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Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Column The Last Word, ICON Magazine, October 2011

THE LAST WORD (from ICON Magazine, October 2011)

By Thom Nickels

Paint peels from the high vaulted ceilings in the oval-shaped rooms at the east and west ends of the Woodland Mansion, but this 18th century house still stands as a glorious reminder of Philadelphia’s social heyday.
The Woodland Mansion was built in 1787 in the Federal style on 250 acres of land purchased in 1734 by Andrew Hamilton, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s. The house was built with a carriage house, stable and garden landscape, inspiring Jefferson to write, “The Woodlands is the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.”

Further additions to the mansion were added by Hamilton’s grandson, William Hamilton (1749-1813).

Once the scene of lavish 18th-century events, the Woodlands decline began in the 1840s, when the property ceased to be a social “cocktail Mecca” for local and national dignitaries. After William Hamilton’s death, the mansion and grounds were sold off by the heirs. In 1840, the estate became the property of the Woodlands Cemetery Company.

Most of what Jefferson saw in the 18th century can still be seen today, especially in secret passageways and labyrinths that cover the basement area. The cemetery is similarly impressive, where you can walk among the graves and tombs of prominent 18th and19th century Philadelphians.

Buried here are Thomas Eakins, Rembrandt Peale, members of the Drexel and Biddle families, Dr. Samuel Gross and architect Paul N. Cret, designer of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the 1913 renovation of Rittenhouse Square.

Amid the towering monuments honoring the now-forgotten barons of big industry and business, Paul Cret’s and Thomas Eakins’ shockingly simple grave markers seem tragically understated. Had Eakins and Cret been native Parisians, their tombs would have towered over the ostentatious monuments of the business moguls.

Instead, grazing amid the tombs one cam find small herds of deer, all regular residents of the cemetery who never seem to wander outside the boundaries drawn by the 40th and Woodland trolley stop, but who spend their entire lives nibbling grave grass.

The handsome gateway to Woodlands Cemetery was designed by Paul Cret, as was the University Avenue Bridge which is visible from the Woodlands mansion.
The Woodlands Mansion inspired the creation of Woodland Terrace, the finest example of Italianate villa architecture in the city.

Designed in 1861 by Philadelphia carpenter-turned-architect Samuel Sloan, Woodland Terrace is a grouping of 22 houses built shortly after the western expansion of the city’s trolley railway system. The Italianate style, which evolved from the Gothic Revival period, was predicated on the typical rural Italian villa, which included four-panel doors, square cupolas or towers and colored or etched glass.

In its English and American form, the Italianate style allowed for extensive elaborations, and was America’s most popular form of architecture around the time of the Civil War.

Shortly after Sloan designed the houses in 1861, fashions and styles changed and the architect’s career fell apart.

But West Philadelphia in 1861 was a magnet for speculative builders, whose aim was to construct houses for the affluent middle class trying to escape the congestion of Center City. Sloan, who had established himself in the city as a designer of hospitals, asylums and schools, had already designed an Italianate villa for Andrew M. Eastwick on the site of Bartram’s Gardens when he took on the Woodland project.

Paul Cret’s house is prominently displayed among the other houses in Woodland Terrace. Cret moved to 516 Woodland Terrace in 1913 and remained there until his death in 1945. And, as architects are wont to do, Cret sought to improve or redesign parts of the house, although only a portion of these plans was ever executed. In fact, the most picturesque of Cret’s additions was eliminated from the house when the house was purchased by its present owner, Dr. David Morris, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Musto, who bought the Cret house in 2004, says that, while researching the house on the Internet, he discovered Cret’s original house redesign plan. Included in the plan was a copy of the facial mask sculpture Cret designed for the Rittenhouse Square fountain. Cret had originally put a copy of the mask on the wall above the first floor fireplace. This gargoyle-devil face, which gushes water into the Rittenhouse Square fountain during the warm weather months, obviously frightened a superstitious former tenant, who had it removed or destroyed. Mr. Musto says a large mirror had been placed where the mask had been.

“We moved the mirror to another room and our architect located people to actually re-create from the Cret drawings what had been there,” he said.
A new Paul Cret mask now embellishes the fireplace.

Mr. Musto also re-created Cret’s plan for French wallpaper, but had to sidestep Cret’s unexecuted plan for a front porch.

“Today, Woodland Terrace has a moratorium on anything that’s visible from the street, so on the back of the second floor, we put a deck using the original design that Cret had come up with for the front of the house,” he said.

Italianate house villas are characterized by round headed windows, elaborate frames, bay windows, porches or verandas. Decorative elements in cast iron and metal also typically decorate an Italianate house. Most of the Woodland Terrance houses are wood frame buildings covered with tan-colored stucco although the end houses were special creations made of stone and supplemented with a columned porch and a tower.

Cret’s house was not an end home, so it had a simpler design.

Mr. Musto says he has worked for a year and a half on the restoration, and that it has been an “agonizing amount of work.” Several radical innovations were instituted, such as the addition of a colonnade where there had been a staircase. The house also came with a shed attached.

In Cret’s old study, Mr. Musto installed a Murphy bed for guests (where Cret once had a bookcase) as well as writing and coloring book tables with crayons for his children.


More than twenty years ago when you went to buy a ticket at Philadelphia’s old Greyhound bus terminal at 1711 Market Street, you got to interact with live human beings. Not only that, but travelers had a lot more “fun” while waiting for a bus. The plastic seats had bolted- on TV sets and were spaced far enough apart so that you were not on top of fellow passengers. In an adjoining room was a Roy Rogers restaurant where you could get a tolerable fast food meal. When it came time to board your bus, you took an escalator down to the departure level.

Years before this, in the 1950s, both Greyhound and Trailways buses employed on board stewardesses. Dressed in uniforms with hats and gloves, the stewardesses served coffee and Danish on morning road trips to New York City and back. The ‘50s, 60s, and 70s of course were peak years when it came to bus travel. Greyhound had its 1956 double-decker Scenicruiser, the 1955 Courier and the classic 1948 Silverside. Bus terminals, such as Washington D.C.’s super station on New York Avenue, built on the ground floor of a skyscraper, were noted for their various architectural amenities.

Philly’s old Greyhound terminal was a kitschy paradise. There was a small arcade with pinball machines, an instamatic 50 cent photo booth, and an Ellsworth Kelly anodized aluminum 12 foot high and 64 foot long prize winning Sculpture for a Long Wall (1957) on one of the station walls. There were also coin-operated luggage lockers where layover travelers could stash suitcases before setting out to explore the city.

When Philadelphia’s Greyhound bus station moved to 1001 Filbert Street, the fast food restaurant morphed into a glorified food stand where travelers could watch hot dogs and soft pretzels bake to death in plastic neon heaters. Vending machines were installed in place of the treasured foot lockers, while the restrooms had most of their private stalls removed, a redesign that made for a lot of wasted space unless your idea of a bathroom is a smelly lecture hall.

While I rarely travel by bus, I recently traveled by Greyhound to Scranton. My last Greyhound venture was in the 1980s, when it was possible to converse with a ticket agent.

Did I say ‘ticket agent?’ Aside from the very humane NJT booth (where there’s a live person), Greyhound travelers are forced to purchase tickets from machines. A machine attendant barks orders while overseeing other tasks: “Push the red button. Go back. Where do you want to go?” Dealing with so many people, the stressed attendant—who is outfitted in a yellow police style vest—is obviously overworked.
The attendant on duty the day I bought my ticket, though polite, was beside herself.

“Where you’d say you were going?” she shouted into my left ear. I don’t know about you, but when somebody barks in my ear I tend to react like someone escaping gusts of wind. It didn’t help that the terminal was packed with end-of-summer passengers, with everybody trying to figure out where they were supposed to go.

After the machine produced a round trip ticket, I noticed that the price was unusually high. Miraculously, I tracked down the still vexed yellow vest attendant: “Can you tell me why this is? This isn’t the price quoted me when I called Greyhound last week.”

“You got a March Trailways for your return trip, that’s not Greyhound,” she said.
“You mean the machine gave me Greyhound on the way up and Trailways on the way back—without letting me know? Did I miss the fine print?”

“It’s the departure time you selected,” she said, “when there are no Greyhound buses available, it switches you automatically.”

“And raises the price, without offering you an option?”

“You can exchange it,” she said.

But I had had enough of lines and kept the ticket, thinking I’d just watch the machine with a wary eye the next time traveled Greyhound.

Fortunately, the bus ride to Scranton was enjoyable. The driver, who was an older man, didn’t speed on the passing lane. Younger drivers, such as the 24 year old driver who recently lost control of his Greyhound bus on the Pennsylvania turnpike while traveling in the passing lane (the front end of this kid’s bus struck the concrete barrier and eventually flipped on its side, injuring 14 people), tend to like speed. The older driver also had the good taste to wish the passengers good morning and then map out the route to Scranton. As a traveler, one feels comfortable hearing such things, but that was not the case on the return trip.

The return trip reminded me of traveling on a crowded Septa bus or a crowded cattle car in India. The driver said nothing about the route or how many station stops the bus would make on the way to Philadelphia. He did manage to address chronic cell phone users. “Use your cell phones for emergencies only,” he advised, “Be respectful of other passengers.”

Few listened to the driver, of course.

As an added bonus, it was a Friday, the worst possible day for travel; everybody and their grandmother was high tailing it to Philly.

The biggest shock came twenty minutes after the bus pulled out of Wilkes-Barre, when the odor of second hand smoke coming from the back of the bus. “Oh no,” I thought, “Who would dare do this in 2011?”

Bold as brass, the smokers lit up repeatedly until smoke filled the entire cabin, the driver as oblivious to the smell as the passengers. The only thing missing was the voice of ‘Twilight Zone’s’ Rod Serling announcing that this was a road trip into the past.

It was also hardly coincidence that the smokers waited until the driver had pulled onto the turnpike before lighting up. On the turnpike, the driver’s attention would be focused on traffic.

When we arrived in Philly, the yellow vested attendants weren’t smoking but they were still barking orders to the machine-using crowds.


The question,Where were you during the earthquake?” has been making the rounds a lot lately. This is the sort of question that’s interesting for about fifteen minutes. How many times can you hear different versions of “I saw the floor roll,” or “the pictures on the wall of my house rattled like drums?”
Right after last month’s quake I was curious to see how the mainstream media was handling this.

Television reporters were having a heyday interviewing office workers on the streets of Center City. They were also steadfast in their belief that 2 p.m., Tuesday, August 23, would burn a hole in the public’s mind every bit as deep as 9/11 or the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963. A prediction like this of course assumes that an east coast earthquake like the one we experienced will not return for several decades. I’d say that was a pretty optimistic hypothesis given current earth and global warming changes. I wish it weren’t so, but environmental-related events will take center stage in the coming years.

One man who was interviewed took his fifteen minutes of TV fame to talk about his fiancĂ©, not only saying her name and town of origin but also managing to plug the family business and then tying the whole thing together by saying, “I hope they are all okay. I really hope my fiancĂ© is okay.” One almost got the feeling that he was hoping the reporter would respond with a, “Okay, I’ll see if station management can put you in touch with her.”

While I understand the fear that many felt as the quake shook offices in a number of Center City skyscrapers (we may be years away from 9/11, but in the collective mind there’s still a special fear associated with skyscraper emergencies), I hate it when reporters seem to go on protracted hunts for tragedies that will improve ratings.

The Rolodex, repeat-question, “What was your experience of the earthquake?” seems to beg for grisly new details.

Consider this: what’s an earthquake if half the people you talk didn’t even know there was an earthquake?

“I was asleep when it happened,” a friend of mine said blithely. Another friend, who was taking a late shower at the time, said he felt nothing but the well modulated mix of warm and cold water over his shoulders when the 5.8 wannabe mega quake shook the computer terminals in many Center City office buildings.

A clerk in a Center City Rite Aid not far from City Hall told me he “felt nothing” but knew something was up when hordes of office workers began crowding the store entrance on Broad Street.

For years I’ve been reading how animals can be good indicators of coming earthquakes. A neighbor’s cats, all three of them in fact, behaved strangely seconds before the quake, running around her house and racing up stairways, whereas my all too tranquil tuxedo cat gave me no clues if indeed she felt any precursor vibes at all. Not that watching my cat behave strangely would have made any difference, mind you. Had she ran in circles or flung herself against a wall I would have taken that as one of those periodic cat spasms that seem to come from nowhere. And like most people, once I felt the floor “roll” I would not have associated that with an earthquake but most likely with a loose floor joist.

In Pennsylvania, we’re not supposed to have earthquakes. Not only that, but in Philadelphia, which has its share of crime and economic problems, we’ve always been pretty lucky when it comes to natural disasters. At the very worse we may get soaking rains, blizzards or insufferable humidity but for the most part these things pass without collapsing our homes, destroying our office buildings or otherwise wrecking havoc downtown. So yes, it’s good to be a Philadelphian when it comes to natural disasters—so far.

What shocked most people about the quake wasn’t what they felt move under their feet but the fact that this assumption that we were somehow in a safe zone or exempt from the horrendous calamities that happen elsewhere in the world, was finally put to rest. This is scary stuff, Virginia.

Most natural disasters can be predicted. Hurricane Irene, for instance, has been on tracking radar screens for a while now. Snow storms also are seen in advance, as are tornados (if only in terms of minutes, but even one minute can save a life). Earthquakes give no warning. They are like traffic accidents and heart attacks. They just happen.

And they happen on beautiful blue sky humidity-free days, when all seems well with world

So called ‘approbation art’ is not supposed to be original but a rehash and a manipulation of old images. If you’re looking for something new with this kind of art you’re likely to go away disappointed or grind your teeth before writing a negative review.

Former TV host Burch Cordora’s second solo exhibit, The Absolution Lab, which just finished a successful run at Ven and Vaida Gallery in Old City, garnered mostly positive press for its appropriated celebrity images—or prints in large format canvasses—of Amy Winehouse, David Beckham, Paris Hilton, and others. As with any creative undertaking, some slings and arrows must fall. For Cadora, the big arrow was a review in City Paper that he calls “snarky.”

“I though the slant was going to be more of an educational, pop culture, or an LGBT slant, but the review was more like an art critic’s review. The kind of stuff that I do you either hate or love, you get it or you don’t get it, but clearly CP’s interviewer was no fan of Warhol. I couldn’t believe that CP didn’t have at least one nice to say; like the Amy Winehouse image was nice (it sold 30 minutes into the opening reception for a whopping $1250). Instead, they went for the juggler.

“I mean, says Cordora, his voice moving up a notch, “Do all gays hate other gays? Everybody in the city loves me, all the girls, all the straight guys think I’m cool, it’s only the homos who I got ‘shitty’ from!”

‘Snarky’ comments aside, opening night for The Absolution Lab was standing room only with sales receipts breaking all Ven and Vaida First Friday records with art sales coming in at upwards of $1600.00.

This year Cordora plans to find another 10 or 12 straight guys to pose for another Straight and Butch calendar as well as get his “Madonna sex book” published. “I really need to get this book done,” he says. “It will be the end all of this project.”

Like approbation art, the book will follow the Madonna template with a little text but 90% of it will be photographs of 30 or so different guys.

Thom Nickels