WHY GO: The Bucks County Playhouse is back! Yes, the legendary “Summer Stock” theater, which had launched the careers of Grace Kelly, Robert Redford and many others, and which had fallen on hard times, has reemerged as a Playhouse Powerhouse. Author James Michener and Henry Mercer also have roots here, adding more reasons to visit fascinating, celebrity-studded Central Bucks County PA. On this strange trip of a getaway, you’ll discover the ghosts of New Hope, the place where General George Washington crossed the Delaware River, some great, inventive cuisine, and one of the most indulgent B&B’s in the Northeast.
Things to Do in Central Bucks County PA
TOUR/SEE A SHOW: Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope. This was the “Summer Stock” theater that launched many a famous actor. Neil Simon debuted his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, here. Grace Kelly earned her chops on this stage, and so did a young Robert Redford – in Nobody Loves Me, which went on to Broadway as Barefoot in the Park. From the time it opened in 1939, The Bucks County Playhouse was the place to be seen for decades – until it wasn’t.
Flagging and in receivership in 2010, the Playhouse underwent an extensive renovation and reopened as a community-owned not-for-profit theater in 2012. It is now back stronger than ever. New chairs, a polished floor, removal of dropped ceiling, state-of-art catwalk that replaces the old Hemp-Rope system; The Bucks County Playhouse may be in its 76th season, but it is a renewed three year old organization.
Built in the late 1700’s as the New Hope Grist Mill (after which the town was named), you’ll learn about the theater’s history on a great “behind the scenes” tour.
In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, when many New York City artists were priced out of the Hamptons as a summer retreat, they looked 85 miles to the West, in Bucks County PA, a sleepy yet beautiful region along the narrow Delaware River. Moss Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and many up and coming actors and musicians moved here, and were original sponsors of a summer theater aka “summer stock.” (Prior to air-conditioning, when theaters in Manhattan were oppressively hot, actors would perform in summer resorts like Cape Cod, MA and Ogunquit, ME).
Two important, original elements were preserved during renovation: a magnificent “Fire Curtain” mural of New Hope painted by Julia Child’s brother-in-law, Charles Childs, and the 75 year old stage turntable, which hadn’t been working since 1955 when a flood rusted and locked up the gears. In February 2015, theater techs got “the grindstone” working again – to the joy of stagehands who had been forced to move sets manually.
Yes, the Bucks County Playhouse is back. In 2014 alone, it sent two critically acclaimed productions to Broadway: Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly, and the upcoming Misery, with Bruce Willis in the leading role. Tickets from $25. Check website for performance calendar.
TOUR: Fonthill. “Renaissance Man,” Henry Mercer, born in Doylestown in 1856, was an artist, archeologist, writer and lawyer. And an Eccentric with a capital E. He loved medieval castles, extensive cave systems, Irish fiddle music, and the Arts and Crafts movement – and apparently hated the way fires consumed homes and buildings of the time. So, before the advent of cement mixers, in 1908-1912, Mercer combined all of his loves and fears and had this free-form 44-room 32-curved-staircase cement mansion built of hand-mixed concrete. Mercer adorned the stark grey walls with “Storytelling” Moravian Tiles: colorful 3-D relief, sculptural clay creations that depict biblical tales, discovery of the New World and motifs of nature and ordinary life set right into the concrete. (He also eventually built his own Moravian Tile Works on his property, owned by Bucks County and still in operation and open for tours – see below).
On your one hour Fonthill tour, you’ll learn about the ten unskilled laborers and a horse named Lucy involved in the building of this reinforced concrete, completely fireproof structure. You’ll see the impressions of wooden form boards that remain on columns, Hobbit-like guest rooms with arches and asymmetrical ceilings, his art-studio-like sun flooded library, and some of the ten ways to get in and out of the Central Hall on a labyrinthine trek through the home. Open year round Mon-Sat. 10-5, Sun Noon-5. $12 adults, $6 kids for one hour guided tours.
TOUR: Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Tour Fonthill then watch how those great Arts and Crafts tiles were made by hand. Afterwards, buy a few – or more if you plan to decorate your home a la Mercer. Watch a 17-minute video that shows the tile-making process, and take a self-guided tour that brings you to artisans pressing clay – occasionally studded with fishing tackle and other oddities dredged from local lakes – using1850’s brick-making machines, past glazers and finally into the gift shop where thumb-sized tiles are just a few bucks and go up from there. Open daily 10-4:45, $5 adults, $3 kids.
VISIT: Mercer Museum. Opened in 1916, this was the third concrete structure built by Henry Mercer to house his collection of pre-industrial tools. Though a brand new wing has just opened for traveling exhibits, first-time visitors will just want to stand in the 6-story Center Court of Mercer’s original edifice, look up and gawk.
Thousands of obsolete tools, representing sixty crafts and trades, either hang from walkways or are crammed into display cases: a whaling boat far above, a cigar store Indian, stove plates, antique buckets, wagons, musical instruments, and thousands more stamped with an id number. It’s fantasy-land for those who source period film props.
While Mercer was the poster-boy for the Offbeat, and most of the artifacts in this place could be construed as such, make a beeline to the following two really curious items: A Vampire Killing Kit – complete with pistol, silver bullets, and crucifix (acquired by the museum in 1989), and a 9-ft high hangman’s gallows on the 7th floor, last used to execute a murderer in 1914. Open year round Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun. Noon-5. $12 adults, $6 kids, self-guided tours with headsets.
VISIT: James Michener Art Museum. An art museum named after the King of the Generational Saga? Yes, the man who wrote Hawaii and The Source had roots in Bucks County, though dirt poor ones, and apparently was an art collector since birth. When the Bucks County Prison closed in 1984, and a movement was afoot to repurpose it as a world-class art museum, Michener was pressed to lend his name as fundraising draw. Now considered “The Art & Soul of Bucks County,” the Michener Museum features the largest collection of Pennsylvania impressionists, thanks to a donation of 68 paintings from Gerry and Margaurite Lenfest in 1999.
The Lenfest Exhibit is anchored by a large Daniel Garber mural of the Delaware River and includes most of the great PA impressionists of last century, including my personal favorite, the vivid saturated barn and landscapes of Fern Coppedge. In addition to paintings, the Michener showcases some of the most unusual modern and texturally grained organic Japanese furniture (most the work of in the “Father of American Craft” movement, George Nakashima) in stunning floodlit galleries. Tuesday through Friday: 10 am to 4:30 pm Saturday: 10 am to 5 pm Sunday: 12 pm to 5 pm, $18 adults, $6 kids 6-18. Under 6 free.
TOUR: Washington Crossing Historic Park, PA “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote on December 23, 1776, as George Washington and the remainder of his militia huddled nearby that harsh winter. After the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, Washington positioned his troops in what is now Manhattan and Long Island, loosing each battle against the British. By December, with morale at an all time low, the 11,000 strong Continental Army had dwindled to 4,000 as they retreated to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.
On December 25, with the Delaware nearly frozen, Washington made the decision cross with 2,400 soldiers and surprise the enemy in Trenton, New Jersey. The Battle of Trenton was the first of his three victories, as Commander in Chief, within ten days. For a personal look at Washington Crossing, ask Tom Maddock to guide you. He grew up on site in a home no longer standing. Your one-hour tour begins with a short video and lecture about that famous rendering of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painted by German national, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1840, it was meant to be strictly symbolic – not a “snapshot” of what actually happened. One example: Washington would not have been brandishing the American flag that was created six months later. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00am to 5:00pm, Sunday, 12:00pm to 5:00pm Fee for walking tour.
VISIT: Peddler’s Village, Lahaska. In the 1960’s Earl Jamison, a local chicken farmer enchanted by Carmel and Disneyland in California, decided to create his own little “Colonial-Era” village to host community events. In 1962, he converted a set of chicken coops into the Cock and Bull Pub and made sure that his childhood favorites, like “Chicken Pot Pye,” were on the menu. Since then, Peddler’s Village has expanded over 42 acres, with 70 independently-owned shops and restaurants and one inn – the Golden Plough (now undergoing renovations).
Earl did much of the work– laying out all the brick walkways himself. Though he passed away in 2002, Peddler’s Village is still family owned and operated. Annual Festivals – like Apple in November, Strawberry in May and Scarecrow in the Fall – bring in locals and guests by the thousands.
You can pick up a fun Ceramic Heart ($30-$36) at Artisans Gallery, infused olive oil at Casa Casale Italian Shop, and monogrammed toilet paper ($7.95) and decorative home hardware at Knobs and Knockers. Monday – Thursday, 10 am – 6 pm Friday – Saturday 10 am – 8 pm Sunday 11 am – 6 pm
TOUR: Ghost Tours of New Hope. History is spooky on the ever-popular evening tour of this riverside canal town. Hear about the mystery hitchhiker, spirits that still hang around old inns and other unexplained Bucks County phenomenon. 8pm every Saturday from June-mid November. (Fridays as well in Sept an Oct.), $10. No reservations necessary.
Best Places to Eat in Central Bucks County PA
EAT: Caleb’s American Kitchen, New Hope. When Chef Caleb Lentchner opened this MoMa-like, farm to table spot in October 2013, he didn’t want it to be “a tourist place.” So, embracing “Regional American Cuisine,” he kept the price-point low and in flowed the locals. And, from the looks of it, first time patrons are effusive in their praise of décor and everything that comes from the kitchen. With walls of bright lime green festooned with contemporary art and circular lamps hanging over grey tables and white chairs, Caleb’s is surely a departure from most traditional Bucks County eateries. Lentchner sources ingredients from the best: olive oil from a “ranch in California,” antelope from Texas. “Big Salads” and a variety of burgers are $10-$13, and inventive dinner entrees are in the $20-$27 range.
EAT: Francisco’s on the River. Some great food comes out of this nondescript, simply decorated roadside restaurant on the river road between New Hope and Washington Crossing. Nosh on Ahi Tuna encrusted with sesame seeds in honey soy sauce with baby bock choy infused with white truffle oil ($30) or Chicken Rosamaino, sautéed in olive oil with garlic, shallots white wine and lemon sauce ($21) while watching cyclists and the river go by.
EAT: Sprig & Vine, New Hope. Over half of his patrons aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, says chef/owner Ross Olchvary: the all-plant based food here is that good. Of course, the menu changes seasonally, but if available, go for Olchvary’s Grilled Oyster Mushrooms ($9), Black-Eyed Pea Sweet Potato Griddle Cakes ($10), Green Onion Pancake Roll ($9), and one result of molecular gastronomy – the PB&J French Toast ($7) sprinkled with peanut butter powder that turns creamy in your mouth. I’m a big fan of Vegan done well, and this restaurant is among the best.
EAT: Marsha Brown Restaurant. Dine on Creole cuisine in a soaring 1800’s former Presbyterian Church. New Orleans native Marsha Brown (who also owns a couple of Ruth Chris restaurants) has renovated the main floor in a funky whimsical way and upstairs it’s all cathedrail ceiling, white linen and crystal dining. Signatures include Gumbo Ya Ya Soup ($5, $8), Eggplant Ophelia- shrimp and crabmeat topped with grilled eggplant ($15) and of course, Po’ Boys and steaks.
EAT: Bowman’s Tavern. Right on River Road – a walk downhill from Inn at Bowman’s Hill, the Tavern was updated in 2014 in both atmosphere and menu. Though it looks like a tumble-down roadhouse, new owners James Seward and chef Mike Livelsberger have “increased the quality” of both the food and décor. Greens come from a garden out back, and Mike forages his own mushrooms in the surrounding forests. His signature – Seared Scallops with creamed corn and white truffle oil ($23) reflects an uptick in cuisine. At night, expect crowds – there’s live music every night of the week.
EAT: Earl’s at Peddler’s Village, Lahaska. Re-named in honor of its founder after his death, this fine restaurant was Jenny’s Bistro, then Earl’s Prime before new General Manager, David Zuckerman and chef Bill Murphy, lightened the design, purchased saturated color paintings from a neighboring artist (Al Lachman), and brought truffles and micro-greens to the table. Local farms supply chicken and pork, and salads are grown in an on-site greenhouse and 1,800 sq. ft. garden. Earl’s has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence six years running for its 170-bottle selection. Start with the first-rate Chop-Chop Salad ($8), spring for the 18oz Cowboy Steak ($42) or toothsome Bolton Farms Chicken with Truffled Polenta and Shaved Brussels Sprouts ($24), and end with Meyer Lemon Ice Box Tart ($7).
Where to Stay in New Hope, PA
STAY: Inn at Bowman’s Hill. Travelers seeking the best of the best in lodging will see their needs well met at the Inn at Bowman’s Hill. Earnest Innkeeper/owner, Mike Amery, helps his guests “Relax, Celebrate, Connect and Make Memories” at this Four Diamond property. All four extravagant suites, several multi-level and decorated in early Lord of the Manor – are larger than most NY City apartments. Voluminous marble bathrooms sport double and triple glass rain-showers, golden fixtures and Jacuzzi bath. Read a complete Getaway Mavens review of the Inn and its rooms and suites here.
STAY: 1870 Wedgwood Inn of New Hope: Carl and Nadine (Dinie) Glassman are so well schooled in the art of Bed and Breakfast management, they wrote the book; “How to Start and Run Your Own Inn,” and operate the country’s oldest apprenticeship program for aspiring innkeepers. So it’s no surprise that the Glassman’s own 18-room B&B, The 1870 Wedgwood Inn of New Hope, stands out in the business. Though common rooms sport all the welcoming cushy appointments of a Victorian B&B, you need not leave your room or suite (with double-Jacuzzi tub facing a fireplace) at all. Gourmet breakfast will be delivered right to your bed. And in the evening Carl’s own home-brewed Almond Liqueur waits for you at bedside along with two shot glasses and chocolates. Rooms $95-$275 include breakfast, baked goods on arrival and Carl’s famous Almond Liqueur.