Here’s How to Visit Philadelphia’s ‘Castle on a Hill’
Wharton Esherick was born in Philadelphia on July 15, 1887 and knew from a very young age that he wanted to become an artist. His mother recalled turning over any piece of paper in their home and finding an illustration by Wharton – a habit that continued throughout his life. After attending the Central Manual Training School in Philadelphia, Wharton was accepted into the painting and illustration program at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and after that, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts where again he studied painting. However, Wharton Esherick didn’t make his mark on the art world as a painter, instead he left behind a legacy of wooden sculpture and sculptural furniture, becoming known as the Dean of the American Craftsmen and a leader of the Studio Furniture Movement.
In 1913, Wharton and his new bride, Letty, moved from the busy city to rural Chester County. They purchased a farmhouse on Diamond Rock Hill and called it Sunekrest (pronounced sunny-crest). Wharton and Letty started their family at the farm, eventually raising three children: Mary, Ruth, and Peter. Letty believed deeply in progressive education and dance, homeschooling her youngest child for a period, and teaching dance to local children in the front yard of the farmhouse. Meanwhile, Wharton set up a studio in a small barn on the property, which he used for 13 years before deciding to build a studio tucked up on the hillside behind their farm.
Esherick began work on his studio, what he later would refer to as his “castle on a hill,” in 1926. His hand-built studio is nestled into the hillside, much like the bank-barns early German settlers built all across Chester County. He was a fan of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and drew from Wright’s idea that architecture should not interrupt the landscape but appear to grow right out of the hillside itself. Wharton sourced all his materials locally, using castoff stones from a nearby quarry to build the walls of the Studio.
In 1940, Esherick transitioned the studio into his home. While his wife and two daughters had gone off to join the company at the Hedgerow Theatre in nearby Media, Wharton and his son Peter moved into the Studio so they could rent the farmhouse to bring in the much-needed income. Wharton built a German Expressionist style wood addition adding living space, including a dining room and a bedroom for his son. Over the next 26 years he continued to make changes and additions, adding a deck in 1965 and a final addition, which he called his silo, which features a colorful fresco of a fall day on the hillside, the following year.
From painter to sculptor
Esherick saw little success as a painter. He trained in the impressionist style as was popular at the time, but his paintings did not stand out from all the other artists working in the same style. What did stand out were the elaborately carved wooden frames he started making for his paintings on a family trip to Fairhope, Alabama in 1919. Esherick would carve his frames to reflect the subject of the painting within; for example, a painting of he made of pine trees in the moonlight is surrounded by a frame carved with delicate pine needles and pinecones. After several people requested to purchase the frames and not the paintings they surrounded, a friend suggested to Esherick that maybe he should leave painting behind and explore wood – and he did. Esherick began carving woodblocks to create prints and he finally began to see success! He illustrated several books with his woodcut prints including Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk and an illustrated and illuminated version of Song of the Broad-Axe, by Walt Whitman. Over the course of his career, it is estimated that Esherick created around 350 woodblocks.
From these early experiments in carving, Esherick fell in love with working in wood. He began to create wooden sculptures and play with furniture design. A local cabinetmaker named John Schmidt taught Wharton how to build furniture and the two men worked together on some of Esherick’s early pieces, several of which can be seen at the Museum today; Schmidt bringing his technical skills to the table, and Esherick bringing his creative and elaborate designs. Esherick’s early work is elaborately carved like his woodblocks, but after a few years he began to see furniture as standalone sculpture, realizing he didn’t need to carve “literature,” as he called it, into the surface, but could tell the story by form alone.
Though he became known for his furniture, Esherick never described himself as a furniture maker or woodworker, but always as an artist who created sculptural furniture. He saw each chair, bench or table as a work of art. Esherick said that anyone could make a straight line, that was easy, it’s when you start to curve the line that design and thought begins to happen. While his work was more prismatic and expressionistic in the 1930s, his later work took on imaginative and organic designs. His style of fluid and free-flowing forms developed in the 1950s much to the delight of his many clients. It is estimated that Esherick created 3,500 pieces in his lifetime.
The Blue Star Museum
The Museum opened to the public in 1972, two years after Wharton’s passing and was operated as a non-profit by Esherick’s daughter Ruth and her husband Mansfield Bascom for many years. From the beginning, the Bascoms allowed visitors to touch Esherick’s furniture and sculpture as they toured the Studio as Esherick himself would have wanted. His work is incredibly inviting to the touch, and this tradition is carried on to today. The Museum is made up of five buildings, two of which are open to the public including the Studio and the Museum’s Visitor Center, located in Esherick’s converted, prismatic garage. His 1956 Workshop, co-designed by Louis Kahn, is on site for visitors to view from the exterior during their tour.
Volunteer docents lead visitors on hour long guided tours of Eshericks’s Studio, relaying stories about his life and work – everything in the Studio has a story! Access to the Studio is by guided tour only, and Blue Star families can call 610-644-5822 to make a reservation or enter the code BLUESTAR18 to reserve and purchase tickets online for free.
The Studio is open for tours Saturdays from 10 – 4 and Sundays from 1 -4; weekday tours are limited this summer due to a major HVAC renovation project but you’re welcome to call and inquire about availability (the Museum does require weekday tours to have five or more people). On the second Sunday of every month, the Studio is open for self-guided tours where you can wander and explore at will with docents on hand in each room to tell you stories and answer questions.
The Wharton Esherick Museum is located at 1520 Horseshoe Trail Malvern, PA 19355 and is just over an hour west of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and an hour and a half north of Dover Airforce Base. Don’t forget to make reservations before you come!
By Laura Heemer
Curator & Program Director at the Wharton Esherick Museum
Proud sister of a United States Marine