January 19th, 2016 | No Comments »

He appeared at the church wearing a lily in his velvet lapel.  He would have preferred a sunflower, both blooms having remained his signature brand throughout his American lecture tour, but, the latter not being in season, he had chosen the fragrant white blossom, obvious and redundant though it would be in a church.

Oscar had arrived in Philadelphia the evening before, making his second entrance into the city with a more confident, brisker step, compared to the languid shamble of January.  He had, then as now, alighted from the Pennsylvania at the still-new Broad Street Station.  His four ensuing months in America, thousands of miles of travel, discourse and confrontation with Boston intellectuals, Newport society matrons, Colorado silver miners, Texas Rangers, and San Francisco Aesthetes, had sharpened his wit, enriched his lectures, and helped him to succeed at his primary goal:  to get the Americans to pay attention to him.

And now, with his publisher minding him from a few paces back, he turned the corner on 20th Street and gazed at the brownstone church building, barely 20 years old but already ponderously settled on its site, blackened stone architraves and Romanesque arches looming over the pavement and seeming to further darken the already gloomy, post-thunderstorm May sky.

“My dear cousin Basil,” Oscar remarked to Stoddardt.  “One wonders how he came to be here, so far from Cowley, from Ireland, from the civilization he knew.”

Joseph smiled and repeated the earlier offer, “Father Maturin has invited you to stay with him at the Rectory, Oscar.  I know you are not entirely satisfied with the situation at the Hotel Aldine this time around.”

“Hmm, I rather doubt it,” replied the author.  “It will be an Anglican dormitory, sober and sparse.”

The publisher smiled again, wryly.

They reached the entry porch and stepped inside.  At first, it seemed there was no one in the church.  Rows of empty, dark wood pews stretched off into the distance, glowing sanctuary lamps dimly revealing the altar at the far eastern end.  Diamond shaped panes of unfigured amber and green glass in the tall narrow window openings added to the atmosphere of simplicity; architecturally it was a plain, evangelical, preaching barn kind of place, well-proportioned but with little apparent art or craft in the details, the things that Oscar’s self-described, finely honed aesthetic sensibilities would expect.

Off came the writer’s soft, fawn gloves, the purple scarf, the fur collared, bottle green overcoat so very rich and deeply piled it seemed like a plush carpet that children might want to roll luxuriantly around on, and finally the broad brimmed Stetson he had acquired in Leadville and had taken great delight in wearing to his meeting, his second, earlier that day with his hero Walt Whitman.

Tall and broad shouldered, Wilde’s oval face was framed by long, dark hair parted in the center and falling in waves nearly to his shoulders, his lips full and perpetually animated as words flowed from them in peals of witticism and thoughtful observation.  Everything about him was long, extended:  his slender, long legs wearing mouse-colored trousers, his long and expressive fingers that furled and unfurled with each gesture, his aquiline nose, his long, cool gaze that, when rested on a subject, was observant and absorbing.   His rich, dark plum velvet jacket and waistcoat piped in shiny silk, the puffy cravat, the large gold signet ring on his right hand, were each and all together carefully selected and purposefully worn for aesthetic effect.

The ivory walking stick, also an affectation but an elegant one, with a gold washed head worked into the shape of a ram’s head, laid carelessly in the nearest pew, the visiting celebrity looked about, seemingly casually but with a keen eye for details missed at first glance.  Conveniently, the cloudy skies outside lightened slightly, briefly casting a pale sort of sunshine into the church and revealing a little more of the place.  There, on the altar, were silver candlesticks, surely not normally seen in a simple, evangelical chapel in 1882.  Above the altar, even more surprisingly, the walls of the chancel were stenciled with an exuberant and stylized floral pattern in mint green and pink.  Some of the decorative details seemed not quite finished, the painted pattern shading off into seemingly unpainted plaster walls.

Oscar’s attention had just been focused on a very tall ladder leaning against the side wall of the nave and extending up into the gloom near the very high ceiling, where he had caught a glimpse of a figure teetering high atop it, when a familiar voice from behind quietly spoke.  “My dear Oscar, so good of you to come.  Welcome to Saint Clement’s.”

There stood Father Basil William Maturin, Oscar’s second cousin, the Rector of the notorious American Episcopal Church in which they were meeting now, for the first time in some years.

“I could not have visited Philadelphia again without finally seeing you, cousin,” the writer replied as he shook the priest’s hand warmly, his drooping, deep blue eyes nevertheless sparkling with genuine pleasure.  “You must tell me all about your adventures in America.  I am eager to hear your views on these strange and wonderful Americans now that you’ve been settled here for some time.  Do you yearn for Ireland?”

“Oh, there is much to say.  Our experience here has not been without strangeness, but it has also been rewarding.  And rather blessed, really.”

Oscar glanced back at the ladder, sensing that the figure balanced near the top was unmoving, as if listening to their conversation.  The brief, wan sunlight had already faded, deepening the shadows in the corners of the church, causing the twinkle of the sanctuary candles at the front and their reflection on the silver candlesticks to intensify his attention.

His cousin, dressed in a simple, untidy black cassock, cinched with a braided rope, that was rather too short for his already short stature, and four-cornered black birretta pushed back on his head and partly covering his short-cropped, already greying hair, led the two visitors across the central aisle towards another doorway, opposite the entrance.

The priest could certainly be recognized as related to his younger visitor.  He had the same long, oval face, the same nose, high forehead, and long delicate ears pinned close to the head.  His eyes, hooded and overhung by prominent brows, revealed a maturity, sympathy, and inner reflectiveness that was still often punctuated by flashes of humor and mischief.    His mouth, from which sprang, it was said by the thousands in Philadelphia who had heard him preach, cascades of words that fairly vibrated with his desire to share ideas that had touched his heart, was often smiling.  His mind, like his cousin’s, was quick and overflowing, his face with its cleft chin and strong features more handsome.   Unlike his cousin’s attire, his clergyman’s garments were less than fastidious, the cassock rumpled, the dog collar unbleached, the biretta and its tassel frayed.

“Let’s have some tea,” Maturin offered.  “I understand you are not lecturing again this evening?“

“Let’s do, Willie. Oh, er should I say, Father?”

The priest laughed boyishly.  “No need for such formalities here, Oscar.  I may be Father to my colleagues, brethren, and parishioners, but we could as easily be in Dublin again, together, where I’d be just Willie.”

For a third time Oscar glanced up, trying for another glimpse of the figure on the ladder, steering Willie’s attention in the same direction.  “Brother Maynard, a member of our community here, has many gifts, among them being a decorator and artisan of some talent,” remarked the priest.  “When we came here from England six years ago, this building was quite unadorned.  I am certain you know that the brethren from Cowley lead a humble existence, serving God and preaching the Gospel, but our form of worship celebrates beauty in everything around us and especially at the altar.  Brother Maynard is devoted to illuminating this edifice with color and ornament, as we are all devoted to illuminating our flock with Christ’s truth.”

As the three men lingered among the pews while Oscar and Father Maturin conversed about the writer’s lecture on interior decoration the night before, the publisher reflected on the animated discussion and the cousins who seemed so alike, and yet worlds apart.  Joseph Stoddardt had never been to Saint Clement’s before, but was well aware of its reputation and the recent spiritual influences that the Cowley Fathers had thrust into the mix of Philadelphia’s increasingly diverse population.  The Rector’s powerful sermons had gained widespread notoriety among many of the old Quaker families in the city, and hundreds would pack the church on Sunday evenings to listen to his humorous, sympathetic, and insightful preaching, his sermons sometimes lasting for more than an hour, his texts, presented without notes, both intellectual and moral.   The conservative, evangelical Episcopalians among his growing audiences were especially perplexed by the unfamiliar prospect of four or five celibate Anglican priests, led by Father Rector Maturin orating in his piping, Irish-tinged voice, teaching and preaching sacramental themes of ministry to the poor and needy while conducting worship services infused by ornate ceremonial that testified to Saint Clement’s reputation as the most Anglo-Catholic Anglican church in the land.

The controversies that had consumed the people of Saint Clement’s a decade before, the confrontations with the episcopal authorities over the church’s growing alliance with the Tractarians in England, had not entirely ended.  But when, in 1876, the Fathers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist had been called from Cowley in Oxfordshire to take charge at Saint Clement’s, and especially when Maturin had later been named Rector, the church’s influence in the city had begun to grow.

This humble and learned man, thought Stoddardt, shares Oscar’s love of beauty, of language, and of communication and human intercourse in surprising ways.  They are also, however, so entirely unlike each other: Oscar’s bravado and craving for attention in contrast to his cousin’s unpretentious persuasiveness.  They shared, nevertheless, a strong inclination to hearty and genuine laughter.

“Let me introduce Father Field,” interrupted the clergyman as a youthful man, though in fact a few years Oscar’s senior, in a similarly untidy cassock, rushed into the church as if on some kind of mission that was now to be interrupted by this unexpected presence of the Rector and two strangers, one dignified, the other exotic.

“Father, I am pleased to present Oscar Wilde, my cousin, who is visiting America from England.  And Joseph Stoddart, Oscar’s publisher at Lippincott’s.  Gentlemen, this is Father Charles Field, one of our assisting priests here.”

The author closely examined the young priest as they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.  Field’s intense gaze, with his dazzling hazel eyes, was as astonishing to Oscar as the fiery aurora borealis had been on the sea during his January Atlantic crossing, and he admired the man’s muscular frame that filled out the rope-belted wool garment rather more like the Texas Rangers he had recently charmed than a parish priest. His high forehead and already thinning, close-cropped blond hair also contributed to an impression of youthful, robust masculinity, a robustness lacking in Willie’s more delicate demeanor.  Earnestly listening to Wilde’s reply to his polite question about the author’s American tour, Field smiled with a bemused look that featured his slightly turned up mouth and full lips.  Oscar was startled by his own strong reaction to this Yorkshireman, whose heavy North of England accent accentuated the impression of a working-man wrapped in an envelope of humble, priestly garb.

“We have been following the descriptions of your lectures in the newspapers,” Father Maturin interjected.  “Your thoughts on art, that it elevates everyone, from the Oxford don to the Cornish – or, where is it?  Colorado? – miner, is entirely in concert with our aims here.  We are determined to make our church a lovely shrine and a place of worship and help to as many as we can reach. “

“I see that Willie – Father,” rejoined Oscar, to the priest’s smile at the repetition of his cousin’s familiarity, his eyes sweeping back around into the renewed gloom of the church.   “You are not only enjoying beautiful things here, but it seems you are creating them as well.” 

“Thank you, cousin.”

“Stoddardt tells me that you have gained a reputation as a brilliant orator and preacher in Philadelphia.  What did the report in the newspaper say?  ‘A mass of seething humanity crowded the corridors and aisles of the church?’  I can’t say that I have attracted anything close to a mass of seething humanity at any of my lectures.  Much though I would like to have.”

“Oh, I can’t say anything about that.  It is Father Field who has brought a missionary energy to us in his short time here.  He works tirelessly among the working men and boys of the district round about, many of them employed at the locomotive factory just up the road, offering them spiritual guidance and devotion to the sacraments. In all, Father Field’s smile has converted more souls than any eloquence of mine.”

As they had been talking, the four men had exited the church, walked a few paces along the pavement and ascended some steps to enter a three-story, red brick rowhouse.  The Saint Clement’s Clergy House, was, as Wilde had predicted, ascetic, if not grim.  Like the priests’ cassocks, it was all a bit tattered and uncared for.

Seated on a frayed armchair, which was the only upholstered item of furniture in the room at the front of the house where they had been ushered, the famous English aesthete turned his attention back to the impressive Father Field while the housekeeper busily served tea.

“In being true to our present duties,” the Yorkshireman was saying, “we mean to maintain this place as a center of Catholic devotion, while also making it a place for those in trouble.  Many of the working-men in the district struggle with intemperance, foul and blasphemous language, and immoral living.  And the young boys, who start work at such an early age, are exposed to the same impure influences.  We are always seeking, by God’s grace, to help them find better ways.”

“I should think an appreciation of beauty in all things would go a long way to help.”

“Aye, Mr. Wilde, indeed it does.  So, too, would healthy outings to the country.”

“I am reminded of my long walks in country lanes with Ruskin at Oxford, where exploration of beauty in nature and beauty in art ruled the day.  I hope you can find ways to walk with these souls, help them realize higher purpose.”

“Father has shared some ideas with me about founding a company of such men and boys,” interjected Maturin, who had bemusedly watched his cousin and his assisting priest as they leaned closer together and talked in evident sympathy about the working men of the parish, their worthy labor, interest in arts both practical and fine, and struggles against unworthy and sinful inclinations.

“I trust your ideas are bold and perilous, Father Field,” said an entirely beguiled Wilde.  “Dangerous ideas are the only worthy ones.”

Field laughed heartily, as did the Rector, who rejoined,  “Our own Brother Maynard may agree with you.  He is the one among us who attended your lecture in January at Horticulture Hall.  He has the highest regard for your love for and knowledge about the decorative arts, which he of course shares, as you now know.  He returned that evening full of notions he avows were kindled as a result of your remarks.  ‘The secret of life is in art,’ indeed.

“We are not likely to confess to such a notion of the secret of life here, Oscar.  But there is exquisite beauty in holiness, nevertheless.  I admire Brother Maynard for his devotion to beauty, as I do yours.”

Wilde reflected on his cousin’s words, lost for a moment in musing about this filial visit and the unforeseen confluence of his own thoughts about a life lived in the highest aesthetic realms with the similar interests of the two priests sitting next to him, who, nevertheless, themselves appeared to live a most ironically ascetic life. He chuckled aloud, startling himself and his companions.

“Cousin, this has been a delightful visit,” he said, cheerily.

The four men had reached the dregs of the teapot, and had not been offered any more.  Stoddart roused himself, having remained entirely silent, but attentive, during the lively conversation amongst the other three, and gently reminded Wilde of his next engagement.  The Rector reiterated his invitation to the author to lodge at the Rectory that night, after Oscar’s evening appointment, to which the latter declined in terms considerably more gentle than he had uttered earlier in the day to his publisher.

“Father Field, I wish you well in your endeavors to bring beauty, learning, and conduct befitting their station to your men.  I am confident that in doing so, you’ll make them laugh, which is, of course, the safest way to tell the truth.”

The priests, smiling, glanced at one another, then shook their visitor’s hand, and Maturin offered a blessing, which his cousin, surprising himself, gratefully accepted.

Emerging from the gloomy Rectory into now brilliant sunshine and a warm spring late afternoon, the quartet strolled back to the church, where Oscar had left his walking stick and overcoat in the pew.  Entering the nave by the same doorway they had left it, they found a small, dark-haired man in a simple black cassock, again cinched with rope, just hopping off of the bottom rung of the tall ladder that Oscar had earlier noted leaning against the wall.  Introduced to Brother Maynard, he attempted general pleasantries with the shy artist, but only succeeded in gaining the latter’s full attention when he thanked him for attending, and enjoying, his January lecture.  Wilde then said his now hasty goodbyes and started to lead Stoddart towards the main doors of the church, when he glanced up again in the now brightly sunlit sanctuary.

At the top of the empty ladder he beheld, stretching for many feet along the upper reaches of the side walls, a row of large, luminous, freshly painted sunflowers, cheerfully nodding towards the empty pews below.   Adjusting his boutonniere, he smiled and strode splendidly away.

 

 

Posted in Fiction
March 14th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Words.  My Mom’s life was all about words.

I am certain that she was stringing them together in complete – and clever – sentences by the time she was one or so.  Because by age sixteen, in 1943, she had written, typed and even bound her autobiography.  All her life she reveled in playing with and making words do her bidding in the art of communicating.  She and Barbara, one of her childhood playmates in Greeley, invented a language of code words – both written and spoken – and they would leave notes for each other in this secret lingo in the front seat of an abandoned automobile in the alley behind their houses.

Mom’s love of life was palpable to all who ever knew her, even for a short time.  Her next oldest brother, Neil, was her great childhood pal, and she admitted that the influence that he and his friends had on her made her a tomboy.  At Greeley High, she and The Gang, her ever-expanding group of girl friends, rode around on the city bus all evening singing songs at the tops of their voices.  Mom was always a singer of silly songs.   Some of them she learned from her mother.  And she passed these ditties with their clever puns, jokes and wordplay on to her sons.  We still laugh every time we sing them – and that’s considerably more often than our spouses or children want to hear them.

By sixteen, when a senior in high school, she was already writing stories for the Greeley Tribune, and that fall, off she went to Boulder to the University of Colorado, where her older sister Eleanor had attended some years earlier.  Like Eleanor, she pledged Alpha Phi and, as they say, history was made.  Alpha Phi was an extraordinarily important part of her life ever afterward.  Lifelong friendships were made.  These were such close friendships that they survived even a little envy creeping in.  One Alpha Phi pal admits that the girls were jealous of Mom’s typewriter – the only one in the house.  But Ann had writing to do, and a lot of it.  She majored in Journalism, and when she graduated from CU she almost immediately headed to the University of Illinois, finishing a Masters in Radio & Television Journalism in just a year.

It was in her post-graduate professional life as a radio station traffic manager that she met our Dad, Paul, the station engineer. We have Jack Hull to blame for setting them up for their first date, by the way; he was Dad’s best friend and the station’s on-air talent. Mom and Dad were married in 1951.  A stint with a Denver advertising agency was soon followed by the arrival of yours truly in 1953, Gary in 1955 and David three years after that.

To Mom’s everlasting annoyance, she never bore a formal Alpha Phi legacy.  But that didn’t stop her from recruiting us for the cause anyway.  All through the 1960s and into the ‘70s, Mom and the Denver Alpha Phi alums sold heart lollipops in local stores, restaurants, banks and the like to benefit the Heart Association.  Ron, Gary and David were roped into delivering the decorated coffee cans with heart lollipops stuffed in their tops and then coming back to collect the money.

We were also responsible for delivering her copy to the assignment desk of the Denver Post on deadline day, while Mom circled the block in the car.  She was writing feature articles and weekly events columns for the Zone Editions of the Post during our elementary and junior high years.  When the Post abolished the Zone editions, she moved her byline to the Washington Park Profile and continued to report and write on community news and feature stories for many more years.

Also for years, Mom was the alumnae editor of the national Alpha Phi Quarterly magazine, and her reporter’s skills were called into play every other summer when she went to the national convention to cover it for the magazine.

Meanwhile, there was the church magazine and a history of the congregation to write and edit, countless bridge games (with or without Dad, who we’re sure was always a reluctant bridge player), the church choir to lend her lovely soprano voice to, clever poems to write for family communications, and of course all those Alpha Phi meetings and events.  Oh, and there were her duties as Cub Scout Den Mother, co-creator of boys’ craft projects (the Cookie Christmas Tree survived in the basement until 2003!), teaching us how to yodel and thus waking up all the neighbors in Palmer Lake, and perhaps most importantly for me: encouraging us to read, read, read; plus editing, advising and mentoring on term papers, poetry, and more recently, my blog.

Thank you, Mom, for all you were and are to me, my brothers, our family and your legion of friends around the world. Your and Dad’s abundant kindness has, I hope, rubbed off at least a little.  The depth and breadth of my love for chocolate almost matches yours. And in our lives we can only hope for a fraction of the return you got on your investment in friendships.  You said when you were sixteen “My greatest accomplishment is having a great many friends.  If friends are an asset, my liabilities are few.”    Well Mom, you are the richest person I’ve ever known.

Your spirit and influence and courage live on forever:  I still have that typewriter you used to help your sorority sisters prepare their term papers in 1946.  You had your words to the end: even when you couldn’t speak them anymore, I know they were with you.  And now you’re gently correcting the angels’ grammar, as you did ours.

Yes, you predicted correctly in that 1943 autobiography: “This I know: whatever Fate has cut out for me, his scissors were a pen point and a book mark.”

I love you.  Eternal rest, grant unto her O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.

YouTube video:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWbkuRQYqIo

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in Heritage, Storytelling
November 7th, 2012 | No Comments »
Prism Glass transom Band

“Industry,” with its prism glass transom band

There’s another example of “everything old is new again” in the Pine Street Antique Row corridor.  The historic retail stretch on Pine has seen several new businesses opening in the past few weeks and months.  Our friends and neighbors are delighted; we’ve been concerned about a recent sprouting of empty storefronts that were darkening the retail scene.

Among the new commercial residents that are appearing to mark a hoped-for rebound for the Row is “Industry” and its wonderfully restored storefront that’s casting new light onto Pine Street.  As in most of the late 19th and early 20th century storefront buildings in the neighborhood, the establishment in the 1000 block of Pine draws patrons into its light-filled midst with an eclectic mix of art, fashion and design.  Unique among its neighbors, however, is the storefront’s glittering prism glass transom that provides much of the light to the interior of the store.

Restored by the building’s owner, the prism glass transom redirects and diffuses sunlight deep into the space, providing extra illumination to the interior, and casting a sparkling light at night onto the sidewalk outside.  Prism glass tiles, patented in 1896 by James Penncuick and eventually marketed by the Luxfer Prism Company, quickly became a popular way to enliven and illuminate commercial spaces.    Their usefulness faded, however, as did the transoms in which they were installed, when dropped ceilings and air conditioning made the whole thing seemingly obsolete.

Somehow, the majority of the transom survived, unlike many similar to it when they were ripped out or covered up.  Kudos to the building owner, and to merchant Jay Lamancuso at “Industry” for a handsome restoration of the Pine Street building and the prism glass transoms.  Here’s hoping you light up Pine Street for years to come.

Posted from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

July 13th, 2012 | No Comments »

It’s amazing how visceral memory can be, right?  I am so often convinced that a memory – of a place, a building, a face or an object – is absolutely true and completely accurate, only later to have my certitude blown up in a phaser blast of actuality.

As a romantic, a historian and a storyteller, which by the way can be a very dangerous combination, I often get into this kind of memory trouble.  I can be completely convinced that the story I’m happily telling is based entirely on fact. I know that the historic movie palace that I’m trying to help save from demolition was where my mother took me to see “Pollyanna” in 1960 when the power went out and we sat in the darkened theatre for an hour before going home, disappointed.  Only… it wasn’t.  Probably these accuracy/memory lapses are pretty harmless; a not very important and wholly innocent story, and no one at the City Council hearing will know the difference.  Probably.

But what bigger and more cherished memories are fuzzy, or complete fantasy?  Should it matter?

My brothers and I and our spouses have been working for months at the bittersweet task of clearing out our parents’ Denver home of 40 years in anticipation of its being sold.  There are so many memories boxed up, closeted, stacked and filed in that big ranch house and it’s been hard for us to process them.  For example, there’s the hat.  In the basement, in one of the big, round-topped wooden steamer trunks that our Mom had kept crammed with treasures either valuable or puzzling, we found several ladies’ hats.  My grandmother’s, her mother’s.  From the 1910s, and in pristine condition, they told an immediate and lovely story of a well educated woman with far more style than we grandsons had ever known.  So far, so good, the story.  But I was immediately convinced, without reservation or hesitation, that I recognized one of the hats as having been worn by Ariel on her wedding trip to far off Los Angeles in 1912, it being prominently depicted in photographs in the family albums we had just recently looked through again.  So all weekend long, I told and retold the story: to my husband, my brothers and their wives, to cousins, to anyone who would, or would not, listen.  A small story.  But a story regarded by the listeners as significant and delightful.  And soon we were all to  learn: not true.

Of course, the photograph told the real story, and my story went into the fiction section.  Where, now that I think of it, it will stay and continue to be told.  Fair warning:  I’m admitting now that, my faulty memory and all, absolute accuracy can sometimes get in the way of a good, romantic, history-based story.  I promise, however, to try to not tell them at City Council hearings.  Or in court.

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in History, Storytelling
September 28th, 2011 | No Comments »

Overnight, the second wave of old school, printed yellow pages/phone directories were left on front stoops and in building lobbies all over Washington Square West – maybe in all of Center City.  The first wave came just a few weeks ago from a rival publisher.

Six minutes after we discovered the “gift” on our own steps, the same packages appeared to have been moved en masse from said front stoops and building lobbies to the blue recycling bins on the pavement, as it happens to be trash day.  Convenient; just a few steps required.  There didn’t seem to be a blue bin on our block, or the next, that didn’t have the books placed there in time for collection.

Six minutes later ...

When, oh when, will this ridiculous waste of resources end?  Not all the books are immediately recycled.  Shrink wrapped cubes of them will linger, sodden, on porches for days or weeks before they finally end up as rubbish or recycling.

Posted from Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in Sustainability
July 29th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

In the news this week:  SEPTA ridership is at a 22-year high.  The price of gasoline and the increasing number of younger people and empty-nesters moving to the center of Philadelphia are probably part of the explanation.  Also, surprisingly but happily, the Gov. Corbett-appointed commission on transportation is recommending increasing state support for SEPTA by boosting taxes on oil companies (about time:  Exxon’s profits are up 40% this year!), raising driver-related fees and dedicating a fraction of sales taxes to mass-transit.

All this is good news for those of us who have given up our cars and live a simpler, greener and cheaper life in Center City.  My husband and I took a deep breath about two years ago and gave up the four-wheeled beast, quickly discovering that we would save more than $6,000 a year in transportation costs, including gas, insurance, parking and registrations.  And that figure was calculated including the cost of transit fares, Philly Car Share rentals when needed and such.

Living car-free in the city is news in lots of other places; a Baltimore news piece is just one of many lately.  Meanwhile, Next American City has done a study on new technologies that can improve transportation experiences, with their first 18 study participants asked to ditch their cars for a week.  Results?  Car deprivation (how addicted ARE we to driving?) made folks think creatively, try new experiences, seek autonomy.  All experiences we had, and ultimately enjoyed, at our house.  Another finding: you may lose a car, but you gain a community.  Our bike-mad friends Juliet & Gavin Riggall from North Street Design have ditched their car entirely, and they certainly know what a rich and interesting biking community they belong to in Philadelphia.

Did we have reservations about jettisoning that carbon-dumping car?  Sure.  But it’s worked out pretty well.  We’re lucky, of course.  We live in the heart of William Penn’s pedestrian-loving grid.  Unlike many of our fellow Philadelphians, we live nowhere near one of the food desert neighborhoods in our city.  And we have a nearby friend who loans us his car when there’s an unplanned, long distance trip called for.

You can do it, too.  Even if, like my husband Marc, you don’t have to bike to work, you’ll appreciate the new bike lanes for slowing down and quieting traffic.  You’ll learn the new skill of SEPTA negotiating.  And be in better shape for all that walking.

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in Cities, Sustainability
June 9th, 2011 | No Comments »

I’ve just been to a public forum, presented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission (PHMC) and hosted by DVRPC, which sought comments on the draft state Preservation Plan.  Many of the participants were fellow preservation-geeks, but it was great to see Fairmount Park folks, staff from the Philadelphia City Plan Commission, the city Historical Commission, higher ed people and reps from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (@CreativePHL) as well.

It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion about how to position historic preservation and the agency’s work out in the world for the next five years.  And the findings of a non-scientific, self-selecting online survey that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of PHMC undertook formed the basis of the discussion.  Most of the survey results weren’t too surprising:  people who responded are mostly over age 45, and don’t list “historic buildings” as the places that best reflect what they value about their communities.  But if you think about it, the character-defining features of the communities themselves – the neighborhoods, the landscapes, the trails and waterways – that were the top rated selections in the survey actually embody the heritage that we preservationists seek to, well, conserve.

One of the forum-goers even articulated what I’ve been thinking for some time: maybe we should consider a language change, to what our British and Canadian colleagues call “heritage conservation.”  They avoid “historic.” What’s historic, anyway?  The definition gets fuzzier all the time.  And “preservation,” which sounds like we promote encasing cherished architectural artifacts in amber.

It was also good to hear from the City Plan Commission staffers, and to get some context for their decision to create a stand-alone historic preservation category in the newly adopted Philadelphia 2035 Comprehensive Plan. As I have read the plan during the past few months, I’ve had the slightly annoying feeling that perhaps creating a unique preservation section in the Plan suggests that it’s an afterthought.

It’s great to be singled out in positive ways: historic preservation is important and gets its own chapter.  We’ve all arrived!  But shouldn’t conserving the heritage we’ve got be woven in as an integral part of our planning and development goals and strategies?  Is positive, but separate, attention a way of marginalizing?

The PCPC folks agreed that they’d asked themselves the same questions and decided that education of a public that is largely uninformed and at least consciously uninterested in the built heritage of Philadelphia could benefit from a definitive discussion about the issue in a focused section of the Plan.  They’re likely right.

That same kind of education and conversation need to be a compelling part of the Pennsylvania Preservation Plan as well.  We heritage conservators (see, it didn’t hurt) and our partner, the SHPO, will have to make new friends and allies in the environmental, energy conservation and outdoor recreation worlds.  We will have to learn to lobby more aggressively, network more strategically, communicate more broadly and look at what we want to conserve more diversely.  So onward with more work to craft a meaningful and powerful Preservation Plan for the Commonwealth.

 

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 19th, 2011 | No Comments »

Eat at the chef's counter, sip great wine, watch them cook incredible food at Val & Marcie's Barbuzzo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heritage preservationists have for a very long time been sent to the irrelevance “time-out” corner by many who unfairly claim that they (we, full disclosure) are focused entirely on pretty buildings and not on cold, hard reality.  But old buildings and existing neighborhoods fans really know, as does everyone involved in real estate, planning, architecture and other real world pursuits, that “use,” “use” and “use” are the three most important words in our language.

Philadelphia entrepreneurs Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney know all about using existing buildings, and their neighbors in Center City’s Midtown Village have enjoyed the benefits of the reborn street life the pair have helped foster.  Earlier this week, the AIA Philadelphia Chapter, along with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, saluted their remarkable love for and commitment to urban life in the heart of Philadelphia.  The AIA, at the Alliance’s annual Awards lunch, lauded the partners with the annual Henry J Magaziner, EFAIA Award, which recognizes those who, though outside the “normal circle of preservation and design, have made a significant contribution to preservation of the built environment.”  The duo’s three restaurants (Barbuzzo, Lolita and Bindi) and four shops (Open House, Grocery, Verde and Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates) near 13th and Sansom, reside in older buildings saved and rehabilitated over the past decade by developer Tony Goldman and have joined several other long-standing businesses in the vicinity in turning around what was once considered a “red light district.”

Congratulations to the pair, who even live above the store.  (How else could two people manage such an empire?)  Val and Marcie have made our neighborhood more lively, safer, more interesting and, well, more delicious.  (All their ventures are great,  but @Barbuzzo, already a James Beard award winner, is not be missed.)  Thanks to them and their unflagging energy and creativity.  Philadelphia is much the richer for their commitment.  So is the salted caramel budino!

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 9th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

It’s official: I love Philadelphia and I’m inclined to look at city life through a Philly lens. So, thanks to my incredibly creative husband, via his firm @TactileDesign Group, this blog has a new brand and a new look.

The focus is still reflected in it’s original title:
Urban – characteristic of city life, of or related to the city
Prospects – belief about the future, search for something desirable, a prediction of a future course

I’d love to hear your reaction to RE Philadelphia, its look, its content. Just comment! And thanks for visiting.

Posted in Uncategorized
May 4th, 2011 | No Comments »

The new lobby at the Temple Performing Arts Center

Last night, I joined fellow historic building fans and saviors for the Preservation Alliance’s annual preview tour of one of the group’s upcoming Awards luncheon honoree projects:  the former Baptist Temple, now the Temple Performing Arts Center.  What a great rehabilitation project I discovered, and what a perfect architectural example of Philadelphia’s 250-year-old and still thriving reputation as a center of innovation and invention.

Project architects rmjm/Hillier and engineers Keast & Hood were presented with a 100+ year old stone landmark that had been abandoned for more than 20 years.  The team was challenged with transforming it into a performing space with enough flexibility to welcome the University orchestra, rock concerts, weddings and weekend church services.  One of their most interesting tasks required inserting a substantial lobby space into what was originally designed in 1891 as one large preaching barn.  Restored auditorium of the Baptist TempleA big, square open space – no interior columns to intrude on the sightlines of the 4,000 congregants to the pulpit, 200 voice choir loft and “River of Jordan” baptismal font  – had to be divided to provide a traditional, separated lobby with the usual audience amenities and new vertical circulation.

Thankfully, instead of trying to create a historicized, pseudo-19th century lobby, the architects chose a very sleek, modern vocabulary that draws patrons through a glowing glass and steel environment into the stunning, and slightly surprising, restored auditorium.  Meanwhile, the designers also had to engineer a structural upgrade that complemented the four underperforming columns at building corners, which stretch from foundation to roof, that Keast & Hood tour guides described as ” like a waiter supporting a tray on the tips of four outstretched fingers.”

Baptist Temple and Temple University founder Russell Conwell headed up Victorian Philadelphia’s premiere megachurch here, where he built a theatre that was designed to focus his star struck flock’s attention, center stage, on his notoriously uplifting and inspiring sermons.  So the University’s preservation project at Conwell’s Temple can’t be called an adaptive use; it’s still a theatre.  But the careful rehabilitation includes textbook restoration of lots of historic elements, like conservation of scores of art glass windows.  The spectacular central fan window above the entrance now casts a gloriously colorful glow in the auditorium through an enormous – and soundproof – glass wall in the new lobby.

Tourgoers look in vain for the turntable on the stage of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains

One historic element didn’t make the restoration planning cut, however.  In the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a splendid undercroft designed in an elegant Romanesque style in 1951, the great central arch frames the platform from whence interdenominational religious services were to be conducted.  But the turntable within the arch that allowed the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant altars or regalia to be rotated into view when needed was never fully used, and has now been dispensed with.

Observers like marketing guru Patricia Mann are extolling Philadelphia’s current brand as an incubator of innovation and the logical extension of our long history as a “cradle of invention.”  (See Ben Franklin.) The inventively and beautifully reborn Temple on North Broad is a first rate performance hall, a terrific model of preservation with out-of-the-box thinking, and a worthy recipient of the Preservation Alliance’s Achievement Award.