Category Archives: Pennsylvania travel

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.

 

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.

Peas In A Pod – A love story

        

Susan and Kristen

2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.       

       

The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and  Bucks. The object was to find, and eat,  the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and  sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.       

       

I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat.  The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.       

       

80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 –  of the three rooms.  From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.       

 For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through  the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier.  Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s  maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.       

       

You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations –  in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room.  A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two  available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother.  Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.       

       

Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that  future  marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look  in their eyes that it was already on the table.

The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”                    

They certainly would.       

Peas In A Pod       

80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
(215) 887-2719