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The Rose Valley Project
by Bob Brooke

 

Nestled among the stately old trees and flowering shrubs of lower Delaware County, Pennsylvania, lies the sleepy hamlet of Rose Valley. Today, about a thousand people live there. Driving through it, it’s not unlike many towns west of Philadelphia that have been absorbed into the urban sprawl. Rose Valley is quiet and peaceful—a nice place to live. But looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine it being the center of one of the noted Arts & Crafts utopian communities that thrived during the early part of the 20th century.

Soon after William Penn received his charter for the Colony of Pennsylvania, three brothers, Thomas, Robert, and Randall Vernon received land grants from Penn to settle over 900 acres in the present borough of Rose Valley and Nether Providence Township. The brothers arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682 and began farming.

Randall Vernon built his house at the end of the 17th century. Historians believe that Robert Vernon built the house known as the "Bishop White House" about 1695. The name of the house comes from its use by the family of Bishop William White during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia. Though the Bishop visited the house, he generally stayed in Philadelphia in 1793.

What’s left of a dam and millrace leading up to the "Old Mill," now used as the town hall, stand along Ridley Creek near the Bishop White House. Benninghove's snuff mill was likely built here around 1789. Between 1826 and 1850, it’s owners operated it as a paper mill. In 1861, they reconstructed it as a textile mill which burned down in 1885. After 1900 Will Price built a furniture mill or craft shop on the foundations.

Hutton's mill, on Rose Valley Road by Vernon Run, began life about 1840 as a feed mill. In 1847 it became a turning mill that produced bobbins for the nearby textile mill as well as serving as a warehouse. Later it produced sandpaper.

The Arts & Crafts Project
But everything changed in 1901 when architect Will Price, along with Horace Traubel, purchased 80 acres around the former Rose Valley textile mill. Price and Traubel were both followers of the economic philosophy of Henry George. Investors contributed about $25,000, including $9,000 borrowed from nearby Swarthmore College to buy and improve the land. Price’s intention was to give craftsmen a place to create what they loved. To do that he formed the Rose Valley Association in July 1901 to start an arts and crafts project, the buildings of which form the nucleus of the Borough of Rose Valley.

Price renovated the buildings on the land he and Traubel purchased. He converted the former mill workers housing into the Guest House which housed the artists and craftsmen during the early days of the community.

Will Price modified the Bishop White House after 1900, adding a stone porch and red tile roof. He After 1900 Will Price built a furniture mill or craft shop on the foundations. Price also converted Hutton’s Mill into a meeting house and theater, but it also suffered fire damage and was rebuilt in 1923 to house Hedgerow Theater.

Price designed the houses within Rose Valley with an eye toward democracy of dwelling—he envisioned a community in which "the tiniest cottages may be built side by side with a more spacious neighbor." He remodeled some homes that already existed on the land and built others new, filling them with the work of regional artisans like Samuel Yellin and Henry Chapman Mercer. The community members who inhabited these homes regularly gathered for creative pursuits, staging concerts, dances, and plays at the Guild Hall.

Price had led a discussion group, including Edward Bok and brothers Samuel and Joseph Fels, and many in this group became investors or residents in Rose Valley. Other early residents included Hawley McLanahan, who became Price's architectural partner, McLanahan's father-in-law, Charles T. Schoen, Price's employees at his architectural firm, and his relatives, including his brother Walter, also an architect. Feminist Anna Howard Shaw lived nearby. Administration of the project was in the form of a town meeting, called the "Folk Mote."

Will Price and his extended family along with Hawley McLanahan and his family were the first members of the Rose Valley Association. They made plans for a social center with lectures, plays and concerts, a library, a museum, and a school for children, who, in the words of Hawley McLanahan, would be taught “through the hand to the brain.” They intended to convert waterpower into electricity for use in the craft shops and the community, and to plant trees to beautify the public and private spaces. All income beyond the stock and fixed expenses would be devoted to the general improvement of the property.

The Rose Valley Association
The Rose Valley Association didn’t produce arts and crafts itself, but rather rented out working space to craftsmen and provided housing for them which Pricey designed or renovated. Price sold the furniture, ceramics, and bookbindings, made at the Old Mill until about 1907, at his office in Philadelphia. Price also published a journal, The Artsman, from 1903 to 1907.

The Artsman became the voice of Price’s experiment just as The Craftsman was the voice of Gustav Stickley’s experiment. The first issue contained cuts made from Price drawings of two chairs and a table. These illustrations are not referred to in the text so they serve primarily as advertisements for the furniture shop. The text, written by the three editors, is a manifesto in which the men’s hopes for Rose Valley were succinctly set down. Price wrote: “What does Rose Valley hope? It hopes that some men, released from the deadening influences of monotonous unthinking toil, may see such possibilities in life as will make them put their shoulders to the wheel and strive to lift society out of accustomed thought or habit.”

In addition, he set up an art gallery in the old bobbin mill, then called Artsman's Hall. Beginning in 1904, well-known artist Alice Barber Stephens, who lived in the mill until Price converted a nearby barn into a house for her called Thunderbird Lodge, managed the gallery. Artsman's Hall also contained a theater, where the first play, "The Carpet Bagger's Revenge," premiered on New Year's Eve, 1904. In 1923, the Hedgerow Theater took over the building and still regularly presents plays today.

By 1910, however, craft production had declined and Rose Valley became another commuter suburb of Philadelphia. The buildings designed or renovated by Price during this time may be Rose Valley's major achievement, far outlasting its crafts.

After 1910 Schoen, McLanahan, and Price bought the remaining land from the Rose Valley Association, and Price designed the "Rose Valley Improvement Company Houses" near the old bobbin mill. These are the most important group of houses designed, rather than renovated, by Price in Rose Valley.

Rose Valley was also the home to the awe-inspiring Schoenhaus. Unlike Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Arts & Crafts Roycroft community, Rose Valley was primarily a business venture, for Price was an early developer, driven by the idealistic vision of a utopian community where Arts & Crafts principles would take center stage.

The trademark symbol used by the furniture and pottery studios of Rose Valley was a blooming rose overlapped with a "V" and encircled with a belt. And though the commercial side of Rose Valley lasted only four years, it flourished as a cultural and architectural experiment.

 

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

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Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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