Oh finally! The day after Valentine’s Day I had a chance to hit the road for a short trip to historic Germantown, PA to join friends for lunch in Mt. Airy at McMenamin’s Tavern, followed by a visit in Germantown to Karen Singer Tileworks. Germantown is a part of Philadelphia that I’ve heard about and never seen, so having the opportunity to go there was very exciting indeed – not to mention that aside from one day in DC for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, this is the first time I’ve been on the road this winter. Happy, happy feet.
We planned to meet for lunch in Mt. Airy at a place called The Wine Thief Bistro which has a wonderful website (www.winethiefbistro.com) that sort of failed to mention that this time of the year, they are not doing
lunches. We are a flexible lot, though, so we walked next door and had a wonderful lunch in the Irish pub with fresh and freshly drawn Smithwicks and Guinness and wings and pastrami and a burger to die for. I do love a happy accident.
We took a few minutes after lunch to sort of wander around Mt. Airy, and since this was all new territory for me, I really enjoyed seeing this neighborhood, which seems to be in a very hopeful kind of multicultural transition. There are a lot of restaurants and shops and renovation and restoration and there were a lot of workmen about – it was quite a wonderful thing to see. There is a lot of color, even for a February day, and I think the use of all of that color made a real impression – I came away really liking the area, without spending much time at all there. I certainly want to go back.
From Mt. Airy we drove Germantown Avenue toward our destination for the day, Karen Singer Tileworks (www.karensinger.com) Karen opened her studio for us an was most gracious in answering our questions and allowing me to photograph and poke around the various projects she has underway. She specializes (to quote her literature) in tile murals, donor walls and commemoratives, custom awards and the like, but mostly her specialty is creating exquisite relief sculptures that can be used as tiles – at least I saw them that way. She and her assistant Ben were also working on recreating the ceramic facade blocks for a Philadelphia building reconstruction, and that process was included hand carving the clay to match original fragments.
Karen does have a showroom of sorts where you can poke about and create custom layouts with the various designs and sizes of tiles already made, or she will customize color and design to your specifications. I have to say that I loved the water and cloud tiles – but bought a doorway…had to have it.
I loved the textural quality of the tiles and the way the color glazes were used. They just felt good.
Germantown is an interesting place, and distinct from Mt. Airy. Having a little time in the converted mill where Karen has her studio set me to wondering about the area in general, because, again, my education about this area is woefully deficient…so I have had a little time to try to make up some of my ignorance since getting back to the computer and the internet. Turns out that there is a whole lot of American history, both very old and much more recent, packed into the area. Originally settled by 13 Quaker and Mennonite German families, Germantown has had an amazing string of residents – including, for a time, George Washington who moved out of Philadelphia to escape some pestilence or another in 1793. But it has also been home to, or been the birthplace of such notables as Louisa May Alcott, Bill Cosby, the artist Gilbert Stuart, Grover Washington, Jr., and Jimmy McGriff (among lots and lots of others) and it is also considered the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America. The founding of Germantown is remembered as German-American day, celebrated annually on October 6.
In the early 1800’s Germantown became a manufacturing area, giving rise to the mill buildings such as the one now occupied by Karen Singer Tileworks. It was formally incorporated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854, but remains a very distinct neighborhood. While there is “urban blight” an poverty in evidence in Germantown, the place has great bones – and so much history.