NORTHERN VIRGNIA, May 17, 2011 - When Carol and I set out for a weekend ramble through some of eastern Pennsylvania’s most fascinating doors and art sites, we had no inkling of the B&B breakfast table encounter that awaited us.
If ever there was a destination that could claim the moniker “genius belt,” Pennsylvania’s Bucks County is it. Had you visited Doylestown or New Hope in the 1930s or 40s, you might have observed humorist Dorothy Parker, James A. Michener, Moss Hart, or Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck on the scene.
More recently, furniture maker and architect George Nakashima called it home.
With location 90 minutes from both Manhattan and Philadelphia, bucolic Bucks has lured marquee names from the big cities to its country serenity, colonial history and arts tradition for decades. It’s so popular on warm weather weekends today, that the best advice is to visit weekdays, or include a weekday with your Saturday/Sunday stay.
One of Bucks’ most celebrated residents is lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. During his peak creative years with Richard Rogers, Hammerstein created Broadway classics like The King and I, Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, finding inspiration from Bucks County.
Oscar and his wife Dorothy bought a century-old Bucks County farmhouse in 1940, and made it their home for the next 20 years, until his death in 1960.
Today, the farm – “the only place where Oscar flopped” - has been transformed by innkeeper Christine Cole into The Highland Farm B&B, a sophisticated retreat for guests, with delicious breakfasts and afternoon wine and cheese. It was there we encountered more than Oscar “the Great’s” air of music on the wraparound porch, where he wrote some of the most classic lyrics in musical history.
Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein, Oscar II’s grandson, was also in residence. He was in town for a Doylestown event to discuss the book, The Hammersteins, he just published.
Andy is his family’s disarming historian, as well as a painter, writer and Columbia University lecturer. He deflects no questions about the family’s triumphs, scandals, and intrigues in his book or conversation.
His most startling revelations to us around the breakfast table concerned the deeper themes in his grandfather’s beloved lyrical creations.
“Oscar’s best shows dealt with serious life topics, such as intolerance and social issues. Remember ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” or ‘My Boy Bill’? Those songs are timeless and deal with real life struggles,” Andy said. “But he was also a romanticist, and so were many of his characters.”
Oscar’s favorite of all the songs he gave the world?
“Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” said Andy, “He just loved a story about two youngsters falling in love.”
Oscar II loved Bucks County, Andy said, and fancied himself a gentlemen farmer. “He got lots of solace here,” he said with a sweep of his arm towards the porch that remains inviting for today’s guests.
Outside Highland Farm, Carol and I ticked off some of this area’s best stops, including the James A Michener Art Museum, where photographic portraits of Elvis mingled with Bucks County folk art, and Michener’s novel writing legacy. As the modern occupant of what was the old Bucks County Prison, the museum’s mandate continues to promote Bucks’ formidable artistic legacy and output.
Our lunch of crab cakes and quiche at the handsome newly refurbished Black Bass Hotel at Riverside served up more than good cuisine. With history that pre-dates the American Revolution, this hostelry’s tavern speaks of momentous events – if you listen. Like the frigid 1776 Christmas night when George Washington and his army crossed the Delaware. Even the furnishings mirror another era, like the pewter bar in the Tavern that was once part of Maxim’s, in Paris.
We chipped off a few more sites, but learned two days cannot do the area justice. The historic architecture that now houses boutiques and bistros in Doylestown’s historic district can consume an afternoon at least. A meander along Bucks’ scenic river road yields covered bridges, picturesque vineyards, parks, old farms and antique shops.
Best of all, Bucks County retains much of the same serenity which lured creative geniuses like Oscar Hammerstein II and fueled their creative energies.
So what else does Bucks offer its visitors? The array is truly endless, whether you are a hound of culture, adventure, or lazy dining with some local wine as your lubricant. Foremost is the area’s ability to quell big city stress.
New Hope: The popular artist colony is a favorite destination in the county, filled with its galleries, restaurants, shops and B&B’s. Expect congestion on weekends!
Pearl S. Buck House – In her beloved 1835 farmhouse, we had an animated and knowledgeable guide who acquainted us with the Nobel prize winner’s literary and humanitarian endeavors that also included the Pulitzer Price. The farmhouse is a mélange of Chinese and 19th century Pennsylvania art and architecture traditions.
Peddler’s Village – Bucks County’s premier shopping destination is as quaint as its surroundings. With 18th century style, it blends in beautifully with the rolling terrain that surrounds it. Specialty shops along winding brickways invite browsers and buyers, and lazy dining fireside at Cock ‘n Bull was another highlight for us.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa – The contemporary stained glass windows in this Polish spiritual and pilgrimage center on 170 scenic acres is worth some time. Pope John Paul II’s statue is on the 170-site to commemorate his visit, and his Polish heritage.
Fonthill Museum and Moravian Pottery & Tile Works – Built by Henry Chapman Mercer, a man with an amazing curiosity and imagination, these estate attractions established in the late 19th century were once Mercer’s home. Together at one site, they reflect his concepts in architecture, ceramic art and historical research. Fonthill feels more like a European castle than a museum, and among its thousands of artifacts, one sees decorative ceramic tiles from Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Many are inset into Fonthill’s walls and ceilings. Household furnishings, decorative items, and rare archaeological finds are among the effects. The tile works site is a working historic industrial museum where tiles and pottery reflect the product made by Mercer.
Read other columns by Ruth Hill in the Washington Times’ Communities at Contemporary Christian Travel. Follow Ruth at twitter.com/christiantrav.
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