and well made, women’s fashions. Just off Main, the Beach House, 52 Pitman, is the place for souvenirs and gifts with class, and Tumblety Howell Art, 45 Pilgrim Pathway, highlights top works by area artists.

Top: Shawmont Hotel, Bath Ave B & B interior, Bottom: Bath Ave. bedroom, porch Shawmont Hotel

Dozens of bed & breakfast and hotels, all historic structures, are either on the beach or within three blocks. Some of the best, such as the Laingdon Hotel, 8 Ocean Ave, remain open year-round with a glassed-in porch. The Shawmont Hotel, 17 Ocean Ave, provides well-appointed rooms with private bath, a continental breakfast,  a beautiful porch with rocking chairs and a full view of the ocean. Bath Avenue House, 37 Bath Ave, a beautifully restored 80-year-old prior rooming house. The 30 rooms are on the small side but individually decorated, air-conditioned and with a sink. All rooms but one (on the first floor) share  bathrooms located on each of the three floors. There are so many repeat guests, that sharing a bath seems no more odd than having house guests for the weekend. A full breakfast is included, and filling. The Carriage House B & B, 18 Heck Avenue, an elegant eight room inn, provides an equally elegant breakfast making it an excellent choice for food lovers.

Ocean Grove is a dry town, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are within walking distance along the boardwalk. Many Ocean Grove restaurants are discretely byob, but inquire first. I would not say that the restaurants are outstanding but neither will a customer feel they have had a bad meal in any establishment. In summer, all seem to take advantage of New Jersey’s abundant summer produce.

Among my recommendations are: Bia at the Majestic Hotel, 19 Main Ave., for imaginative presentations and an eating porch with an ocean view.  Sea Grass, 68 Main Ave, serves generous salads and sandwiches including a killer BLT – but this is bacon, lobster and tomato – on a large toasted soft bun with sweet potato fries.  Nagles Apothecary Cafe, 43 Main Ave, complete with soda fountain, has been an Ocean Grove institution for over a century – first as an apothecary and now a popular restaurant serving generous portions of classics for breakfast,  lunch and dinner. The outside walk-up ice cream window dishes up dozens of rich creations and along with Day’s Ice Cream, 48 Pittman Ave, have  loyal partisans who line up every day. On weekend evenings, the lines at both places can be blocks long. The Starving Artist at Day’s tries to focus on healthier ingredients and serves a good breakfast with interesting omelet fillings and pancakes.

The charm of Ocean Grove, it’s a place where all you want to do is wait patiently and let the calm take over.