The Legacy of Architect William Price Lives on in Rose Valley

From Thunderbird Lodge to Hedgerow Theatre to historic private homes, the late Wallingford native’s pioneering work can be seen throughout the borough.



William Price Architect

All photographs by Tessa Marie Images.

George Thomas was a 25-year-old graduate student studying art history at the University of Pennsylvania when, in 1970, he spent $75 on thousands of glass plates and film negatives. It was to be his food money for the month, but he had a good feeling about his Freeman’s auction acquisition, which came wrapped in paper and manila envelopes from the office of William Lightfoot Price. “I only knew that he was a Philadelphia architect,” Thomas says now.

The purchase eventually led to a doctoral dissertation guided by a question: How could a designer who reshaped the architecture of his time suddenly
be forgotten?

“Will invented what led into Art Deco,” says Thomas. “Everyone still calls it Art Deco, but it was actually Art Price.”

A cultural and architectural historian, Thomas is the co-director of the Critical Conservation program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His practice, CivicVisions, remains in Philadelphia, where he taught at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. “[Price] pushed tradition out of the way,” says Thomas. “But he was this crazy guy in Philly who changed the world, then disappeared.”

A century after his death, Price is beginning to gain some recognition in the public sphere. His most concentrated body of work can be found just outside Media in Rose Valley. Once a small borough of fewer than 1,000, until the Traymore development was completed in 2005, Rose Valley was—and, in some ways, still is—a Price artists’ colony. For natives, however, the proper term is “community.”

The family of Rose Valley borough manager Paula Healy arrived in 1903, at the start of Price’s stay between 1901 and his death in 1916. Her great-grandfather, John Maene, was a world-class carver. Like Price, his work can be found in almost every square foot of the borough. “There’s something that draws you to the Price way of thinking,” says Healy.

The Old Mill Rose Valley Pa

The Old Mill.

Born in Wallingford, Price worked in the office of Frank Furness and his partner, M. Hawley McLanahan, early in his career. He learned about the Arts and Crafts movement during his travels to England. Upon returning, Price built homes for himself and a few railroad barons off City Line Avenue in Overbrook. He was 40 when he moved to Rose Valley.

Faithful to labor and materials, Price and other Arts and Crafts proponents argued that objects and spaces should be beautiful and functional while acknowledging the craftsman’s humanity. Part of that approach, apparently, was the need for utopian communities to promote aesthetic excellence and social unity through craftsmanship—perhaps to partly offset the rampant capitalism of the American Gilded Age.

Rose Valley was largely Price’s doing. It was established in 1901 near what was then Moylan, in and around an abandoned textile mill. By 1905, Rose Valley had furniture, metalworking and pottery shops, a bookbindery, and artists’ studios. Rose Valley’s “downtown”—three duplex mill houses that date to the 1860s—became Price renovations. Five homes designed by Price were part of the Rose Valley Improvement Company. The other 20 were never built, due to the financial collapse of the community’s business venture in 1909.

These were old Philadelphia Quakers embracing the new Arts and Crafts movement. “Will needed a colony because he was fed up in Overbrook, so he created a place where financials didn’t matter,” says Thomas, who authored William L. Price: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Design, among other books. “Rose Valley was a response—a reaction to industrialism with Quaker conservatism. Price’s Lane, with its little tiny cottages and bungalows, was for people who might not be making it economically but who were still worth having around.”

“Rose Valley was a response—a reaction to industrialism with Quaker conservatism. Price’s Lane, with its little tiny cottages and bungalows, was for people who might not be making it economically but who were still worth having around.”

With Philadelphia sculptor Frank Stephens, Price also helped found another experimental community, Arden, Del. Located just north of Wilmington, Arden was based on the radical “single tax” theories of American economist Henry George. Its aesthetic reflected the “charming” character of the Middle Ages, according to author Colin Fanning. In Arden and Rose Valley, theater, poetry, dancing and music fostered community spirit and a holistic approach to artful living. “Utopia is not supposed to end—but that was the problem,” Thomas says. “Rose Valley and Arden were creations of young men in their prime who never imagined anything bad could ever happen to their creations.”

The three Price brothers—Will, Walter and Frank—based their architectural practice on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Will died at 56, a year into a project to add a 400-foot tower to Traymore, his fabled Atlantic City hotel, which opened in 1915. “We lost a lot [when he died],” says Thomas. “His death led to the death of the Rose Valley experiment.”

Yet Rose Valley endured, and its cultural and social values persisted. “There are still artists and architects there,” says Thomas. “It’s kept its character and sensibility. In its original scheme, it was open to all. No gates; no fences.

“But it wasn’t Gladwyne. Will wanted the economically least and highest to share and be part of this world. What remains are some of the best small modern houses in America.”

Thunderbird Lodge Rose Valley Pa

Thunderbird Lodge.

Today, there are signs of renewal. Thunderbird Lodge is now home to the Rose Valley Museum & Historical Society. Once an 80-acre dairy farm, it was preserved thanks to Charles Schoen. A major Rose Valley Association investor, Schoen invented the pressed-steel boxcar and wheel, becoming a railroad tycoon. His two daughters built homes designed by Price. He lived in Schoenhaus overlooking the Old Mill, where couples often get married these days.

The museum’s president, Morris Potter, is the maternal granddaughter of Walter Price, and she’s made it her mission to maintain the family legacy. She grew up in the house of her aunt, Anna Price, and now lives in what was once her grandparents’ home. Thunderbird Lodge was once the home of renowned illustrator Alice Barber Stephens. What Norman Rockwell was to the Saturday Evening Post, Stephens was to the Ladies Home Journal. She was the engraver of choice for Thomas Eakins and a contemporary to N.C. Wyeth’s mentor, Howard Pyle.

When the Thunderbird Lodge property became available, “all jaws dropped,” says Ryan Berley, the museum’s curator. “It’s the place to start a walking tour where you can learn the history,” he says.

On his first Rose Valley trip, auction purchase in hand, Thomas found Margaret Price, Will’s daughter, and Lucy Stephens, daughter-in-law of Alice Barber Stephens. He quickly concluded that these were “more than just weird people living out there.” “New purposes need new forms, and he was working for people who weren’t wedded to the past—that was their common thread,” Thomas says. “Will’s friends made art together. It’s what I’d like for all our communities—to have a shared community, a deeply valued American sensibility that we can all thrive in together.”

Now 74, Thomas admits that it scares him a bit when people get too nostalgic or history-minded about Rose Valley. “You run the risk of killing the thing,” he says. “It’s great that they’ve acquired Thunderbird Lodge, and it’s one of America’s great houses. But let’s use it to create a place that can be true to the spirit, rather than the history, of the place. If you become too touristy, you might lose that.”

To get a true sense of Will Price’s vision for Rose Valley, you’ll want to see the following:

Hedgerow Theatre

Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley Hedgerow Theatre Wharton Esherick table Hedgerow Theatre Wharton Esherick staircase

Hedgerow Theatre.

Wharton Esherick table. 

Wharton Esherick-designed staircase. 

An 1840s mill converted in 1901, Artsman’s Hall served as a community center for two decades, hosting art exhibitions, plays and meetings. Noted English potter William P. Jervis set up his studio on the second floor, making ceramics under the Rose Valley Shops mark from 1904 to 1905.

New York City actor Jasper Deeter founded Hedgerow Theatre here in 1923. It remains the oldest independent repertory theater in the United States. Heralded sculptor and craftsman Wharton Esherick traded hand-carved furniture with Hedgerow in exchange for acting lessons for his two daughters. Created in the 1930s, the Esherick table in the green room is still used for receptions after theatrical productions. The Esherick-designed staircase beside the front entry doors foreshadowed the famed spiral staircase at his home studio near Paoli.

 

Rose Hedge

William Price Rose Hedge William Price Walter Ferris Price Rose Hedge

Stained glass windows inside Rose Hedge.

Exterior of Rose Hedge.

In 1906-07, Rose Hedge was converted from an early 19th-century farmhouse by Walter Ferris Price, brother of Will Price. The large, tiled overhanging roof is reminiscent of an Italian villa. The stained glass windows flanking the front door feature stylized Glasgow School Art Nouveau roses made by Nicola D’Ascenzo of Philadelphia circa 1907.

 

"Auntie Bess" Warrington Home

William Price "Auntie Bess" Warrington House

"Auntie Bess" Warrington house. 

This white house with black trim was built as designed by Will Price in 1902-03. It was the center of Price and Walton family activities.

 

Rose Cottage

William Price Rose Cottage

Rose Cottage. 

This home was designed and built by Will Price and Herbert Walton for Will Walton and his bride. Herbert was a craftsman who made iron, stained glass, woodwork and furniture. His brother, Will, became a young draughtsman under the tutelage of Price and worked with the architectural firm, later building homes and contributing much to civic and cultural life in Rose Valley.

 

The Forge

Herbert Walton Forge Rose Valley Pa

The forge. 

Herbert Walton built this iron-working shop. Of interest are the anvil on the front porch, the stained glass in upper floors and the carved squirrel on the roof dormer.

 

House of the Democrat

William Price House of the Democrat

House of the Democrat. 

Designed by Will Price from designs he widely published in 1903, well before its completion in 1912, the “House of the Democrat” is a simple house for simple living. It was built for Henry Hetzel, a young craftsman who personified the Arts and Crafts movement.

 

Tower House

William Price Tower House

Tower House. 

In order to supply the existing 19th-century homes nearby, the water tower itself probably pre-dated the Rose Valley community. The central tower building was eventually turned into rooms after town water came to Rose Valley. Will Price lived in a few of the rooms during the summer, when the rest of his family vacationed in Maine.

In 1914, Herbert and Frank Walton expanded the house. Around 1920, Price’s widow, Emma, moved in. Later, their son, Billy, added a couple of units for the family. The dining room still has the original built-in cabinetry created in the evolving Colonial Revival style. The small stained glass window at the top of the tower is the work of Herbert Walton.

 

Camaredeil

William Price Camaredeil

Camaredeil. 

The home of Will and Emma Price and their family, this 1876 stone house was expanded and remodeled by Price in 1902. The name was an acronym of their four children’s names—Caroline, Margaret, Edson and Eileen Harris. Price used the house as a laboratory for interior design. Most of the changes were decorative, though sometimes they were major and went unfinished.

 

The Butterfly House

William Price Butterfly House

Butterfly house.

Due to its unique shape, this was the largest of the Rose Valley Improvement Company Houses. These model homes were built in 1911-12 to recoup finances after the Rose Valley Association failed to profit from its crafts shops. Designed by Will Price, they used modern building materials, along with Moravian tiles designed by Henry Chapman Mercer of Doylestown. Originally, the two “wings” of the Butterfly House were symmetrical.

 

The Guest House

William Price The Guest House

The Guest House. 

Dating to the 1860s, the Guest House was originally tenement housing for the workers in Antrim Osborne’s Rose Valley Mills, which gave the community its name. It was one of the first structures renovated by Will Price to house his family, friends and followers. Six workers’ apartments became houses for three families in an oft-changing structure that, by 1902, was being managed by Nathan and Anna Price Kite.

 

The Bridge on Old Mill Lane

Bridge Old Mill Lane Rose Valley Pa

Bridge on Old Mill Lane. 

The Shakespearean heads on either side of the arch crossing Rose Valley Road reference the theatrical flavor of the early community. They’re the work of John Maene, foreman and head carver at Rose Valley Furniture Shop.

For more information, visit rosevalleymuseum.org.