Thunderbird Lodge Celebrates the Small Wonders of Rose Valley
Now home to the Rose Valley Museum and Historical Society, the iconic barn honors the borough’s artisan community.
Morris Potter, president of the Rose Valley Museum and Historical Society, at Thunderbird Lodge. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Heading up a magnificent octagonal staircase tower to the second floor of Rose Valley’s Thunderbird Lodge, Morris Potter speaks of the pending exhibition space. “This feels like home,” says the current president of the Rose Valley Museum and Historical Society. “There can be no better setting. There’s this medieval feel, as it was in the old photos of Charles Stephens’ Native American collection.”
In a way, the iconic lodge—just north of the Hedgerow Theatre—always was a museum. If not for the artifacts that named it, then simply for the architectural wonder of Will Price. In 1904, Price created the three-story staircase to marry the circa-1790 stone barn to an Arts and Crafts marvel. It was done for Stephens, a Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts instructor, and his pioneering wife, Alice Barber Stephens, a world-class illustrator.
Last October’s opening of the Rose Valley Museum in the lodge finally celebrates the small but significant Delaware County borough’s history, art and culture. It’s sourced organically with private collections that have been stored for a century in area homes. The lower floor of the barn—Alice’s long-vacated studio—now fills to capacity for lectures and events.
Local old-school craftsmanship has also helped restore the historic space. The fireplace opening on the exhibit floor is stylized as a thunderbird rising through the night, incorporating Price’s signature arch. Perhaps it’s a metaphor, too, for the revival of the Arts and Crafts ideal of Price’s utopian colony. After all, the museum reinstates what was an artists’ community over a century ago. “It’s important to me that this is done right and with meaning,” says curator Ryan Berley.
To start, the site is open one weekend a month, and museum membership has already nearly doubled to 100. “People have not left,” says Potter, a grandniece of Price and granddaughter of his fellow architect brother, Walter Price.
This wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of Judge Allen Seymour Olmsted and Mildred Scott Olmsted, Quaker activists who hosted the likes of Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr. They campaigned for the American Friends Service Committee, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The couple bought the lodge in the 1930s. Mildred, of the Scott Paper and Scott Arboretum family, lived to be 100. After her death in 1998, her will specified that willing family would remain and maintain Thunderbird’s upkeep—and they did until 2015—but thereafter it should be donated to a nonprofit organization. That became the Rose Valley Centennial Foundation. President Tim Plummer, Rose Valley’s mayor, lives in the barn’s original farmhouse across Rose Valley Road. The Museum and Historical Society pays rent—a single red rose and a dollar a year—though the foundation has launched a $1 million fundraising campaign.
When Will Price, who began building in Rose Valley in 1901, redesigned the barn home, he’d already initiated what he hoped would become a self-sufficient haven for artists. He, too, sought a balanced life between work and play. Thunderbird Lodge was both a workplace and a domicile, steeped in a setting that inspired independence to impact and inform creativity.
Yet, there was also a business model for the experiment: The Rose Valley Association was a stock corporation. “The idea in Rose Valley was that the cottage industry would support itself, but it didn’t work, though the idea of forming a community did work,” says Potter, who lives in a 1916 home designed by her grandfather. “Everything here has a base in what Will Price was doing.”
Borough Manager Paula Healy is on the museum’s board of directors and, like Potter, is a legacy. She’s the great-granddaughter of Belgian-born carver John Maene, who led the High Gothic carving style that defines Rose Valley furniture. He was also responsible for the carving inside the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge National Historical Park.
“One of the biggest challenges has been to get the entire community to bond and be happy to have the opportunity to have this wonderful history,” says Healy. “What’s hard is that it costs a lot of money, and there’s work to do—and part of that is getting as many on board to love this as much as we do.”
The colony was more than just artists and architects. Philosophically and intellectually, the Price family and friends—about 12 of them—were known as the “Seekers After Knowledge,” or the SAK. Much is documented in a diary called Chronicles of the Folk. “Folk” was commonly the word for “associators.” Today, kindreds are called “Rose Valley Folk.” “They were a bunch of idealists,” says Potter.
But the colony’s product—furniture, sculpture, pottery, paintings, photography, metalwork and more—was only affordable to the elite. A table that was once at the Riddle estate is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it was made at the Old Mill in the borough. Today, people get married at the Old Mill, as Berley’s parents did. “Will Price wouldn’t have been all that fond of celebrating the objects,” Potter admits. “He was more interested in the ethers that produced them.”
No one had much of an interest in Rose Valley’s history until the 1970s. Robert Edwards, a furniture historian and antiques dealer, participated in a 1974 show in Princeton on the American Arts and Crafts movement where Rose Valley work was represented. By 1983, there was a Brandywine River Museum retrospective of Rose Valley, and further into the 1980s, auction attention came. In 1987, a much larger Arts and Crafts survey at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, titled The Art That Is Life after Price’s Artsman, put Rose Valley on the map. By 2000, the community began touting itself with its own show at the Old Mill.
The museum is partially the dream of Edwards and architectural historian George Thomas. Thomas wrote the Price biography—and that of Frank Furness—which devotes several pages to Thunderbird Lodge.
But it’s also the dream of the people. “This is a place for the community, a gallery, and a gateway for Rose Valley,” Berley says. “We’ve been waiting for a moment like this.”