TRAVEL: A bewitching, art-filled journey to Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American constitution
Boggles. Any time a Canadian travels to the birthplace of the American constitution the mind boggles. Ideas, incongruities and delights come at you from all sides. Philadelphia and neighbouring Bucks County is contested territory—the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War—littered with bodies, with ghosts, with untold stories and overreaching mythologies. This part of the continent presents a grand, bewitching mystery. And, as with most mystery stories, it’s best to follow the money (doubly so since Philadelphia is home to the first mint and the first bank in the US).
Downtown Philadelphia is gorgeous, easily walkable, packed with fascinating historical sites, great architecture and public art, cool restaurants, bars and shops. Wandering around, it’s impossible not to trip over America’s many historical ironies. One resonant example sprang to life in 2002 during the construction of a new museum to house the Liberty Bell, part of an ambitious remodelling of Independence Mall. A historian noted in an article that the museum would pave over the foundations of the President’s House, George Washington’s residence. When Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States, in fact, the slave quarters were right beside the museum’s front door. Though limited, Pennsylvania had the first abolitionist laws in the US. Washington got around them by periodically rotating his slaves out of state (residents from out of state had to free their slaves after six months). For five years, controversy raged over how to tell the story of freedom denied in the cradle of American liberty until, finally, the parks service agreed to activists’ demands to incorporate a display on the President’s House and its connection to slavery as part of the Liberty Bell Center.
The distance between cant and truth, between national mythologies and lived experience is rich terrain for artists, especially those outside mainstream traditions. I can’t think of a better example than the recent exhibit of outsider art, Great and Mighty Things, at the gigantic Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). A few of the dozen artists in the show have gained critical acclaim —usually posthumously—like Bill Traylor, born a slave and living on the streets in Montgomery, Alabama, when he suddenly started making art in his 80s: simple, flat, beautifully-observed, very contemporary-looking illustrations.
Slavery, poverty, disease, mental illness and discrimination stalk the artists here and yet their works bristle with vitality and hope. Of all the harrowing biographies one still haunts, that of Ellis Ruley, a self-taught African-American painter who married a white woman and bought a house in a white neighbourhood in Norwich, Connecticut. In 1959, he and his son-in-law were found dead. Two weeks later, his house, with most of his art, was burned to the ground; no charges were ever laid. Ruley’s sunny images stand in stark contrast to the dark forces that tried to erase everything he stood for.
More light shines on hidden, over-looked histories at the Barnes Foundation, the huge collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and modern art that relocated last year to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Amassed by physician, chemist and businessman Albert Barnes, the collection is worth anywhere up to $30 billion. Barnes is rightfully celebrated for his idiosyncratic tastes and discerning eye; he snapped up many works at bargain-basement prices during the Depression. But how discriminating is it to buy 181 works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir? I’m not so big on the Renoirs. To me, save a few exceptions, they kind of blurred into the beige burlap-covered walls at the Barnes. But out of that blandness jumped eye-popping works by Van Gogh, Modigliani and Picasso (the latter’s “Two Figures” is wonderfully homoerotic). And tucked away in the corner of many rooms was a delightful discovery: fanciful watercolours by gay Pennsylvania-born artist Charles Demuth.
Demuth is most famous for his mid-career painting from 1928, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”, an abstract poster-like exploration of a William Carlos Williams poem. But early and late in his career, Demuth revelled in the human figure—and flowers—creating loose and charming paintings. Around 10 of the 44 Demuths in the Barnes collection are on display. I especially love his cheeky “The Ladies Will Pardon My Mouth’s Being Full” from 1918. Demuth was born in 1883 in Lancaster (just west of Philadelphia), and he would return there to live and paint. Trained in Philadelphia, Demuth travelled to Paris and New York, befriending such artistic luminaries as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and Gertrude Stein. He was close friends with fellow gay American artist Marsden Hartley (also with works at the Barnes and PMA), and interior decorator and stage designer Robert Evans Locher. Locher, also from Lancaster, was probably Demuth’s lover (when Demuth predeceased his mother, he left her his house; when she died, she left the house to Locher. The house is now the Demuth Museum).
Suffering from diabetes, Demuth died relatively young, at the age of 52. Not only did Albert Barnes collect Demuth, but Barnes used his connections to help the artist get a then-revolutionary new treatment, making Demuth one of the first Americans to use insulin.
There’s a story of how Demuth once painted on a friend’s barn a coat of arms depicting Lancaster’s neighours: the delightfully-named towns of Bird-in-the Hand, Fertility and Intercourse… an appropriate point to mention that Barnes made his fortune by inventing Argyrol, used to treat gonorrhea. Also on the coat of arms was a unicorn depicting Bucks County—a perfect symbol for the gay-friendly Bucks County town of New Hope.
Located on the forested banks of the Delaware River 40 miles north of Philadelphia, New Hope is a pretty jumble of twisting lanes, Georgian and Victorian buildings and narrow 19th-century canals. Hard-hit by floods in recent years, New Hope is staging a comeback as people invest in the community in different ways.
The town has been an artist colony for years; many famous New Yorkers and Philadelphians had summer homes here, including Moss Hart, who founded the Bucks County Playhouse in an old mill in 1939. Everyone from Uta Hagen and Liza Minnelli to Kitty Carlisle and Bert Lahr has played here. After closing a couple of years ago, the playhouse was renovated last year and is back offering a full season of productions, including the world premiere of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly. “New Hope is a small town with a big footprint,” says Jed Bernstein, a key player in the Playhouse’s rebirth. “The community is rightfully proud of having a premier performing arts destination in their midst.”
The relationship is symbiotic. “It’s a chicken and egg thing: The theatre helps foster a unique, accepting spirit in the town, while the town has to be welcoming if the theatre is to be good,” says Bernstein, who’s just been named president of the Lincoln Center in New York City. “The Playhouse couldn’t survive if the community didn’t see it as their own. Restoring and re-launching it really was a community effort.”
As a retreat for eccentrics of all kinds, New Hope has a long history as an LGBT destination. The gay resort The Raven goes back to the ’70s when it was known as La Camp; its piano bar and disco are still going strong. That history prompted NYC-based psychotherapist Daniel Brooks, who has been coming to New Hope for 16 years, to launch a local Pride event. “I realized that the town had lost much of its LGBT identity, especially among the young gay crowd in New York,” says Brooks. “They had no connection to it anymore.” Called New Hope Celebrates, Pride culminates mid-May in a ridiculously cute parade, now in its 10th year. “There was never any opposition but I guess one thing we did was to make sure the whole town, not just the gay folk, felt part of the celebrations. Inclusion has always been the tenor of the town.”
On my trip during Pride I saw a Harley Davidson contingent roar down Main Street, followed by two marching bands, three horses, six drag queens, a few vintage cars, a number of church and LGBT community groups, some local business promotions and the area’s rescue vehicles. The crowd, with kids sitting on the curbs, clapped and waved affectionately. You’d never guess you were in a town of 2,500 in a state that still hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage. For many here, the Constitution’s promise of equality is a promise deferred.
William Penn, a Quaker, founded the colony of Pennsylvania on the basis of religious tolerance and respect for all peoples (there’s a reason he named Philadelphia the city of brotherly love). Just outside of New Hope, between the town and Washington Crossing State Park (where Washington crossed the Delaware in one of his major victories of the Revolutionary War), is a sign marking Penn’s first Walking Purchase in 1682. Penn bought a parcel of land from the local Lenape tribe, the size determined by the distance a man could walk in a day and half, about 8,000 acres. It’s considered one of Penn’s many upright dealings with the Lenape.
His sons, however, lacked such scruples. In 1737, they too claimed a Walking Purchase, but they secretly hired three of the fastest runners they could find who travelled nearly twice as far as expected. Once a corrupt surveyor had drawn out the purchase, one of the greatest land swindles in US history was on the books. They acquired 1.2 million acres north of New Hope, depriving the Lenape of their ancestral home. The ensuing migrations and hostilities resulted in there being virtually no Lenapes left in Pennsylvania (they’re mainly in Oklahoma, with three communities in Ontario). Another erasure, another silence where the Constitution does not speak.
As always in this great confounding country, it’s the American people, ultimately, who have the last word, who step forward to fill the historical void. On the LGBT front at least, it’s obvious that the idea of equality has crossed the Delaware; it’s only a matter of time. A parting image from small-town Pennsylvania: During the Pride parade, a white toddler rushes up to a black drag performer. They are both laughing and smiling. The little girl hands the queen a dollar bill on which, of course, is printed Washington’s face. New hope.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Massive. Spend the day and take a respite in the fancy Granite Hill resto. $20. philamuseum.org.
The Barnes Foundation
A must (but forget the Renoirs). Timed tickets. $18-$45.
Fun place for Mexican food and margaritas, right in the heart of the gay village. elvezrestaurant.com.
The place for brunch and people viewing. Dress smart if you want the coveted street-side tables facing Rittenhouse Square; allegedly, the maitre d’ will audition your outfit. parc-restaurant.com.
Very pretty and centrally located. Philadelphia has a long activist tradition that predates Stonewall. The venerable Philadelphia Gay News regularly runs more than 60 pages.
“The gay village is going strong,” says Bruce Yelk, director of public relations, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp, my host on the trip and producer of Mr Gay Philadelphia, part of Philly’s Pride festivities in early June.
Superior steak house with Creole flare located in a high-vaulted old church. marshabrownrestaurant.com.
Martine’s River House Restaurant
Delicious American cuisine with primo riverfront location. martinesriverhouserestaurant.com.
Peerless furniture-maker George Nakashima was interned during World War II until a New Hope-based architect got him released and brought him to town. Nakashima died in 1990 but his studio is still running in the hills overlooking New Hope. nakashimawoodworker.com.
Across the bridge in New Jersey is a beautiful colonial town built on a grid (versus New Hope’s higgledy-piggledy). Filled with great antique shops. lambertville.org.
Bucks County is famous for its covered bridges and fall foliage. Other pretty towns nearby include Doylestown and Princeton. buckscounty.org.
PHILADELPHIA & NEIGHBOURING COUNTIES visitphilly.com.