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WHY GO: While Longwood Gardens and QVC are the most visited attractions in nearby Brandywine Valley, lesser known but just as worthy gems beckon visitors to Northern Chester County PA.
There’s a a 35-acre “pleasure garden” favored by Martha Stewart and Brits; two tiny “Brigadoon”-like hamlets with world-renowned cred; the place where an iconic campy horror movie was filmed; and a still operating tavern trashed by the Red Coats.
Here, the Getaway Mavens discover Yellow Springs (aka Chester Springs), St. Peter’s Village, Chanticleer Gardens, and more. You want offbeat? You got it!
Things to Do in Chester County PA
VISIT: Chanticleer Garden. “Every gardener is like Oscar Hammerstein’s Optimist, for the very act of planting is based on hope for a glorious future.” – Adolph Rosengarten, Jr., benefactor, who left this property to the Chanticleer Foundation upon his death.
At 35 acres, and with 60,000 visitors a year, Chanticleer, opened to the public in 1993, is smaller and more intimate than nearby Longwood Gardens (1.5 million visitors per year). But this former private estate of the aptly named Rosengarten family is a genuine “find” in the rural landscape of rolling hills, farms, and country homes.
Interestingly, people from England (and Martha Stewart, who comes on occasion) have discovered Chanticleer, comparing this small “Pleasure Garden” favorably to Longwood.
The grounds are embellished with hand-crafted and uniquely designed functional sculptures – benches, water fountains (constructed to send excess water back into the flower beds), whimsical Plant List boxes, and even a pedestrian bridge shaped like a fallen tree – fashioned with great care by five titled gardeners who each have complete authority over a designated section of the garden.
Given extensive creative latitude, these horticulturalists have free reign to translate their unique visions into botanical and sculptural art. Visitors are encouraged to bring a book, pack a picnic, relax on the inviting Overlook Terrace of the Main House, or just wander among the cheerful flowerbeds and shade trees.
The main Rosengarten home – sometimes open for tours – is approached via a circular graveled driveway. “Every day, the staff rakes the gravel in a different pattern,” says Chanticleer Director, Bill Thomas. “We never know how it will look.” Thomas loves his job, and his sense of humor is readily apparent. Pointing to a copse of hand-made ceramic bamboo – each stalk topped with an orange comb, he quips, “This bamboo has been genetically crossed with rooster genes.”
In Spring, the Magnolia and Cherry Trees burst into various shades of pink, and 250,000 yellow daffodils sprout from the earth. It’s a spectacular time to come, but every season from April through October has its charms, with “luxuriant foliage and exotic flowers” at every turn.
A new Elevated Walkway, paved with springy shredded tires and pervious material, snakes downhill, making it easy to get to the meadow, an area blitzed through with bulbs that bloom in the Fall.
The Asian Garden, with plantings from China and Japan, is farthest from the Visitor’s entrance. When gardeners realized the need for a restroom here (for themselves and guests), they built the “Japanese Pee House” in the image of a…. well, you know.
Besides the Main House, two other homes, built for the Rosengarten’s children, were located on the property. Once now serves as the Visitor’s entrance, and other was demolished and replaced by “ruins” on its former footprint. Here, the walls come alive with flowing plants reflected in small pools of water. Captivating.
There are more surprises amid the creeks and footpaths: sticks of Ostrich Fern form an organic “fence” that protects vulnerable spring flowers, and shredded tires have been dyed to look like wood chips in the Native Plant Garden. Best of all, these gardens help the community. The small vegetable garden is harvested three times a week in season. Two thirds of the gleaning goes to staff members – the last third to a local homeless shelter. Open April – Oct. Wed-Sun, $10, kids 12 and under free.
EXPLORE: St. Peter’s Village Historic District; 40 minutes from West Chester. A quaint ‘burg, St. Peter’s Village is not gussied up or interpreted for tourists.
But seekers of off the beaten track will find much to love here – especially the rocky, tree-studded French Creek that both rages and meanders over and through boulders behind Main St.: such a stunning scene that those who know how to find St. Peter’s compare it to Brigadoon. A former quarry town, St. Peters had to reinvent itself when that business closed down in the 1960’s. The shuttering of the local Inn (just recently) hasn’t helped much.
Most locals flock to St. Peter’s Bakery for coffee and flakey pastries fresh out of the oven. On sunny days, patrons take their crispy croissants, sandwiches, and lattes out to the back deck to watch the water dance around and over boulders and tree roots on French Creek.
Shops in town run the gamut of antique stores, a wine tasting room, an old fashioned pinball arcade, and Healing Spirit Café, owned by Terry, who, besides offering Reiki sessions, sells crystal and hammered metal “Healing Bowls,” along with elixirs, salt lamps ($25), and a bounty of other transcendental accoutrements.
DO: Glassblowing at Glasslight Studio, St. Peters Village. Having had experience with half a dozen drop-in glassblowing classes in other studios around the country, I can honestly say that the full-day make-and-take class at Glasslight is the most hands-on, immersive experience you will ever have as a novice. It is worth a drive from anywhere.
But, to me at least, that was not the biggest surprise in this small, seemingly middle-of-nowhere artist studio. Glasslight owners, Joel and Candice Bless, are the designers of one of the world’s most recognized contemporary glass Hanukah Menorahs in the world. Joel had been experimenting with glass casting right around the Jewish Holiday of Lights. Candy said, “why don’t you make something useful – like a Menorah we can use.”
And thus, the Shofar Menorah was born. The Bless’s design was included in the Bloomingdales catalog that year, and according to Joel, “we had to work 7 days a week to fill orders.” The Shofar Menorah is still for sale in most Jewish Museums and Judaic Shops. In fact, in 2010, the clear and blue menorah graced the cover of the book, 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.
Glasslight Studios still does custom work for homes, businesses, and houses of worship, fabricating metal in house as well, and though you might be tempted to purchase something in the studio shop, visitors eager for a more immersive experience will want to sign up for a One Day Class on the weekend. You’ll help “pull molten glass” from the furnace, blow it till you look like Satchmo, help shape and cut it, and learn firsthand how glass art is made. For $190, you’ll make four pieces – a paperweight, a bowl, a drinking glass, and a vase – an unheard of value.
GO: Historic Yellow Springs/Chester Springs. Years ago, I wrote a short story about a cowboy who wins a whole, nearly abandoned, “tumbleweed tract” town in a poker game. Yellow Springs PA, which has changed hands multiple times, could have been that fictional town. The Village itself is on the National Historic Register, with a history dating back to before the American Colonies, when the indigenous Lenape Tribe named the area “Yellow Springs” for the iron-tinted color of the spring water.
Researchers discovered a newspaper announcement from 1722, enticing visitors to bathe in the springs for their medicinal qualities. George Washington was well aware of this “Spa Town” when, after loosing the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, and during one of the deadliest Winter Encampments nearby in Valley Forge, he petitioned the Continental Congress to build a 126-bed state of the art Military Hospital to be located here. It served as a Medical Center until 1781, when the War moved south. Visitors can climb a small hill to see the ruins of this historic building.
From 1810 until the Civil War, Yellow Springs was a bustling resort town – a place to see and be seen, with bowling alleys, ice-cream parlors, and hotels. Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, brought to the USA by P.T. Barnum, came to Yellow Springs to recover from her whirlwind American Tour. By 1838, the entrepreneurial Margaret Holman, owned a “good chunk” of town, taking the reins of property ownership away from her drunk, n’er do well husband, Frederick, at a time when women were not allowed to own property. (Holman’s son acted as her agent after Frederick died in 1820).
After the Civil War, the appeal of spa towns waned, and in 1868, Yellow Spring was converted into an orphanage for war orphans and a boarding school for children of destitute military veterans, which operated until 1912, when the whole village was put up for sale.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts owned Yellow Springs from 1916-1952, until the genteel art of “plein aire” painting lost favor, and the town was once again on the block. This time, Irwin “Shorty” Yeaworth saw Yellow Springs as the ideal place to shoot religious films and promote Christian messaging through his Good News Productions. But those endeavors didn’t pay the bills, so Yeaworth and his wife, Jean Bruce, turned to making campy horror movies, establishing the for-profit Valley Forge Productions. Yeaworth’s most enduring Cult Classic? The Blob, partially filmed in nearby Phoenixville (see below).
By the 1960’s, a local group started renting the buildings in Yellow Springs for art classes, finally forming a 503(c) Nonprofit organization and purchasing the town outright to promote the arts in Chester County. Dedicated to the visual arts, environment, and the village’s 300 year history, Historic Yellow Springs now hosts one of the largest Annual Art Shows in the region, showcasing the work of 209 artists over a 2-week period every spring.
Though a variety of art classes are offered here, Yellow Springs is distinguished by its very active Ceramics Studio with a large wood kiln (built in 2014) that draws students from Philly and elsewhere (the nearest one of comparable size is in Baltimore). Though guided walking tours of Historic Yellow Springs can be arranged for groups of 10 or more for a fee, mentions Executive Director, Eileen McMonagle, you can pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure in the Lincoln Building. Free.
VISIT: Colonial Theater, Phoenixville. The movie theater is packed. Suddenly, a ball of icky goo murders the projectionist and starts after the rest of the gang. Mayhem ensues. Moviegoers run from the theater; a young Steve McQueen among them.
The Blob, as memorable as a B-movie gets, was filmed right here in Phoenxville, PA. To raise money for the theater that by the 1990’s was in its final frames, the newly formed Association for the Colonial Theater screened The Blob – and the event was a hit. Now, every year over a weekend in July, BlobFest takes over Phoenixville, drawing Blob lovers from all over the world.
STROLL/SHOP/EAT: Downtown Phoenixville. What was once a steel foundry town has been reinvented as an arts and epicurean hot spot. Have a cup of joe amid the vibrant paintings and ceramics at Artisans Gallery and Café, where people sip specialty espressos after catching a flick at the Colonial Theater.
Try a few vintages at the Black Walnut Winery Tasting room or a custom Italian Soda at Steel City (a venue for local and regional musicians nearly every night). If you can snag a seat, try for one at the newest little BYOB restaurant sensation, Andrew Deery’s Majolica or Black Lab Bistro (see recommendations below).
And definitely plan to spend more time than you originally allotted for a perusal of the Diving Cat Gallery (named after owner Markels Roberts’ philosophy to just dive into life the way cats dive after prey). Roberts considers her store as “one big sculpture,” and you’ll loose yourself amid the ceramic cats, Buddha’s, clothing, scarves, jewelry and thousands of can’t resist impulse purchases.
Before leaving town, you’ll have to make one last stop at Artifaqt, both a factory and artist studio. It’s not generally open, but if you press the buzzer, owner/craftsman John Luttman will let you into his world and work, which includes designing for Disney, the Bronx Zoo, Longwood Gardens (cheeseboards made from Longwood’s fallen trees), star chef and restaurateur, Jose Garces and others.
Great chefs and Disney bigwigs make pilgrimages here to see the artist at work and discuss their newest projects, but you can, too. Just push the buzzer. “The curious are always welcome.”
Restaurants In Chester County PA
EAT/PROVISION/SHOP: Ludwig’s Grille and Oyster Bar, Glenmoore. What was once the General Store and Post Office (built in 1848) on the rural intersection of Routes 100 and 401 (“Cornerstone Pike”), and then the Black Angus Inn, has, since 1992 been restored, strangely enough, as an Oyster Bar with a New England theme. The original “Buck A Shuck” – $1 per shucked oyster – has not gone up in price in 26 years!
No wonder Ludwig’s sells on average 3,000-4,000 oysters per week. But that’s not all Ludwig’s dishes out – and other items are equally excellent. Take the popular French Onion Soup – chock full of sweet, caramelized onions and capped with a prodigious amount of melted gooey cheese. Or the “Wedge Salad” deconstructed and chopped, with Bibb Lettuce to soften each fresh bite.
These, and craft cocktails, steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and of course those oysters, keeps this crossroads restaurant hopping.
In the same complex, find a small upscale Ludwig’s Village Market (with Market Café opening soon), perfect for provisioning and picnics. A few doors down, Eleanor Russell Gift Shop – in case you’re hunting for the perfect unique hostess, wedding, or baby gift. Owner Lori Musson, who has a penchant for dogs and equestrian themed items, named her store after her grandparents, Eleanor and Russ.
EAT: Black Lab Bistro, Phoenixville. Highly rated, often cited as the “best restaurant in town,” accolades are well deserved. Try the warm sushi-rice and seaweed salad topped Tuna Tartar ($12) with a texture/flavor combination that leaves a gal wanting more. The menu is inventive and the room cheerful – and not a Blob in sight.
EAT: Restaurant Alba, Malvern. Chef Sean Weinberg, a James Beard darling, dedicated to high quality, locally produced foods, opened up this big city caliber eatery in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Malvern a few years ago and the great reviews are never ending. Go local for the Wood Grilled PA Trout, Arugula, Pickled Onions, Almonds and Pesto ($20), or small bites with 5 inventive Bruchettes for $17.
Hotels In Chester County PA
STAY: Desmond Hotel, Malvern. Though the hotel itself is sized for a corporate clientele, rooms at the Desmond are nevertheless charming, with four-poster canopy beds and Federalist furniture. Three on-site restaurants assure that you’ll find something as casual or as fine as you’d like, and in fact, the service and dishes in the in-house Fork & Bottle are very fine indeed. Rooms and suites from $169-$289.