Chemical Heritage: A Great Museum You’ve Never Heard Of

June 23, 2013

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I recently wrote a story for the Independent Traveler website on 12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of. Philly’s Chemical Heritage Museum* (now known as the Science History Institute) made the cut, though I had a hard time choosing just one from Eastern Pennsylvania. There are so many unique, unsung places that are worth a look, from the Mercer Museum in Doylestown and the Mutter in Philadelphia to the Charles Demuth Museum in Lancaster. In the end, I chose CHM for turning such a seemingly mundane topic (the chemical and molecular sciences) into a sleek and fascinating experience (the periodic tables NEVER looked this good in junior high). Despite its free entry and location in the middle of some of Philly’s biggest tourist sites (Independence Hall is around the corner), it has managed to stay under the radar and is rarely crowded. As the weather heats up, it’s the perfect place to cool off and learn something to boot.

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Child’s Play at the Art Museum

May 24, 2013

I normally don’t relish the thought of taking my two rambunctious boys inside the awe-inducing walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But this summer there’s an exhibit that should appeal to the child in us all. Design for the Modern Child is all about kids — through the eyes of some of the world’s top designers. Items on display include a 1965 hobby horse, shadow-puppet wallpaper by British designer Victoria Cramsie, and a giant house of cards designed by Ray and Charles Eames (of chair fame).

Also premiering is a custom-built, sustainable Cardboard Cubby House designed by Australian architects Bennett and Trimble. It will be on display in the atrium of the Perelman Building (a short walk from the main building; see photo below), where kids can explore it and learn to build themselves from plans provided by the architects. The exhibit runs through mid-October, so there’s plenty of time to catch it. Nearly in tandem with the design exhibit, the kid-friendly ArtSplash program debuts June 28 and runs through Labor Day.

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Get Ready for FASTNACHT DAY

February 12, 2013

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In honor of these fried-dough and sugar treats, here is a photo from the Pennsylvania Bakery in Camp Hill. Haegele’s Bakery in Philadelphia has special “fastnacht” hours Monday and Tuesday. It’s the only time of the year you can get them here. Laudermilch Meats in Annville opens at 7 AM Tuesday and offers fresh fastnachts “while supplies last.”

Fastnacht is German for “eve of the fast” and stems from the Christian tradition of making “fat cakes” before abstaining from sugar and fat during Lent. German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, first brought the tradition to the United States.

Traditional fastnachts use flour made from potatoes and are deep-fried in lard (though many cooks now substitute vegetable or canola oil), then dipped in molasses and dusted with sugar. The tradition is not unlike Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, or Pascki Day in Polish communities, but I like the local PA folklore that surround the fastnacht, like the notion that the oil they are fried in has magical powers or that the person who eats the last one will end up an old maid or bachelor.

Bakeries all over southeastern Pennsylvania will open their doors earlier than usual on Tuesday, with the expectation of selling thousands of fastnachts by mid-day. Churches, fire houses, and schools also sell their own variations. Even though the ingredients are always they same, everyone has fixed ideas about what makes a perfect specimen. Here is a story that offers a little more history on the fastnacht.

It’s a blissful day for doughnut-lovers

Pennsylvania’s unique B&Bs

January 15, 2013

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Pennsylvania has more than its share of interesting bed & breakfast inns. At the 1870 Wedgwood Inn (pictured above) in New Hope, the innkeepers proudly point out a trap door leading to a tunnel that was once part of the Philadelphia-Quaker Underground Railroad network before leading guests to their elegant, Victorian-era rooms. At Hamanassett in the Brandywine Valley, guests can play pool amid antique dolls and games and learn how to prepare Azerbaijani cuisine in the former home of the quartermaster general serving Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

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Landhaven (pictured above and below) in Barto may win the title of the state’s quirkiest B&B with Four Seasons-worthy bathrooms in the middle of nowhere. Once a general store and post office for tiny Huffs Church, Landhaven is now a five-room inn with pastoral views and rooms with luxury touches that you might expect at a five-star hotel but not necessarily in an unincorporated community in rural Berks County. While the inn has been open since the late 1990s, it is perhaps best known for hosting intimate live music performances in a large room filled with Windsor chairs, watchmaker’s cabinets, and 19th century U.S. postal guides. Donna Land, who has worked as a recipe tester and consultant for Campbell Soup and other companies, runs the place with her husband Ed, a former news film and videotape editor who may be the only B&B owner to have won two Emmy awards and claim custom decorative blacksmithing as a favorite hobby. They have fixed up the rooms with handmade quilts, period furnishings, and antique fixtures that Ed has salvaged and restored. The concerts, which include local and national acts, are the marquee attraction for many guests, who love the casual BYO environment and boxed dinners for under $10 (the Lands also serve iced tea and cookies gratis). John Jorgenson, guitarist for Elton John, is a regular performer, and upcoming acts in winter include folk singer Tracy Grammer and blues legend Chris Smither.

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There’s not much do in Barto, though the hiking trails of Green Lane Reservoir are nearby, and Donna will direct you to a wonderful rock and mineral shop, Bey’s, down the road. Crystal Cave is about 20 miles away, and the inn sits pretty much smack in the middle of the antiques markets of Reading and Allentown. As Valentine’s Day approaches, I can’t think of a better way of celebrating than with a concert followed by a peaceful night’s stay at this unique B&B find.

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It’s like God said, “Let There Be Wawa…”

December 27, 2012

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Philadelphia Magazine does a pretty good job this month of coming up with 76 reasons to love Philly. There are a few entries I find questionable, like Main Line gossip and the Anthropologie store on 18th street, but most are spot on, like midnight pretzels at the Pretzel Factory, Kelly Drive, and the Curtis Institute of Music. My favorite reason of all is No. 27, that old standby that represents so many of the city’s good qualities: fresh rolls, chummy service, low prices, and 24-hour access to Tastykakes and soft pretzels. Here’s to Wawa.

p.s. photo courtesy of the 50 Wawas in 30 Days blog.

Getting the Most Out of Valley Forge National Park

December 2, 2012

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When you grow up a few miles from Valley Forge National Park, you don’t tend to think of it as a place of profound historical significance.  You think of it more as a recreational escape on the way to or from the King of Prussia malls — a wide, open space to take your first real bike ride, attend birthday parties, take joy rides as a teenager, and jog along one of the nicest 5-mile loop trails around. You take for granted the perfectly reconstructed log cabins and artillery cannons you happen to pass along the way.

It was only after I returned with my own kids and visited half a dozen other national parks as an adult, that I came to appreciate Valley Forge for what it really is — a monument to sacrifice and survival, the place where George Washington and the Continental Army endured a brutal winter encampment in which 2,000 men died, yet went on to win big in the Revolutionary War.  Now I marvel that all of this was practically in my own backyard when I was growing up.

Here are 5 things that are essential to every visit to Valley Forge, from someone who has logged in many hours here as both a local and a tourist.

1. Exercise! Join the many local residents already in the know about the perfect five-mile trail that loops around the entire park. On nice spring evenings, it is packed with walkers and runners just clocking off work, especially between the Welcome Center and the National Memorial Arch. Weekends are busy, too, but it’s always a little quieter if you start near Washington Memorial Chapel or General Washington’s headquarters and do a counter-clockwise loop.

2. Visit in winter. It will give you an idea of the conditions Washington and his troops experienced. Unlike many national parks, Valley Forge is a beehive of activity in winter, especially this month. One of the park’s biggest events takes place on Dec. 19, the anniversary of the Contintental Army’s ‘March-In’ to settle in the sleepy village of Valley Forge. Uniformed volunteers re-create the march and lead candle-lit tours to the log huts, where living Continental encampments have been set up. (For those reluctant to brave the cold, the park offers holiday trolley tours between Dec. 26 and 30 for $16 a person.)

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3. Don’t miss the used bookstore and gift shop behind Washington Memorial Chapel. Run by volunteers, the Cabin Shop is a welcoming source of souvenirs, hot chocolate, homemade breads, and casual seating. (A local newspaper voted it the best place for hot dogs around.) The bookstore (just behind the chapel) is an unexpected discovery, a slightly musty room with cinder-block shelves full of cookbooks, children’s books, travel guides, and hardcovers, most for less than $5.

4. Run down the hills. Whether you have kids or not, barreling down the gently rolling hills that are all over the park is one of the best and cheapest thrills around.

5. Visit the bell tower and carillon at Washington Memorial Chapel. These 58 bronzed bells weigh more than 26 tons combined and were completed by the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial to American independence in 1953. They are played by hand from a keyboard (the church actually has its own house carillonneur). Call the chapel or check here for upcoming carillon events. The tower also houses the Justice Bell, a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell that was used between 1915 to 1920 to call attention to the women’s suffrage movement. If you can’t make it to Center City to see the real one, it’s the next best thing.

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A Magical Trip to South Street

November 14, 2012

It’s a stretch of South Street that you once walked blocks to avoid. Now South west of 9th has a Whole Foods, a farm-to-table restaurant (Supper), and a hair salon that charges $50 a cut. It is also home to Philadelphia’s kookiest and most endearing attraction, known as Magic Gardens. As the story goes, artist Isaiah Zagar began tiling dilapidated South Street buildings in the 1960s with porcelain and glass discarded from the city’s shuttered factories and warehouses — and he never stopped. He tackled the vacant lot where the Magic Garden now sits in 1994 and worked on it for 15 years. The community stepped in to save Zagar’s work from demolition about a decade ago, when the lot’s owner wanted to sell it, and the half-block complex is now run by a non-profit. When I visited last year for the first time, it instantly reminded me of Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Simon Rodia’s stunning spires of found objects like porcelain, green glass, and sea shells. Watts also narrowly missed the wrecking ball in the 1950s when the arts community stepped in to save it.

Anyone can gape at the tiled courtyard from the street, but to fully experience Philly’s Magic Gardens, pay $7 and wander through the labrynthine rooms, closets, and basement. Even the bathroom is embedded with folk-art statues, cut mirrors, and tiles. It will take you at least an hour to soak it all up, longer if it’s a nice day and you have time to wander the courtyard and sculpture garden and view the documentary by Zagar’s son that chronicles the family’s life. On some Sundays, you’ll find the 73-year-old artist himself holding court in his studio and happy to answer questions about his folk-art masterpiece.

Gettysburg Bed and Breakfast (includes ghosts)

November 6, 2012

In the spirit of keeping Halloween alive, I thought I’d mention an interesting accommodations option in Gettsyburg that might not make it onto the town’s usual hotel listings. It’s a cozy wood-paneled room in the David Stewart Farmhouse, a private home whose owner opens up to visitors who don’t mind two dogs, four cats, and some ghosts who date back to the farm’s former life as a Civil War hospital.

The room, which includes a queen-sized bed, private bath and use of the home’s charming kitchen and family room, is listed on AirBnB.com for $100 a night. Not bad, when you consider that some of Gettysburg’s sterile chain motels go for that much. (I used AirBnB.com for a weekend stay in NYC earlier this year and had a great experience.)

Here’s what the owner has to say:
“I will be your only “living” host, but there are many others who reside with me. They have lived at the farm for many many years, some for hundreds of years. Yes, the house is haunted, but they are all friendly! I have been here for 30 years and have lots of interesting stories that I’d be happy to share with you if you are interested.”

Other things to know: there’s a four-night minimum, the stay includes use of a nearby fitness center, and the house is about four miles from the center of town.

Wharton Esherick Museum: Homage to a Rebel Craftsman

October 23, 2012

“Be sure to touch the railing on the way down,” the guide at the Wharton Esherick Museum urged as we descended the hand-crafted red oak spiral staircase. “It isn’t every day that you get to feel the tusk of a mastodon.”

No. And a visit to this leafy Valley Forge property isn’t your typical house tour. This is the studio (and later home) of Esherick, a master craftsman whose motto was “if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing.” The building pays homage to Pennsylvania’s stone barns, an artist’s fascination with the concave and convex, and the use of recycled materials long before it was trendy to do so. Esherick used branches from the property’s wild cherry tree to make the dining room’s wood paneling. Rejected walnut and applewood scraps make up the curvilinear floor. And the artist’s cantilevered chairs, desks, and tables can be found throughout the house, along with whimsical sculptures of horses, pheasants, and Winnie the Pooh.

Esherick, who studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, lived “hand to mouth” most of his life, according to the museum, bartering oak chairs for his children’s tuition and only gaining recognition as a pioneer of American Modern furniture after his death in 1970.

A visit to his home offers a glimpse into his creative, thoroughly rebellious mind.

Tours are $12 per person and available on weekdays by appointment for groups of 5 or more, and Saturday and Sunday for individuals or groups; the museum closes in January and February. Combine a trip here with a visit to Valley Forge National Park (5 minutes away) or an evening at Hedgerow Theatre, a repertory theater in Rose Valley that Esherick was heavily involved with, along with Edward Albee and Richard Basehart.

Doughnuts and Creamed Beef at Oregon Dairy

October 8, 2012

Besides apples and gorgeous foliage, fall brings to mind big breakfasts. One of the best breakfasts my family and I ever had was at Oregon Dairy in Lititz, right off Rte. 222.

(Footnote: I don’t say that casually — Pennsylvania has lots of excellent breakfast spots.)

We loved that every breakfast platter came with a hockey puck-sized doughnut and glass of fresh milk, and that a huge plate of eggs, home fries, and toast costs less than a gallon of gas in California right now. The dairy-themed playground next door is a perfect way for the kids to burn off all those calories and for adults to rest and enjoy the Amish countryside while nursing their pecan-waffle food comas.

On weekdays, the dining room is often filled with retired Mennonite folks, bibles in hand; tour buses like the Friday and Saturday all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets ($8.25, kids half price). This month, there’s also a corn maze to add to the fun.