SOLEBURY, Pa. (AP) – Tucked between the Delaware River and canal path just north of New Hope lies a quaint English village Eleanor Miller calls home.
“When I’m walking along the road out front, people actually stop and say, ‘Where am I, this is unbelievable,’” she said. “People come along River Road and suddenly they are in England. It’s such a magical spot.”
Drive too fast past Miller’s Gothic-style home and you might miss the significance of one of the most influential artistic movements in American history.
The hidden structures that dot the riverside of Solebury were once the center of the New Hope Art Colony, which served as a hub of the world-renowned Pennsylvania Impressionist movement at the turn of the 20th century.
More than 100 years after it was formed, a group of artists and architects are trying to preserve the hamlet that grew out of the 18th-century Phillips’ Mill and inspired artists from around the world.
“We launched the idea of a way to recreate the original artist colony in a new way while preserving the original Phillips Mill community, which is certainly the hub of the artist colony in New Hope that extends out to many other local properties where artists resided,” said Brett Webber, founder and president of the Phillips Mill Foundation for the Arts. “It came to be a hub and meeting place for the artists in the early 20th century.”
Recently, the nonprofit consisting of a dozen members and a growing advisory board of local and national artists kicked off a $35 million fundraising campaign to acquire, restore and rehabilitate numerous structures in the village over a 5- to 10-year period.
“In 2018, we formed the organization with an ambition to essentially preserve the historic community that sits opposite the original mill and an assemblage of buildings that were originally farm buildings and residences that were over time built out to accommodate artist studios and workshops,” Webber said.
The group currently owns three structures on two parcels of the original community that overlooks the Delaware, Webber said.
“We have just shy of an acre of property,” he said. “The total of the hamlet here is a handful of acres but the larger properties within the site contiguous to the original (area) is comprised of 15 to 16 acres of property that are linked to other locations where artists lived historically and had studios where we have opportunities for future collaboration up and down the Delaware Canal.”
The first $425,000 raised was used to purchase and preserve the Norman French-style kennel and forge buildings fronting the canal previously owned by Morgan Colt, a New York City-based architect who built the village. Another purchase included its Foundation House, the former dormitory of New Hope School for Girls that was transformed into the Inn at Phillips Mill Restaurant years ago.
Colt came here in the early 1900s and essentially gave form to the community, largely through what he called the English village, which was a combination of his aspirations for the arts and crafts,” said Webber, an award-winning architect and lifelong Delaware River Valley resident. “So there is English Tudor and French inspired structures here and a variety of adapted buildings.”
Colt was followed by Philadelphia Dr. George Morley Marshall, who later encouraged his friend and renowned painter William Lathrop to move to the property. A dedicated teacher, Lathrop later helped form the colony by attracting other artists to the area after moving into Phillips’ Mill in 1899, according to the Michener Art Museum.
Sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School,” the Impressionist movement drew a number of artists who were inspired by the county’s natural landscapes.
“In the community, we have over a dozen structures that are meaningful and important, but as we move forward with our plans that extend beyond the physical confines of the English village, there are farm structures and many other properties that would be a part of our long-term plan,” Webber said.
One of Colt’s three structures is his former art studio, where fourth-generation Phillips’ Mill resident Miller resides today.
Miller’s heritage dates back to Marshall. Her husband, Shaun Marshall Miller, was a publisher and artist and son of painter R.A.D. Miller, who came to the community in 1928 before marrying Marshall’s daughter, Celia Belden Marshall.
By 1929, Lathrop negotiated the purchase of the mill from Marshall so he could host art exhibitions and form the Phillips’ Mill Art Association. To this day, the association hosts annual juried exhibits from artists across the area.
Miller, PMFA co-founder and vice president, said she performed as an actress and traveled with fellow actor Bea Arthur before meeting her husband at the Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia.
“Years later after we had children, we decided to come home down here,” she said. “So he commuted to work (in New York) every day and we had the country to enjoy.”
Miller said it’s important to restore and preserve the colony for “others to enjoy for posterity” due to its significance.
“It is known all over the world,” she said. “We were in Europe in 1976 and we went to Switzerland and someone asked where we were from and I said, ‘Oh, you’ve probably never heard of New Hope, Bucks County, Pa.,’ and they said, ‘The Art Colony!’
“There’s a lot of history here.”
Later this year, the group hopes to launch the PMFA Membership Program, Fall 2020 programming, a virtual “artists residency” and an exhibition inspired by the Pennsylvania Impressionists. It is seeking memberships and donations on its website, phillipsmillfoundation.org.
Following the acquisitions and restorations, the hope is the foundation can reinstate the acclaimed art colony with live work studios and exhibits while fostering professional and creative development for artists of all disciplines, Webber said.
“This is a unique place in the world … I think architects and artists appreciate these sources and inspiration and there is a particular mythology that kind of resonates around this place because of the amount of people that passed through here and lives and work that it touched and influenced,” he said. “There is something important just intrinsically about interpreting history and telling history in the place where these things were created.
“There is a kind of energy that exists here.”
By ANTHONY DIMATTIA, Bucks County Courier Times
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com
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