Bucks County drew .geniuses to its hills

Pennsylvania: Writers, artists and at least one eccentric found hospitality in the bucolic lands north of Philadelphia.

Short Hop

May 13, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | By Robin Tunnicliff Reid,Special to the Sun

Of the many brilliant minds who settled in Bucks County, Pa., playwright George S. Kaufman was the one who came under a cloud. The lanky, bespectacled co-author of "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" was making headlines in 1936, but not because of his work.

Actress Mary Astor had documented her affair with Kaufman (among others) in her diary, and the lurid excerpts that wound up in the newspaper during her acrimonious divorce rivaled anything on stage or screen. To escape the embarrassment, Kaufman's wife, Beatrice, bought a fieldstone farmhouse near Doylestown, Pa., where the couple and their daughter could hide until the scandal blew over. It was close enough to George's Broadway contacts, yet far enough from nosy gossips.

Kaufman named his new retreat Cherchez La Farm, a French pun that could mean either "Dear Home: The Farm" or "I Can't Find the Farm." That same year, his fellow Algonquin Round Table member Dorothy Parker bought a dilapidated farm a few miles north in Pipersville.

Soon, Kaufman's collaborator Moss Hart also bought a place in Bucks County. Then in 1940, Oscar Hammerstein II and his wife got caught in a vicious downpour while house-hunting near Doylestown. After the storm subsided, the Hammersteins saw a rainbow above a house that happened to be for sale. Taking this as a good omen, they bought the hilltop farm, and a year later, Hammerstein's nine-year, no-hit drought ended when he won an Oscar for his lyrics to the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

While the Hammerstein story may be apocryphal, a drive through Bucks County is proof enough that it's a place that could well be at the end of a rainbow.

Rambling old homes -- including the one that once belonged to the Kaufmans -- have been turned into beautiful bed and breakfasts. Antiques shops with eclectic goods spilling onto sidewalks and front porches abound. Cozy restaurants overlook the shimmering Delaware River, which forms the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. Running parallel to the river on the Pennsylvania side is the Delaware Canal, built in the 1800s as a cheap way to get coal from the northeastern part of the state to Philadelphia. Cyclists and hikers take in the waterfront view from the towpath that unwinds between the waterways.

Pleasant Doylestown

The most famous attraction hereabouts is the town of New Hope, an artist colony on the river. I bypassed it in favor of the less famous (and less crowded) Doylestown, the county seat. It's a pleasant little city of tree-lined streets, quaint shops, restaurants and a manageable museum with informative thumbnail sketch exhibits about the artistic luminaries who lived in the county.

Doylestown also is home to two other museums, both flamboyant castles designed and constructed by yet another Bucks County genius, Henry Chapman Mercer.

Besides wanting to avoid New Hope's tourists, I chose Doylestown because I wanted to see those castles and because I wanted to stay at the Kaufman home, a B&B now called Barley Sheaf Farm. It was a good combination; Mercer's overwhelming museums are better appreciated over two days, and Barley Sheaf is the ideal spot to spend the night in between.

Located at the end of a long avenue of sycamore trees, Barley Sheaf has been a B&B for more than two decades. Guests can stay in the main house, a renovated silvery-gray barn or a snug cottage.

On the way to my lodgings in the original house, owner Peter Suess, who has operated the B&B since 1996, stopped on the second floor to show me George Kaufman's bedroom with a narrow balcony overlooking the pool. Like the rest of the place, the decor in the room is a great example of working with a rustic old farmhouse instead of trying to re-create Tara fabulous mansion. The result is the sort of B&B where, as one employee says, guests often spend the weekend without leaving the property.

I could have been one of them, I thought, as I stretched out on a sleigh bed in my room with a cup of hot tea and an entertaining biography of Kaufman that Suess had lent me. The only sounds coming through the open windows were the honking of the Canada geese that strut around the grounds and the crunching of tires along the gravel drive.

Eccentric's castles

The mood at Henry Chapman Mercer's home, Fonthill, is decidedly different. While Barley Sheaf encourages you to slow down, the gray cement castle's honeycomb of dark, narrow halls that snake in and out of 44 rooms urge you to push forward.

The many things that piqued Mercer's intellectual curiosity are reflected throughout. He dabbled in architecture, so he designed the castle himself with clay models and rough sketches. To build it, this believer in the beauty of manmade things hired a crew of locals who used traditional tools and a horse named Lucy (who's commemorated in a weathervane atop one of the towers). The paw prints of Mercer's dog Rollo embedded in the stairway also testify to his love of animals.

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