Post-Election Philadelphia


PHILADELPHIA WAS A POIGNANT PLACE to spend time in the immediate aftermath of the election (after casting my vote in NYC, of course).

Everywhere you look, there are statues and portraits of presidents and patriots, reminders of genius, courage and high-flying ideals. As you walk the very streets and pass the very buildings where our country was founded, you have to wonder where our new President-elect fits into the picture. At what point, exactly, did the Roman Empire begin to  fall, and are we there yet?

Certainly there were internecine battles as vicious as the recent campaign in the run-up to the Revolution, and after. The Civil War was far more horrific than our recent electoral War Between the States, and we survived that.

So I have to say that, yes, the perspective gained by walking Philadelphia’s über-historic, über-charming streets (and Uber-ing through them as well, as a matter of fact) helped to quell the panic.

I had a visitor from Brooklyn, a friend who couldn’t bear to spend the first few days of the new reality alone. We steeped ourselves in great art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the country’s first art museum; visited the new Barnes Foundation and were moved by its monumental modern architecture and landscaping, overwhelmed by the sheer number of masterpieces; took an impromptu tour of the 18th century Powel House in Society Hill, a fine and under-visited house museum; checked out the Italian Market and the Maxfield Parrish-designed, L.C. Tiffany-executed stained glass mural at the Curtis Publishing building in Washington Square; and ate and drank at any number of restaurants and watering holes.

They say you can get used to anything, and indeed the initial shock has begun to taper off. But last week in Philly, we were tourists in a strange land. There was something especially surreal about that first post-apocalypse day, when people in blue Philadelphia’s cafés and cobbled streets exchanged rueful glances and sad smiles, the rain fell, and it seemed the world wept.


Below, the high Victorian splendor of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1876, filled with all-American art.


Architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt pulled out all the stops.


There are modern works too, including some great examples of the Ashcan School, O’Keefe, Hopper, Feininger et al.

We checked out a temporary exhibition, on through January, of Thomas Eakins’ provocative, mostly nude photographs, an early exploration of the new medium, below. Eakins, a Philadelphia painter, taught at PAFA, then and now also an art school, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (And we hippies thought we invented skinny-dipping.)


The powerful architecture and landscaping around the new Barnes Foundation building, below, off Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Philly’s Museum Mile), make it difficult to take a bad picture.


Photography is not allowed inside the museum, which represents one man’s collection of masterpieces (180+ Renoirs, Cezannes by the dozen, Matisses galore, Rousseaus, Modiglianis, Picassos, plus ancient Greek pottery, Navajo silver, other metalwork and furniture), all mounted for exhibit in rooms that recreate exactly the suburban home of Albert Barnes in precisely the arrangement he left at his death in 1951.

Below, houses that caught my eye, mostly in Washington Square West and Society Hill.


Here’s one that invites you in, as did the site manager at the 1765 Powel House, below, when we approached her at the door to inquire what time the next tour was. “I guess there could be one right now,” she said.


The ballroom, above. Washington danced here.


Jennifer Davidson, our lovely guide to the Powel House.

Below, one of Philadelphia’s best-kept decorative arts secrets: the glowing Maxfield Parrish/L.C. Tiffany stained glass mural, some 40 or 50 feet across, in the lobby of the Curtis Publishing building at the northeast corner of Washington Square. Called “The Dream Garden,” it was created in 1914-15 and is free for the viewing.



Some flavorful neighborhood scenes: a South Street cigar shop…


my go-to cafe, the Hungry Pigeon, in quiet Queen Village…


the nearby Italian Market, the likes of whose permanent outdoor stalls I haven’t seen in any other city…


a Polish restaurant in Port Richmond in north Philadelphia, a spot I have been known to hit on my way out of town for the cheese and potato pierogies with fried onions and sour cream, below. (Well, come on, after all that walking?!)


Here are just two of the literally thousands of building-size murals in Philly, a result of its unique Mural Arts Program, both offering glimpses into fantastical worlds: top, Center City; bottom, Bella Vista.


“Today I pray for…” says the blackboard outside Old St. Joseph’s Church in Society Hill, a tin pail of chalk at the ready.


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Philadelphia: Walking in Southwark


I’VE JUST SPENT three days in Philadelphia, where I camped out in a vacant apartment on an air mattress in a building I own in Queen Village, a made-up 1970s name for the neighborhood along the Delaware River, just south of South Street.

Before real estate folks came up with Queen Village, it was called Southwark by English settlers. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Philadelphia (and surely one of the oldest in the country, come to that), settled originally by Swedes in the late 17th century.

In the 18th and 19th, the riverfront — access to which is now compromised by I-95 and the multi-lane Columbus Boulevard — was all piers and warehouses, and the small row houses were occupied mostly by the families of people employed in the shipping trades.

I walked the atmospheric streets, narrow and cobbled, observing the 200+-year-old row houses, enjoying their individual quirks and how their owners have restored them.

Colorful paint jobs and sidewalk greenery characterize the properties, and there’s no shortage of seasonal décor like chrysanthemums, pumpkins and corn stalks. People even put café tables and chairs out on their 24 inches of sidewalk (secured with discreet chains).

I took special note of dormer and fanlight windows, each of which I hope to restore in my own 1810 building nearby (which will be the subject of other blog posts as I move forward with the project).

Note shutters, dormer windows, fanlights over doors, all typical of the area’s architecture.

These photos were taken mostly on Front Street, Second Street and the narrow lanes and alleys in between. I took no notes and couldn’t easily find these particular buildings again, but I’ve captioned what I can identify.

If you want to read more about Southwark’s history and architecture, go here.

Top, a glimpse through an iron gate into a cobbled courtyard on Second Street.


Don’t know quite what to make of this clapboard house, above. Looks like the left half may have been removed somewhere along the line.


Above, along with a few photos of clapboard houses below, is the particularly charming South Hancock Street, between Christian and Catherine Streets.


Back on Second Street, above, an intact vintage storefront of the early 20th century.


Above, the c. 1762 William Spafford House at the corner of Front and Bainbridge, a Georgian gem apparently still on the market after several years.


A fine and famous Front Street row, above: Workman Place, which has another group of small rental properties in a courtyard behind it. The dates give in my guidebook are “1748, 1812.” I honestly don’t know whether the facades above are the former or the latter. Any illuminating thoughts?

Below, the reason for the development of Southwark in the first place: the Delaware River, spanned by the Benjamin Franklin bridge, which opened in 1926.

The tall four-masted ship, built in Scotland in 1904, houses a restaurant called Moshulu. According to its website, it’s “the oldest and largest square rigged sailing vessel still afloat” and “the one and only restaurant venue on a tall ship today in the world.”



Downtown Brooklyn: Then and Now


I ALWAYS LOVED those hokey “Then & Now” books you could buy at souvenir kiosks in Rome, showing what the Forum and Colosseum looked like in their 1st century heyday, with acetate pages superimposed to show how they look today.

The photo above, courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society, was taken at the intersection of Fourth and Flatbush Avenues in the late 1920s. Despite the traffic chaos, you can make out the bottom of the then-new Williamsburg Savings Bank tower behind the elevated train tracks and the row of commercial buildings at left, which are still there — see below if you don’t believe me — but who knows for how long.


Recently, a new branch of TD Bank opened on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. It’s decorated with murals depicting early 20th c. neighborhood scenes. They were even giving away placemat-sized posters of the same images, which I was happy to take.

I then went and stood at each vantage point to see what remained — probably less than remains in Rome after two millennia. You can make out a few of the same buildings, but the charm has all been lost to the relentless march of commerce.


Above, looking west on Atlantic Avenue from Court Street, c. 1930. Below, same view today. The street light remains (or a replica), and quite a few of the row houses. I’m sure developers are itching to get their hands on all that open sky.


Below, a c.1922 image (note horse cart and earlier cars), northwest corner of State and Court Streets.


Two decades ago, the monstrosity below, in the form of a multiplex cinema and mega-bookstore was visited upon us. Thanks to historic district protection, the row houses on State Street, barely visible behind the trees, remain.


Below, my fave, the northeast and southeast corners of State and Court, looking up toward the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock tower, c. 1929, when the tower had just been built.


I moved to the area in 1979, and that corner looks very familiar. It’s only in the last decade or so that the undistinguished brick boxes, below, that replaced the vintage buildings came to be. You can just about see the clock tower down at the end of the block.


As Brian Wilson sang, I just wasn’t made for these times. If Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine comes along to take me back 80 or so years, I’m on it.


Fall Garden Assessment: All Credit Due to Nature


REALLY, I CLAIM VERY LITTLE CREDIT for my half-acre garden on the East End of Long Island. I may feel like I’m working hard, schlepping compost from the dump and seaweed from the beach and dragging hoses around by the hour when my prayers for rain go unanswered. But when I look at photos from even a year ago, I realize that the plants are pretty much doing it by themselves.

This year, I can’t say I’ve “put my garden to bed” for the winter. I decamped for the city a few days ago, when it got cold, and closed up the house for the season. I shut the fireplace flue, emptied the fridge, stripped the beds, the whole routine. But the garden, I just sort of left.

No point raking now. The dozens of trees — oak, hickory, maple — haven’t yet shed the bulk of their leaves. As for applying that protective winter layer of mulch, “they say” you need to wait until the ground freezes. (Why? That they never say.) Anyway, I didn’t do it.

In the past few weeks, I have added plants, of course: the fab pink muhly grass (top), glistening in the morning sun. Some Montauk daisies (gotta have those for local color; Montauk is 12 miles away). Several shrubs and some perennials from a wonderful wholesale nursery a friend in the business took me to. A couple more shrubs from a local couple who have a nursery of sorts in their suburban backyard. And a few dozen exotic lilies, mail-ordered from Van Engelen, the bulb company, which seem to do very well in my sandy soil.

So I dug and planted and watered in October, and only afterwards was astonished to look, for comparison’s sake, at photos from last October, and see how things filled in of their own accord, when I was hardly paying attention.


Two views of same area. Top, a thriving stand of Solomon’s seal in the foreground. Bottom, left to right: mystery shrub purchased from local couple (“like an azalea”); viburnum from last year showing fall color; new hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’; $5 white hydrangea from local couple that blooms for months and months


View of same area, above, with fewer and smaller shrubs, about a year ago.


Purple berries on new beautybush (callicarpa ‘Issai’), and a beauty it is.


Beds near deck filled out, especially considering what they looked like a year ago, below


Above, left to right in a corner of the deck: dusty miller that began as annuals bought for containers two years ago but have persisted in the ground and formed a large stand; new agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin,’ love the coral color; Montauk daisies in bloom


Above, how I left things along the front walk. Impressive compared to last fall’s view of the same area from a different angle, below


Two views of my raised beds, below, which are kind of experimental holding pens for things I don’t quite know what to do with. They were butterfly magnets this past summer.

The catmint has gone wild. There’s some purple agastache, two Miss Kim lilacs, a potentilla, a physocarpus, a blueberry plant, and some orange cosmos that self-seeded from last year.


I cleaned up the raised beds about a month ago, cutting back verbena bonariensis  and phlox that had gotten mildewed and out of control, and shearing some other country perennials like obedient plant and coneflower, which I expect to return robustly next summer.

I need to add more soil to these beds. These things are growing in just a few inches, but it’s as rich as it is scanty. I used these beds as my compost bins, dumping all my kitchen scraps in there, for the first couple of years I lived here. I’ve since been adding seaweed from the beach and leaf mold from my own copious piles of leaves…but I really need to lift everything, fill the beds to the top and replant. Next spring for that.

Below, where I savor my garden accomplishments — or rather, nature’s — of an autumn evening.



Schenectady’s Stockade District

img_3881I’VE BEEN TO TROY, N.Y. (and blogged about it here), and to Albany (likewise) and was impressed with both, but never to Schenectady, the third sister city in New York State’s Capital District.

But I’m not averse to covering a place I’ve never visited when photos come my way. These were taken by my wasband, Jeff Greenberg, who was in Schenectady recently for the first time and was wowed by the abundance of historic architecture, like the c. 1760 Dutch Colonial above.


Turns out that Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District is the oldest residential neighborhood in the country, where more than 40 pre-Revolutionary buildings survive, along with many from the 19th century in a wide range of styles.

Settled on the Mohawk River by Dutch fur-traders nearly 400 years ago, the area played an important role in Revolutionary war supply lines and became prosperous in the 1800s when the Erie Canal was built half a mile away.

Read more (much more) about its history on the Stockade Association’s website here, and listen to block-by-block narratives about the city’s historic architecture here.

Meanwhile, have a little taste of what Schenectady has to offer old-house aficionados, below.


Below, a Renaissance Revival style mansion with original woodwork, ironwork and tile intact. A similar house next door, which has been chopped up into 14 apartments, is on the market for $725K. Find the listing here.


Nearly Untouched 1829 Townhouse in Historic Center City Philadelphia $550K


IT’S ALMOST BEYOND BELIEF, that a grand 1829 townhouse like this, now on the market (<- Sotheby’s listing with many more photos) for only $550K in a primo Philly neighborhood, should remain in such antique condition to the present day.

Not that the owner of 31 years, a craftsman, didn’t put a lot of work into it. He did, even hand-laying slate tiles on the pitched roof.

29175352_bigThe current condition reminds me of the Dennis Severs House , which I once toured n Spitalfields, London, and which was never even electrified — this Philly house has much new wiring and plumbing — or the aesthetic of designer John Dorian’s New York apartment, where cracked plaster and scuffed wide plank floors were cherished, not renovated into oblivion.

Can you imagine granite countertops and a marble bath in this house? Sheetrock walls and recessed lights? Horrors. Sacrilege! Someone buy it, please, and live in it the way it is — or don’t live in it, just let it be. It’s a perfect house to do nothing to.

I’m sort of kidding. I would need to undertake some restorative plasterwork of the walls and ceilings, and there’s only one half-bath operational at present. No doubt one could sink millions into it. On the other hand, look at the asking price.


recent post on Curbed Philly says the house was built by Joseph and Eliza Shoemaker, Jr., who used the ground floor as a drug store.

It’s at 1221 Pine Street on the corner of Camac Street in the Center City neighborhood of Washington Square Park. It’s over 2,600 square feet, with six bedrooms. Only one half-bath currently functions; another full bath is almost ready to go.

The house is zoned RSA-5 for residential or mixed-use, with a historic designation the requires consulting with the city’s Historic Commission.

“Restore to historic grandeur”? Maybe. I like it the way it is.


More description gleaned from the Sotheby’s listing:

City records report 2,643 square feet, but the house could be over 3,000 if you count the basement was dug out and expanded top floor.
The exterior has two working gas lanterns, brick sidewalks and an iron fence.
The home has four entrances on both Pine and Camac Streets. The first floor has an entry vestibule and three large rooms with 10-12′ ceilings.
The second floor has three rooms with two fireplaces, one marble. The third floor has three rooms, one with fireplace, and the fourth floor has one large room with a fanlight window and a door leading to the roof.
The basement has been dug out, with high ceilings and a sidewalk entrance.
There are gas lines for some ceiling and wall fixtures.
The previous homeowner installed some new wiring and plumbing. There is one working half bath and a full bath will all new plumbing, but the water is not on to test it. There are two other bathroom spaces that have been roughed in.



Outdoor Shower of My Dreams & Other Home Improvements


AS THE SUMMER OF ’16 fades into memory (say it isn’t so!), I’m taking stock of what I’ve accomplished and trying to savor those accomplishments, instead of feeling, as usual, that I haven’t done enough.

By far the best and most ambitious thing I have to show for the season is a fabulous 5’x5′ outdoor shower designed and built by Max Greenberg of Works Progress, a young Philadelphia craftsman I happen to have given birth to.

I had had a generous platform built earlier in the summer, below, right outside my back door, and the shower plumbed against the outside back wall of the house, with a big rainhead showerhead, before construction of the enclosure began. (Yes, yes, I know… now that there’s a reason to go out back, I have to paint that side of the house. It’s never-ending.)

We went wood-shopping here in East Hampton for clear red cedar (cost a fortune, worth every penny). Then Max and his friend Curtis, working partly under a tent in pouring rain, constructed the shower, with slatted segments for ventilation and a fitted interior, in just two days.

An outdoor shower enhances the beach-house experience like nothing else.


Earlier in the summer, a friend helped me insert some cedar logs and railroad tiles into a sloping wood-chip path, below, to make climbing easier and prevent all the wood chips from ending up at the bottom of the hill when it rains hard — a definite functional improvement.


I also had a Suffolk County water line run from the road to the house, so I’m no longer dependent on my private well, wondering the water is really OK to drink.

That was a disruptive day-and-a-half, involving the invasion of a backhoe (remarkably, they maneuvered skillfully around all my plantings) and the digging of three enormous deep holes, two within the property line and one outside, to snake the new water line to my pump under the deck.

The water pressure is great, but now I’ll have to pay for water, something I didn’t think of before (duh).


I then had to repair the damage made to the soil, as the backhoe had turned over massive piles of orange-y dirt in three places. (Not that the quality of my soil is so great. In fact, when I realized I have only a few inches of decent topsoil over driest sand, I’m amazed I’m able to grow as much as I can).

02Outside the fence, stretching along about 150′ of roadside, I decided to plant a 6′-wide swath of evergreen ground cover called purple wintercreeper, at the suggestion of Brooklyn-based landscape architect Kim Hoyt.

(Those are not my initials on the photo at left; it stands for Classy Groundcovers, the name of the Georgia mail-order company they came from.)

I ordered 500 bare-root plants and spent two days in early September putting in 350 of them, using a combination of bulb digger, trowel and Japanese hori hori knife to dig the holes. Then, in severe pain from two days of crouching and kneeling, I called in reinforcements to plant the last 150.


To address the damage to the area just inside my entry gate, which had been a natural path through soft gray beach sand, I decided to avail myself of the free scallop shells some seafood operation had piled at the local dump, a wonderful resource where compost, mulch and wood chips are also available to residents.

I’d used scallop shells whole as a decorative mulch in one small area, but now I decided to use them in lieu of gravel, crushed, as the early Americans did (you can see them at Williamsburg, Virginia, used as path material between raised planting beds).

Dumping about 10 buckets of lightweight scallop shells, then stomping on them, was simple and rather fun, but whether it was a solution to anything, or whether I’ll be able to live with the look of it, remains to be seen. The jury is still out on the aesthetics of that one.

Hopefully they’ll bleach in the sun and mellow over the winter to look more organic, and I ought to plant something along the sides, perhaps. Right now, “It’s… crunchy,” is the best one friend could come up with upon seeing my new scallop shell path. That it is.