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Capturing the Spirit of Esherick: Memories of a Member

September 24, 2017

The road to Paoli circa 1914.

We hosted our Annual Members’ Party with extra fanfare this month, in celebration of our 45th anniversary as a Museum. Our program featured some wonderful speakers, who helped us take stock of our journey since 1972.  Running through the event was a theme of continuity, a passing of the touch between those committed to preserving Wharton’s creation. We heard from former Director, Rob Leonard, and our current Director, Julie Gannaway. We heard from Joyce Stoeber, who has volunteered for the Museum since its inception and Lisa DiCarlo, who is new to our volunteer team this year. The afternoon was full of laughter and stories being shared both in the program and among friends. With this in mind, we found ourselves thinking about the important first-hand accounts we’ve been able to gather from those who knew Wharton Esherick, stories that enrich and breathe life into our understanding of his humor and creative spirit. One such source of anecdotes was David Wilson, who will always be remembered among the Museum’s most dedicated volunteer docents. And we don’t say that lightly! Dave was still guiding fantastic tours here at the age of 97 – sometimes giving 100 tours a year!

The Eshericks’ neighbor, Dave Wilson, eager to share his memories of Wharton.

Dave Wilson knew Esherick from the time Wharton and Letty moved to the farmhouse in 1913.  Dave was born and raised in the Great Valley. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, having been inspired by Wharton’s work, and later returned to the area to run a dairy farm. His stories and memories were as invaluable then as they are now, so, in the spirit of sharing stories from past and present, we’re reposting an article from our very first newsletter (dated 1983) where Dave Wilson recounted his memories of Wharton for all to enjoy.

“Memories of a Member”

It was quite a novelty in this community to have a young artist and his bride settle here. It was real country at that time. The people were mostly farmers and were very conservative, but Wharton and Letty were soon absorbed into the community.

Wharton and Letty with one of their new neighbors, Isaac Clothier, c. 1914.


Having lived in the city all his life, Wharton was thrilled to be in the country. He helped his neighbors take in hay and with other such activities whenever they needed additional hands. Wharton joined the local farmer’s grange and made the scenery for one of their stage shows. Wharton often came to our house to play chess with a group of local men and during World War I my mother would invite Letty to talk to her Red Cross unit about ways of cooking to conserve food.

It was my custom as a youth to ride my horse about the Valley and surrounding hills. The back road up Diamond Rock Hill and through Esherick property was one of my favorite routes. I remember when Wharton remodeled his barn into a studio. I was particularly taken by the carvings on the supports for the little roof over the entrance, an eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve. One day, riding up their lane, I was surprised by an owl. Carved from a large hunk of wood and mounted in a hoop hanging from a tree, it was swaying in the breeze.

“An eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve” as Dave Wilson put it. These carved supports once adorned the entrance of Wharton’s barn.

Letty had an interpretive dance class – young girls dancing in thin flowing veils – that met out on the lawn at about the same hour each day. Colonel Cassat would try to time his daily horseback ride to pass the Esherick house at that particular time.

At one time Wharton had a Stanley Steamer which broke down quite often. Later, he bought a horse and a yellow two-wheeled cart. After our first real snowfall that winter, Wharton borrowed a sleigh and drove to our house for a visit. Mother invited Wharton to join us for a warming cup of coffee. “Get out of this sleigh, I should say not,” responded Wharton. Then, turning the horse sharply, as he would in his two-wheeled cart, he started off. The sleigh overturned, dumping Wharton in a snow bank.

After Wharton had made the dining table and chairs he decided that all the mid-Victorian furniture, contributed by his family, had to go to make room for his own work. The secondhand dealer had bought the lot and hauled it away – the day before Wharton’s mother came to call.

Later I married and had a farm on North Valley Road. Wharton would stop by for fresh eggs and raw milk, giving me the privilege to know him better. One day he gave me this advice for fixing up a set of old chairs I had found in the barn, “make them comfortable to your hands, round all those sharp corners and lace the seats with baling twine, which you have plenty of.”

As a dairy farmer, I always had a surplus of cow manure. One day Wharton telephoned and ordered a load of it. “Where do you want me to put it?” I asked. “I’ll leave you a sign” was his reply.


The sign Wharton left was a large wood carving of a cow’s rear end and an arrow underneath with the phrase “David Here.”  The manure would be right where it belonged!


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.



Wharton’s Cape Cod Watercolors

August 15, 2017

“New England Cottage”, watercolor, 1920.

There are just two weeks left to check out our latest exhibition, Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, which highlights paintings completed by Wharton Esherick between 1919 and 1920 while he traveled with his family up and down the east coast. Many guests to the Museum are surprised to learn that Wharton began his career as a painter, since he is best remembered for his creations in wood. In fact, he studied painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (which later became the University of the Arts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where he studied under distinguished painters including Thomas Anschutz, Cecilia Beaux, and William Merritt Chase.

Wharton’s Schmincke Horadam watercolor paint set accompanied him on many trips.

Impressionist style painting, which Wharton studied, encouraged the artist to take their paints out of the studio and paint en plein air (outdoors). Wharton loved to paint from nature, often taking his painting supplies and wandering the area near their home, as well as on their family travels. Ultimately, Wharton would leave PAFA in search of his own unique voice, but he would always maintain his love of nature and the inspiration it brought him.


“Chatham Lights”, watercolor, 1920.

There are 18 watercolors on view in the exhibition, several of which were done while visiting Cape Cod. Wharton depicted the seaside cottages, gulls, and fisherman at their daily tasks with care.  One painting, “Chatham Lights”, is particularly striking, perhaps because it is the only nightscape in the show. Wharton captured in this painting the twin lighthouses at Chatham with their lights glowing brightly under a full moon. The palette is deep and moody, placing emotional tone over the capable draftsmanship we see in the “daytime” paintings. In fact, without the twin lights, it would be difficult to identify the site at all.

The Chatham Twin Lights in 1919. Photograph courtesy of National Archives.

Chatham, which is right on the “elbow” of Cape Cod established twin lighthouses in 1808 as a way of distinguishing it from Highland Light in Truro, MA further up the arm of the Cape. In 1841, due to coastal erosion, new brick towers were constructed further inland, though continual erosion caused the south tower to fall in 1879. New, cast iron towers were then constructed even further inland, and these are the towers Wharton saw during his visit in 1920. Three years after Wharton’s visit, the northern tower was moved 12 miles north to become Nauset Light in Eastham.

Wharton made several sketches of the Chatham Twin Lights in the summer of 1920.

While Cape Cod’s sandy shores have drawn beachgoers for hundreds of years, it’s views have called to artists. In 1896, Charles Hawthorne, who had also studied under William Merritt Chase, opened The Cape School of Art in Provincetown, which would become one of the largest art colonies in the world. Over the years, many artists painted Cape Cod, including Edward Hopper, William Paxton, and Childe Hassam. Others continued to establish schools of their own on the Cape, like Hans Hoffman’s Summer School of Art, or the Fine Art Work Center, both breathing new life into Provincetown’s artistic community.

Charles Hawthorne instructing a painting class in Provincetown, c. 1910.






Esherick, of course, would find his own haven for making art in the solitude of the Pennsylvania woods. Just months before he painted “Chatham Lights,” he had received a set of carving tools and was making his first forays into woodworking. These tools were given to him at a different sort of artist colony, a single-tax community in Fairhope, Alabama, where artists, writers, educators and all sorts of progressive thinkers were coming together to exchange ideas. It was there he began carving frames for his paintings – which he soon found got a bigger response than the paintings themselves! The story of Fairhope is one for another time (and another post) but it reminds us of the way these early adventures change and inform one’s life. While Esherick would find his voice in wood, those early years as a painter shaped him, as he observed and studied the world around him. As Edward Hopper wisely put it, “In every artist’s development, the germ of the later work can be found in the earlier. What he was once, he always is.”

A young Esherick setting off for Europe by cattle boat in 1906 – one of many adventures to come!


More on the history of artists in Provincetown can be found here:


Our current exhibition Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, curated by Laura Heemer, is on view through September 3, 2017.


Post written by Curator, Laura Heemer and Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Wharton Esherick’s Sculpture Tree (From Start to Finish)

July 22, 2017

On the mahogany sideboard in the Wharton Esherick Museum’s main gallery sits a model, a piece that could easily be mistaken for a small abstract sculpture in itself – the model for Esherick’s Sculpture Tree.  The model is comprised of a solid three-sided base, tipped just slightly off its vertical axis, with three propeller-like shelves at staggered heights. Often passed over on tours (we have more material than could ever be covered in an hour!) the Sculpture Tree commission is well documented in a series of archived letters. This month we’d like to follow this thread and illuminate the collaboration and conversation needed to make a commission come together, and Wharton’s habit of building friendships along the way!


Model for “Sculpture Tree”, pine, 1961.

In this case, the rumblings began in 1960 with a Trustee of The George F. Little Memorial Fund reaching out to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy to support art and design from the domestic realm. The director at that time, Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., had a clear interest in the elevation of craft fields and mediums in the art world, a line which was actively being blurred when this project began. In a letter to the fund trustee, Hayes stated his case (and it is interesting in itself that the case needed stating as one could take it for granted today), “A contribution could be made for the purchase of modern crafts, furniture and useful articles, exhibiting those qualities of design possessed by utilitarian artifacts of the ancient world whereby they have found their way into museums. In other words, we don’t hesitate to consider useful artifacts of the past as works of art, but somehow museums would hesitate to include the articles of the present age in this way. I think this is a mistake.”

Hayes had occasion to meet Esherick, likely calling on him at the studio to see examples of his work (though in a letter dated December 9, 1960 Hayes thanked Esherick not only for his time but “especially for the bourbon to send me on my way.”) It was Hayes who initially proposed to the trustee that Esherick be commissioned for a unique artwork. Perhaps it wasn’t too hard of a case to make – Esherick had certainly gained recognition, having exhibited at the then newly established Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City a couple years earlier (later called the American Craft Museum and now known as the Museum of Arts and Design).

A letter from Esherick “in the midst” of the project.

With funding in place the project could begin, the task being to design a sculptural display stand for the top of a staircase, upon which potted plants or small stone and metal sculptures could be placed, something they found could best be described as a sculpture tree or plant (or pedestal, or What-Not or even ‘the CANNOT WAS’ depending on the letter you choose!). Wharton set to task making the model which now resides here at the Museum. Esherick carefully planned the dimensions of the piece, at times requesting specific measurements of the intended location. He described the flexibility with which he conceived the piece in a letter to Hayes which accompanied the model, showing an eagerness to have the piece fit naturally in its surrounding. “The base,” Esherick explained, “is a corner cabinet – one side longer than other, – it may be turned up-side-down to put the long side where wanted. Three top boards or shelves which also may be reversed, depending on where it is used.” He went on to suggest a cherry base with walnut shelves, the model, of course, being made only of pine. Wharton confessed in another letter to Hayes, “The thing that scared me a little about all this plant—sculpture multi-level figure was that I don’t want it to appear anything like those silly whatnots that we used to have in mother’s lace-curtained parlor. However, it is a nice problem…” I would say he succeeded in distancing himself from such a dainty, familiar style. According to Hayes, when the model arrived at the gallery he “found a small circle of people standing around it as if it had come from Mars.” Mission accomplished, Wharton!

“Sculpture Tree” in it’s final form, poplar, 1961.

The letters between Esherick and Hayes continued and the commission evolved over time, with the final form being significantly different from the model. The “cabinet” aspect fell away, and the final wood chosen was poplar. While the silhouette of the base remained similar to the original design, Esherick removed the volume of the base (or trunk if you prefer), creating a lighter, linear form to Sculpture Tree. The letters are by no means strictly business, however. Wharton was eager to have Hayes see his other exhibitions – namely an upcoming exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, Masters of Contemporary American Crafts. He was equally eager to invite Hayes to catch Miriam Phillips (Wharton’s dear companion in the latter half of his life) in “Evenings at Chekov” at the Key Theatre in New York or in numerous other plays at the Philadelphia Playhouse–in-the-Park. While Hayes managed to attend at least one play, it seems he was forever bouncing around to various speaking engagements leaving Esherick asking, “Can’t you get stuck in the mud some place and stay with us for a decent visit?”

With Sculpture Tree completed (which also included a patience-testing six weeks of oiling to achieve the proper finish) the final task was to of transport the piece to Massachusetts. Esherick built the piece so that it could be broken down into sections, but putting it back together again required skill and he debated going himself or sending one of his men for the install, to say nothing of whether to use a shipping company or crate the piece (he preferred not to). The solution found couldn’t be more appropriate for 1961. Hayes (who was lecturing in the Poconos) was able to swing by in his Volkswagen bus and pick up Sculpture Tree (along with Wharton and possibly Miriam too!)

Though not permanently on display, the piece remains part of the Addison Gallery collection – and you can always keep an eye out for the Sculpture Tree model next time you visit us for a tour!

Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne. Special thanks to our Volunteer Docent, Al Trapuzzano, for sharing his avid Esherick research!

Early Rhythms: Wharton Esherick and the Gardner Doing Dance Camp

June 26, 2017


Pianist Olga Mendoza with co-founders Ruth Doing and Gail Gardner at the dance camp.

Earlier this month we opened our latest exhibition, Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor which explores a visual journal of the Esherick’s life and travels in 1919 and 1920 as the family visited (and Wharton painted) sites up and down the east coast. One such stop, in the summer of 1920, was the Gardner Doing Dance Camp, which became a family destination for many summers to come. Esherick completed many watercolors while at the camp that first summer, but as we’ll take a look at in this blog post, his creativity didn’t end there!

Wharton Esherick working on “Dance Finale” at the camp. This image was featured in a later camp brochure.

Gail Gardner and Ruth Doing opened the camp in 1916, having taken it over from Alys Bentley. The camp was located on Lake Chateaugay near Lyon Mountain in northern New York State until 1925, when they relocated to St. Regis Lake just a little further south. Gardner had found success as an opera singer before running the camp, while Doing had been a student of Alys Bentley’s, learning the rhythmic dance style that the camp would continue to teach. The Esherick’s learned of the dance camp through friend and author Sherwood Anderson and his wife Tennessee who had previously visited the camp themselves.


Esherick’s hand-carved frame compliments the dancers’ poses in his oil painting, “Dancers in the Moonlight,” 1920.

The freedom of this summer setting provided Esherick with ample time to create and the inspiration (primarily the dancers) that surrounded him took form in a wide variety of media, from the watercolors seen in our current exhibition, to oil paintings, wood and plaster sculptures, furniture and seemingly endless amounts of sketches.

Two early plaster sculptures, which now sit in Esherick’s bedroom, depict dancers from the camp, one of Ruth Doing, the other of dancer and actress Doris Canfield. Both done in 1920, these are very academic for Esherick, though the essential design elements (like the spiral) would show up again and again in Esherick’s work in progressively bolder and more modern designs.


“Doris”, 1920, is a cast plaster sculpture of dancer and actress Doris Canfield.

These summers also provided him the chance to experiment with new woodworking projects including a number of trestle tables. In 1923 Esherick designed a large oak trestle table for the camp, the top of which was relief carved with abstract motifs developed by Esherick and other students. To create these designs he and his fellow campers listened and responded to music as they drew, attempting to capture the qualities of the music in line.  This collaborative project gives us a glimpse of the experimental approach embraced at the camp.


Dance camp brochure, 1923, with “Rhythms-Opening” woodcut as the cover illustration

Gardner and Doing themselves truly enjoyed Esherick’s artistic style and used his woodcuts to illustrate a number of their camp brochures. The brochures gave a taste of what to expect at camp, including their teaching philosophy, and provided logistical information, even detailing a list of what to pack (bloomers or knickerbockers of course!) In a later brochure, advertising the winter season classes for 1931-1932, Esherick’s woodcut illustration of a dancer is particularly dynamic in its pared down use of line. The winter season, held on West 56th Street in New York, was part of an active artistic area with the American Designer’s Gallery (run by Esherick’s friend and artist Henry Varnum Poor), the Threefold Restaurant, and Theodore Dreiser‘s apartment (Dreiser was another good friend of Esherick’s) all in the neighborhood.

“Spirit Inactive”, woodcut illustration on the cover of dance camp brochure for the 1931-1932 winter season.

Esherick’s designs are full of twists, curves, and rhythms- themes from these early influences which continued through his art career to his very last artworks (Rhythms I and Rhythms II.) To learn more about the early travels and communities that shaped Esherick’s career be sure to stop by our Visitor Center to view Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, on exhibit through September 3, 2017.

Designs such as these inspired by music (and drawn by fellow students) would adorn one of Esherick’s trestle tables at the camp.

More information about Esherick’s time at the Gardner Doing Dance Camp can also be found in Wharton Esherick: Birth of the American Modern and Wharton Esherick: Journey of a Creative Mind.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

An Artist’s Collection: Mistakes and All

May 25, 2017


Commissioned for the Curtis Bok House (shown here) this sofa was returned and can now be seen in Wharton’s bedroom.

Someone once asked during a tour if Wharton ever made a mistake.  It just so happened the tour guide being asked this question was Miriam Phillips, Wharton’s companion for the latter half of his life. She thought momentarily and replied that she couldn’t say for sure, but sometimes she was upstairs and heard a piece of wood go clanging across the studio followed by a loud curse, and she suspected that might have been Wharton making a mistake!

Perhaps a mistake he could live with – the “J” in this Emperor Jones poster has not been reversed on the woodblock. Photo by James Mario.

Revered by Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle, honored by the American Institute of Architects with its Gold Medal for Craftsmanship and considered by so many to be a genius of American furniture design – it’s easy to forget that Wharton Esherick had his fair share of missteps along the way.  Wharton’s home, in this way, provides a valuable and unique look at the creative process – a space rightfully peppered with not only his personal, most beloved sculptures, but also the imperfections and experiments that are part of any rigorous artist’s journey. Wharton would joke that fireplaces were made for mistakes, but in truth he lived among so many of his own pieces (from returned commissions to early prototypes yet to be resolved) that were grounded in growth and exploration over perfection.


Wharton kept shortening the “nose” of this wall-mounted dinner gong, but could never find a good note!

One such piece, the gracefully curved sofa made for the library alcove at the Curtis Bok House in 1935 was returned after about a year in it’s intended home. The Boks requested that Wharton replace it with a straight one citing that Mr. Bok’s friends would only sit on the narrow ends, rather than have their feet dangle off the edge. Mrs. Bok had a complaint also – when she napped on the sofa she kept rolling off! Wharton continued to work with curved and sometimes very deep sofas, however, which would come to be an iconic design for him in the 1950’s and 60’s.


This commissioned crucifix from 1930 was deemed too unconventional.

The sofa wasn’t the only commission Wharton found himself living with. Pieces could be refused for a number of reasons, some deemed too expensive, as with his 1950 Dresser (somewhat surprising considering he often undercharged for his own labor), others for being too unconventional, as with his small Macassar ebony crucifix. Wharton’s artistic experiments, whether structural or conceptual, were not all successful, but they were an essential part of exploring how far his creations could be pushed, pulled and reinvented.

Dining Chair, 1937 and Spindle Chair, 1939 both had room for improvement according to Wharton.

Two chairs Wharton kept in his dining room are great examples of Wharton reminding himself of what NOT to do. He had three criteria for chairs – they should ‘look good, feel comfortable, and be strong enough for a man to lean back in- because he will’. The Spindle Chair met only two of Wharton’s three criteria for a good chair, as it’s straight, narrow pieces along the back were not especially comfortable. He learned from this and improved the design with future chairs like the World’s Fair Chair now seen in Wharton’s bedroom, where he used wider curved pieces for the back. The other chair, Dining Chair, Wharton designed for use around a dinner table. The woven fabric is angled at the seat, pushing the diner towards the table, which Wharton found was uncomfortable for any other use. Of course, if you were concerned about dinner guests overstaying their welcome this might not be a mistake at all!

The World’s Fair Chair, 1940, succeeded in comfort where the Spindle Chair had failed.


Wharton had a certain irreverence with his own work – a practicality.  His furnishings were not to be treated too preciously but rather to be lived with comfortably, acquiring age and evidence of use along the way. If a piece of furniture needed to be cut in half for an elevator ride and reassembled to make it into a new home (which was the case a least once!), well, Wharton would do it. A piece could always be changed, even years after it was made. The Flat-Top Desk, which was first designed with an aluminum top, is a perfect example. Wharton eventually replaced the aluminum with a walnut top, stating later, “It was too cold. Wood is intimate, it’s alive, metal is uncomfortable, plastic just won’t do,” though he had been willing to try it out as a new material. The replacement top would be a slightly boat-shaped piece of walnut which Wharton swapped out yet again with a second walnut top (using the first walnut piece for a coffee table). In this way, he allowed his forms the fluidity to adapt and change with any number of circumstances or his own artistic compass.

There are countless other examples throughout the house of Wharton’s perseverance (and pitfalls), though we don’t intend to list them all. Rather to this end, we remind ourselves (artists or otherwise) not only of the dedication required of the creative process but the willingness to exist in a space of uncertainty and invention, even if it means an occasional mistake!


The Flat-Top Desk, made in 1929 and shown here in the farmhouse, with it’s original 1/4 inch aluminum top.


The Flat-Top Desk with it’s final walnut top from 1962. Photo by Mark Sfirri.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Learning on the Job: Joseph Esherick Recalling Wharton

April 17, 2017

Joseph Esherick and Wharton Esherick working on a windowsill for the Curtis Bok House, 1937.

Visitors to the Wharton Esherick Museum often hear about two famous architects – Louis Kahn, who worked with Esherick to design the 1956 Workshop and George Howe, Esherick’s collaborator for the New York World’s Fair exhibit. But there was another remarkable architect in Esherick’s life that is not to be forgotten – his nephew, Joseph Esherick.

Joseph Esherick’s accomplishments are numerous. He was awarded the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1989. He was a professor at the University of California Berkley, College of Environmental Design for over 30 years, at one time serving as the Chairman of the department. Joseph Esherick was celebrated for his unassuming approach to design, valuing a sensitivity to function over architectural grandeur. As quoted in a NY Times article from 1998, the year he passed away, ”Beauty,” he said, ”is a byproduct of solving problems correctly.” These two Esherick men seemed to share common principals in their respective practices – to be direct and unpretentious in their designs. To illuminate Wharton Esherick’s influence on his nephew, we’d like to share the following excerpt of Joseph Esherick speaking at an Annual Members Party here at the Museum.

The following excerpt was originally published in the Wharton Esherick Museum Quarterly from Autumn 1990, entitled “Joseph Esherick, FAIA, Speaks at Annual Members Party:”

When I was asked by Bob if I would speak at this meeting, I accepted immediately because, first, I would have to come here to do it; and second, it would give me a chance to recall an almost endless string of things that have been enormously influential on my life and what I try to do.

It is over time and through reflection that we learn what is really useful. We, I at least, also learn from trying to explain or clarify what we’ve learned. So this is to me a pleasant opportunity – to be here and to recall Wharton and what I’ve learned from him.

I began learning from Wharton very early on. I suppose I was eight or ten when he told me to always keep my left hand behind the end of a gouge and never let it get in front. More than once, I have proved to myself the wisdom of this advice.

I recall frequent weekend visits to the farmhouse down below and almost as many visits by Wharton to our house in Mt. Airy. Wharton often brought with him models of what he was working on and would discuss at length with my father (an engineer) problems of construction. I remember with particular clarity his bringing a model of the Bok spiral stair and long discussions about how to build it without prop supports or hangers. The model was made so that the individual treads were loose and one could put it together and apply forces to it – with one’s fingers – to see how it would collapse. I especially recall Wharton’s complete openness to my questions and to my guesses as to what might work. In the end it was built Wharton’s way and it worked. One might suggest that it was his great intuitive sense that led him to the right answer. I would agree if you admit into intuition an extraordinarily open and imaginative mind, great perceptive skills plus years of experience getting it right – and probably some experience having it go wrong.

Later when I was at Penn I worked for Jim House – a sculptor friend and great admirer of Wharton – on a very large oak sculpture. He had bought a tree from a farmer down in the Great Valley, we felled it in the winter, trimmed it down to a single massive log, and then dragged it on an improvised sled over the snow to a truck. Somehow we got it on the truck and took it down to John Schmidt’s barn on Jug Hollow Road where he had an enormous band saw driven by an old Packard engine. The lower wheel and the engine were in the bottom floor of the barn, and on the upper floor were the upper wheel and a little flat truck on tracks on which one put the rough logs to feed into the saw. Somehow we wrestled the log onto the truck and rigged up a chain hoist from the ridge beam to position the log. Then we hauled and hauled on the hoist, but the log didn’t move. Finally someone looked up and found all we had been doing was to pull the barn down onto the log. Just before the whole barn collapsed, the log moved and the day was saved. John Schmidt never even blinked.

The summer after I graduated from Penn I worked for Wharton on the Bok house. There I got to know Ed Ray and Bert Kulp and John Schmidt better. It was a wonderful group – Wharton clearly the leader, but still very much a part of the group – working on everything. It was a real lesson in team work, in the pleasures and virtues of shared work as opposed to the problems of the divisions of labor. I’ve tried to work Wharton’s way ever since.

Eventually I ended up in San Francisco after the war. Wharton visited once, but couldn’t be persuaded to stay very long – he had to get back to the work which was his life. Later I visited here occasionally – once staying here over a weekend and he asked if I’d like to see anyone and I suggested Lou Kahn and Jean Francksen. They came to dinner Saturday night for steaks that Wharton cooked and whiskey that I suppose I poured. It was a typical evening with Lou – much talk until quite late, probably three.

The next morning I wandered into the kitchen where Wharton was cooking breakfast. We probably grunted or groaned some greeting and set to breakfast in dull silence. Finally Wharton broke it and said, “You know Lou would be a helluva good architect if he didn’t talk so damn much.”

Wharton and Lou were great friends and sometimes they agreed on things. I always thought Lou got his good aphorisms from Wharton, like “How would a farmer do it?” I’m inclined to doubt that Lou ever had the foggiest notion of how a farmer would do anything, but the question sounded good.

I don’t think Wharton was the source of other questions Lou liked to ask, like “What does a brick want to be?” Still, Wharton and Lou were great friends. It may tell us something that Wharton had only two architect friends, Lou, and George Howe, but he couldn’t have had better ones – either as friends or as architects.

Originally I thought I would talk about what architects can learn from Wharton, but that began to get too particular so I decided to try to talk about what we can all learn from his life and work. The way in which his life and work came together, were integrated, forms a model of a life increasingly difficult to lead. But because it is difficult is no reason not to try or to assume it can’t be done anymore.

What was so important about what Wharton did? Certainly he made beautiful things that we have come to love, and certainly he made an enormous variety of things that are beautiful or useful and if useful also beautiful – paintings, prints, sculpture, buildings, gardens, bowls, implements, furniture, tools – indeed anything he touched. But these are the products. In his work he spoke as an individual, but not in a private language, with the result that he and his work speak to everyone – not to some narrow elite, self-appointed or otherwise – but to all of us.

He had a powerful commitment to his work and a personal, but not private agenda. He had no axe to grind for any movement other than honesty – he was the antithesis of the media slave.

One of my strongest recollections is of Wharton’s railing against appearances – and I think he meant by this formalism, especially doctrinaire formalisms. His work is always about the issue at hand, whether the grain of the wood or the comfort of the chair or the curve that best expressed an emotion he felt. The fluidity and movement of his work is the product of intention and not style – and thus, stripped of the identifying trappings of style, it approaches a reality without the limits of time. It is from his devotion to a higher reality within and beyond himself that we can learn.



Sea Ranch House designed by Joseph Esherick, 1966.


More information about Joseph Esherick can be found here:


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Finding Wharton Esherick’s House (Before GPS!)

March 23, 2017

If you’ve ever had trouble finding the Wharton Esherick Museum, you are not alone! Making your way to the Studio has always been a bit of an adventure, as captured in this wonderful open house invitation from Esherick’s early career. The invite rests unfolded in our collection now, but if you look closely you can make out the creases and begin to imagine opening the invitation to discover the delightful map inside.

Open studio invitation designed by Esherick

The invite is likely from the early 1920’s, well before Esherick constructed his “castle on a hill,” the building which is now our Museum. We should imagine instead, visitors arriving at the farmhouse property just down the hill (known as Sunekrest) with Esherick’s work on display in the barn, which he used as his studio in these early days. Surely not by accident, Esherick’s open studio was scheduled to  coincide with his wife Letty’s peony garden coming into bloom. Esherick even carved flowers on his invitation that dance around his artwork list.


Esherick’s map of the route from Paoli to Sunekrest in the early 1920’s.

Esherick began his mapped route with the Paoli train station.

Made up of three woodcut blocks, the most exceptional part of Esherick’s invite is the map. The route from the Paoli train station to Sunekrest is articulated with fun and functional detail, including the two freight lines and two streams crossed on the way. If you’re using this map to find us today be warned that a few things have changed! Route 202 and 76 were yet to be, of course, and the northernmost freight line (on the right in our view) is now the Chester Valley Trail.  Another significant difference is the existence (or disappearance) of Ashenfelter Road. The farmhouse had stood at the corner of Ashenfelter and Diamond Rock Road (which Esherick efficiently denotes here with a diamond shape).  In fact, when the Esherick’s bought the property the barn was on one side of Ashenfelter Road, the farmhouse on the other.

Diamond Rock Rd. and Sunekrest are both cleverly designated by Esherick. The octagonal schoolhouse on Diamond Rock Rd. is also depicted.

Over time, the roadway coming up the hill was redesigned and this end of Ashenfelter Road was no longer used. The current driveway to Sunekrest and a path through the woods beyond the farmhouse is all that’s left of the old roadway.

Just above the aerial view map, Esherick has illustrated a cross cut view of the Great Chester Valley, with Paoli on the left and Sunekrest, designated by the rising sun symbol, on the right. This sun symbol also adorns the farmhouse itself. Esherick carved this symbol into the shutters, hammered into the copper hearth, and even added it to the chimney and the doorknocker – wonderful early examples of an artist whose creativity could not be contained!

Ashenfelter Rd. and the Esherick’s farmhouse, Sunekrest (note the sun symbol on the chimney).

Next time you’re on your way to visit us, keep Esherick’s map in mind and you’ll start to piece together the landscape of the past. An invitation like this leaves little doubt that the adventure to find Wharton Esherick’s house has always been worth the trip!

If you are looking for directions to the Wharton Esherick Museum that are a little more up-to-date you can always find them here!

Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.