philadelphia: the unexpected city

The other day I wrote about being a little kid in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. The mid 1960s through to the mid 1970s.

Today I picked up some things from a storage locker sale I had purchased. One thing was a limited edition book published in 1965 when I was a year old. Philadelphia: The Unexpected City by Laurence Lafore and Sara Lee Lippincott. The publisher was Doubleday. It was a copy of the “Philadelphia Edition.”

I don’t think too many people would be as excited to see this book as I was. But it was a book I remember people having in their homes when I was growing up, especially people that lived in Society Hill because there was so much of Society Hill in the book.

And there’s one thing that’s a picture of when they were raising the houses around Front Street to basically put in the highway. And I remember when they were doing all of that because it took a while to build and my mother’s friend Margery Niblock the artist had done a wood cut of it that I have the artist’s proof of.

So again, unless you live there during this time this probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But it means something to me because there are so many pictures in this book of what Society Hill looks like when people like my parents came in and bought house is dirt cheap and started to restore them.

And the restoration of Society Hill is still a historic preservation triumph even with all of the houses that were in such bad condition they had to be demolished.

I guess that’s why sometimes I wonder why municipalities let people say “Oh we can’t possibly fix this, it has to be taken down!” I look at what happened then when I was a kid, and the technology wasn’t as advanced and so on and so forth, yet the historic preservation actually happened and restoration actually happened.

So I wish people would look at examples like this, and then look more towards preservation where they live. It is possible. Communities just have to want it. And if communities want it, they need to make that known to local government.

People have to realize you can save pieces of the past and people will love them and will live in them.

This section of Philadelphia when I was growing up was a sea of construction and scaffolding. I remember the contrast of going to neighborhoods where other people we knew lived and then coming back to our own. But it was exciting to see. Even then.

Hopefully someday when I am no longer around, someone else will happen upon what is now my copy of this book and love it as much as I do.

time to start decking the halls!

This year I was going for a simpler, almost nostalgic look. Above is my dining room chandelier. Originally, it was given to me by my late father many years ago and it lived in storage units and attics until we bought the house we now live in. Here it was the perfect chandelier for our dining room. (The chandelier originally in the dining room was repurposed and now hangs in our front hall. It’s a small chandelier and it is the perfect scale for the front hall.)

This year my chandeliers were completely inspired by a childhood memory. When we were little and lived in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia one of the things we did at Christmas time was attend the St. Lucia Festival at Old Swedes in Philadelphia.

This is such a beautiful tradition and it is still hands-down one of my favorite things about Christmas in Philadelphia.

Lucia Fest is actually this coming weekend in Philadelphia at Old Swedes:

Friday, December 6th – 6:00 & 8:00

Saturday, December 7th – 2:00, 3:30 & 5:00

Sunday, December 8th – 2:00, 3:30 & 5:00

The Lucia Fest weaves together a number of Swedish holiday traditions into a colorful musical pageant. The heart of the celebration is the Lucia procession, in which a young woman is joined by other female members of the household in taking hot coffee and a warm Lucia bun to all the residents of the home. She comes crowned with candles, dressed in white, singing her traditional song, “Sankta Lucia.” In Sweden, her day is celebrated in homes before dawn on the 13th of December, which, at one stage of life with the Julian calendar, marked the winter solstice – the point at which the hours of darkness begin to diminish and the daylight hours begin to lengthen.

At Gloria Dei Church the celebration is held within the walls constructed by Swedish settlers in 1699-1700, in the beauty of candlelight, with a large entourage of young girls joining her in song and procession. For many people, participation in the Lucia Fest is a unique way of marking the beginning of the holiday season.

If you have never been, I actually encourage you to go. There are many Lucia festivals across the country. PLEASE NOTE that to attend at Old Swedes in Philadelphia you need tickets!  that is not the way it was when I was growing up, but even then it was a mad crush of people so I think it is smart of the church to do that, plus the tickets are moderately priced and proceeds go to the church. This church is one of the most historicly important in Philadelphia.

In the Lucia procession, young girls wear crowns of seasonal greens with candles. I doubt very much anymore in most places that the candles are live, but they were when I was a little girl. 

Anyway the Scandinavian simplicity and beauty of this festival was my inspiration for my chandeliers as silly as it sounds. And I’m very pleased with the results.

I did not use real garlands, because they would not last the Christmas season inside. On Wayfair and Etsy I found felt garland and that’s what I purchased to create my Lucia inspired chandeliers. The Company Store and places like Pottery Barn also sell the felt garland, but their prices are much higher than what I found between Wayfair (and the felt pine garland I found on Wayfair is already sold out) and Etsy. There are also some options on Amazon and elsewhere, but you have to hunt through the garlands.

The garland I purchased was both wired and not wired. You can also use other artificial garland for this purpose I just liked the almost childlike simplicity of the felt garland. It has whimsy.

The garland is placed simply enough on the chandelier and I had a half dozen white felt birds that I tucked in here and there. But the best part of the garland is it is the perfect foil for my great grandparents’ German kugel which my mother gave me a few years ago. It is my favorite Christmas ornament. It is not a giant kugel as I have seen displayed, but it is super lovely.

There are also three beaded tassels in a lovely cranberry color. I have absolutely no idea what store they were from originally, but I bought them on a whim from the Smithfield Barn and put them away until I had a use.

The table is dressed with a festive tartan cloth (also from the Smithfield Barn!) In the center of the table, keeping with the simplicity of the chandelier above, are my glass candlesticks with cheerfully festive candy cane striped candles. They are all sitting in a copper tray.

I am not anywhere near finished decorating and there will be a lot less of it this year and it will be slow going because of my knee. But I think it’s actually a good thing that I had to change my routine up this year because I am liking the results so far!

Fa la la la la!

dear philadelphia err filthadelphia

Dear Philadelphia,

Appalachia or Albania or Calcutta ? Can’t decide what the look is you are going for this fall.

I have never seen the streets look so bad or full of hazards. You can be on foot or in a vehicle, it doesn’t matter.

And the city is dirty. Filthy dirty. So it doesn’t matter if you are building shiny new buildings, everywhere you look is a hot mess. Oh sure there are trash cans… but the ones I passed yesterday were full and garbage spewing over. Then there is whatever is on the ground.

And your homeless population seems to have increased. Increased enough that they are blocking the streets begging. Even a homeless man on 16th Street lying down completely on the sidewalk reading a book with people stepping over him.

I am a native Philadelphian and yesterday we had family and friends in from out of town and it was embarrassing.

The buck stops at the Mayor’s Office in City Hall on this one. Hey Jim Kenney are you blind to all of this? Do you think you could stop running for re-election long enough to take a good look at what everyone sees and experiences? It’s a little hard to experience the best Philadelphia has to offer when all she seems to offer is filth, fractured roads and sidewalks, and people in dire need of help.

#tbt my history with history

The photo above has me in the center. Circa 1976- 1977. It has just been too long that sadly, I don’t remember the exact date.

Where am I? At one of my favorite historic sites on earth. Historic Harriton House in Bryn Mawr. I think technically, my friends and I at the time, beat Chef Walter Staib into the kitchen there by a few decades.

When we first moved to the Main Line from Society Hill, I missed the history and old houses of Society Hill. Yes, I was kind of obsessed by old houses even then. So neighbors introduced our family to historic Harriton House. And as a related sidenote, Historic Harriton House is a remarkable story of preservation. I urge everyone to take the time to go visit. The site is a little slice of heaven.

Before we moved from the city to suburbia, I also did something kind of historically minded for a kid.

At 11, I was probably the youngest volunteer tour guide the Park Service ever had in Society Hill. I gave tours of the Todd House and Bishop White House. In Colonial garb with a little mob cap.

How? Well my parents knew Hobie Cawood. Mr. Cawood was the Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park from 1971-1991. I wrote about this before.

But this is just something I have always loved since I was a kid. Our history, our architecture, our old houses.

I am not a new house person. I am a preserve the old house person. It’s just the way I am made. I am a realist and I don’t think every old house can be saved, but I think a lot more can be saved then are actually being saved.

Whenever I have these conversations with anyone about historic preservation, I go back to my childhood in Society Hill. And the reason is simple: that area was a total slum when people like my parents as newlyweds bought wrecks of old houses in Society Hill for peanuts from the redevelopment authority in Philadelphia.

My parents and their friends restored these houses with architectural details and hardware and windows and woodwork from houses that were too far gone to save. And as kids, a lot of the time we went with our parents when they were visiting these wrecks of houses to see what they could salvage out of them. And salvaging then wasn’t so much a big business as it was sort of a neighbor helping neighbor collaborative. People would give you the stuff out of the houses being torn down. It was a very different time.

It was through these expeditions that I learned about things like shutter dogs. Busybody mirrors. Box locks and more. The details of historical architecture which have traveled with me throughout my life.

This is where my love of old houses began. And it has been a lifelong affair.

A lot of people don’t like my opinions. And I’m sorry they don’t share my love of old houses and history. But as Americans we have a magnificent history. And we can’t just keep bulldozing it away.

Thanks for stopping by.