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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here -- An artists’ colony as it was

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You can’t miss the Village of Phillips’ Mill when you’re driving on River Road. It’s north of New Hope, at that difficult turn with a stop sign that was installed after a few trucks took off the corner of the stone mill on one side of the road.
 
Clustered houses modeled on an English village are on the other side of the road, almost in the road – a reflection of the village’s age. River Road (PA13)was an unpaved country road when the community developed.
 
 
The charming collection of English country-style houses was designed by Morgan Colt, an architect who settled in the village in 1912, at a time when the artists who would become known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists were settling in the area. Colt, also a painter and metal worker, joined artists from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts living at or near the arts colony.
 
 
Dr. George Marshall of Philadelphia bought the mill property in 1896. The miller’s house was across from the mill.
 
 
Marshall sold the miller’s house and four acres to his boyhood friend William Lathrop in 1903. The house was a social mecca, with the Lathrops’ Sunday afternoon teas – it was a regular gathering place for artists and the local gentry.
 

According to an account by Gratz Gallery, “In 1928, Dr. Marshall became concerned about the future of the mill. He worried that if it were still his private property at his death, the mill would be sold to an owner who might end its function as a dynamic community resource. A committee was organized in 1928 to consider the purchase of the mill. ... The committee raised $6,815. On Nov. 27, 1929, the mill was purchased from Dr. Marshall for $5,000. The Phillips’ Mill Community Association was formed.”

Meanwhile, Lathrop sold land across from the mill to Morgan Colt, who designed the village and created the cottages.
 
The Colt buildings are the village’s centerpiece, presenting a picture of a unique village from the road – but a close look shows there’s work needed on a few crumbling structures and neglected landscaping.
 
Some people, especially Brett Webber, an architect who grew up in the area, have worried about the village’s future. To ensure its survival, they have created the nonprofit Phillips’ Mill Foundation for the Arts. They are visionaries dedicated to repurposing the historic buildings and grounds as a New Hope artists’ colony, with a goal of offering paid residencies.
 
The village, Webber points out, offers access to exceptional vistas and the Delaware River and Delaware Canal State Park plus all the benefits of privacy, Morgan Colt’s studio, an inn (now closed) and exhibition space.
 
The foundation organizers hope their plan complements the still vital Phillips’ Mill Community Association, a separate nonprofit that is about to open the 91st Annual Exhibition in the venerable mill, this year produced online. That show is open to artists who live or work within a 25-mile radius of New Hope. The foundation plan is to have a broader reach – beyond state and national borders. The competitive residencies would be open to national and international as well as local artists.
 
Geographically, Phillips’ Mill Village ranges beyond Colt’s complex. Dr. Marshall and his family lived at Lenteboden – part of the original farm – in a house set back from Phillips’ Mill Road at the intersection with River Road. The land was home to a bulb farm until a few years ago. Its field of tulips and daffodils was a favorite sightseers’ view.
 
 
The total site was named a National Historic District in 1983. Its buildings and structures include the Phillips’ Mill Community Association’s stone mill; the mill house, which was the Lathrop family’s home; the Phillips’ Mill Inn; West End Farm, with barn and pastures; Lenteboden; the Hotel du Village event center; and St. Philips Church.
 
 
The district, according to the National Trust application “includes 34 contributing buildings, one contributing site, and six contributing structures in the village of Phillips’ Mill. The district originally developed in the early 18th century and is notable today as an artist’s colony. It has the atmosphere of a picturesque old English village.”
 
Webber is spearheading the revitalization project as president of the nonprofit, with Eleanor Miller, whose husband, Shawn, was the son of RAD Miller, one of the Pennsylvania Impressionists. Eleanor lives in Phillips’ Mill Village.
 
 
“The pastoral magic of this Gothic English Village at Phillips’ Mill along the Delaware Canal on the banks of the Delaware River has captivated and lured artists and lovers of the arts and nature for close to 100 years seeking a respite from city life and the freedom to create,” the introductory brochure says. “It is a new dawn again in New Hope, and this time the intent is to attract the leading and emerging artists at work today, and to provide a place for the public to interact and engage.”
 
PMFA’s vision is “to create an accessible, international hub for artists to work, study, and collaborate while offering public programming and member-based activities. Through the acquisition, restoration and adaptive reuse of historic structures and landscape, the Foundation also plans to reinstate the acclaimed New Hope Artist Colony with live/work studios, exhibition, and presentation spaces for public and member-based engagements.”
 
The organization has raised over $425,000, which propelled the purchase of Morgan Colt’s Norman French style Kennel and Forge buildings fronting on the Delaware Canal.” Restoring those buildings is the first project to be addressed.
 
The foundation has established an office in one of the former dormitories of the New Hope School for Girls, which sits alongside Colt’s painting studio and workshops.
 
 
The ultimate financial goal is $35 million to restore the properties and build the PMFA New Hope Colony. Plans to launch the PMFA Membership Program, Fall 2020 programming, a virtual Artists Residency and exhibition are underway.
 
Webber calls the project a “leap of faith” – he is committed to making it happen.
 
 

To become a member or donor visit phillipsmillfoundation.org.


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