Wharton Esherick Compound

photo by: Samuel Markey

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2024

Free Spirit: At His Malvern, Pennsylvania, Home and Studio, Artist Wharton Esherick Let His Imagination Roam

In phase after phase of fearless experimentation, the protean artist Wharton Esherick covered a Pennsylvania hillside with buildings for living, working, and playing. Starting in the 1920s, he supervised local craftspeople and contractors to help dot his wooded acreage in Malvern, about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, with polygons and curves. No detail in wood, concrete, stone, metal, or glass was exempt from his imagination and whimsy. Roofs, walls, ceilings, staircases, and even sinks undulate, cantilever, swoop, taper, spiral, or pivot. Esherick and his collaborators left some beams and rods visible, giving hints of how they engineered the seemingly gravity-defying rooms.

The 12-acre property, containing half a dozen structures, is now the Wharton Esherick Museum, a National Historic Landmark and part of the National Trust’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program. The artist’s family opened his studio building to the public two years after his death in 1970, leaving it undisturbed to the point that his timeworn collared shirts are still neatly folded in wooden compartments under the bed. Examples of every art form that he explored—sculpture, furniture, prints, paintings, textile patterns—are on view. Yet there are no display cases or labels to spoil the illusion that the industrious occupant just stepped out, perhaps to browse in a woodyard for more raw materials. The place is so transporting, with marvels in every cranny, that most visitors don’t remember to take selfies.

“It’s one of the last places on Earth” where cellphones rarely surface mid-tour, Julie Siglin, the museum’s executive director since 2016, tells me. Crossing the studio threshold, she adds, “just floats you away. It’s a magic spot.”

Wharton Esherick Studio Gallery

photo by: Samuel Markey

Pieces by Esherick, including his Flat Top Desk (1929/1962, at right) fill the studio’s main gallery.

My four-hour tour with Siglin and her team allows me to just scratch the surface of the museum. The staff points out important objects that will later be lent for a traveling show, The Crafted World of Wharton Esherick, which will open in October 2024 at the Brandywine Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. (It will also travel to Cincinnati and to Madison, Wisconsin.) Multiple times, as we peer into a faceted corner or scan a shelf laden with willowy abstract sculptures, one of the experts at my side says, “I never noticed that before.”

Holly Gore, the museum’s director of interpretation and associate curator of special collections, brings out a typewritten legal document that Esherick’s loved ones signed in 1967 as his health failed. (It had been tucked away until 2022 in one of the family’s file cabinets.) On the onionskin pages, in Esherick’s presence, the family agreed that the complex would be preserved as a publicly accessible museum, although it was heavily mortgaged and would require much financial commitment. “Wharton absolutely knew that would be the purpose of this site,” and that his family was dedicated to maintaining his legacy, Siglin says.

Wharton Esherick Museum Buildings

photo by: Samuel Markey

The 1956 Kahn-Tyng workshop (at left) gave Esherick more workspace in addition to his studio (at right).

Esherick’s upbringing was not auspicious for a career in pursuing varied artistic muses. Born in 1887, he was one of seven children of George Esherick, a Philadelphia businessman, and Annie Esherick, a homemaker. The straitlaced family despaired of Wharton’s professional prospects as he sketched constantly, even on unanswered letters and unpaid bills—“every scrap of paper in the house,” as his son-in-law Mansfield Bascom wrote in his 2010 monograph Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind.

By 1910, his parents had likely stopped hoping that Esherick would sensibly pursue banking or the ministry. He enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but dropped out before completing the program, feeling constrained by the rigid curriculum. “You couldn’t let loose on the imaginative,” he recalled years later. In 1912, he married a Philadelphia wholesale butcher’s daughter, Letty Nofer, and they moved to Malvern, at first living in an 1830s stucco-and-wood gabled farmhouse they called Sunekrest (pronounced sunny crest). Esherick painted the rooms with murals of flora and barnyard animals and applied sunrise motifs to the chimney stack and shutters. He painted Impressionist landscapes—many depicting Malvern scenery—in oil, watercolor, and pastel. As his family grew, he carved out spaces to set up his easels in the house and its adjacent barn, and at a nearby octagonal schoolhouse built in 1818.

Wharton Esherick

photo by: Esherick Museum

Wharton Esherick in 1940. Photo by Consuelo Kanaga, Courtesy the Wharton Esherick Museum.

Letty homeschooled the children and also earned money; she took jobs as a social worker and teacher, cared for neighbors’ children, raised animals, and grew peonies for sale. She helped her husband expand his intellectual horizons, and he joined her on travels to study the latest child-centered educational techniques. At a progressive school in Alabama, Wharton defied Jim Crow norms and taught art classes to Black students. At a dance camp in the Adirondacks, he gamely joined troupes performing outdoors in gauzy tunics. Siglin explains that the museum is currently researching Letty’s impact: “She really introduced him to a way of life he would not otherwise have known.”

In Malvern and on the road, the couple befriended celebrities, including the writers Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. Authors commissioned his woodcuts for book illustrations, and he persuaded some curators and dealers to exhibit his landscapes. But reviewers remained unimpressed: “There is no great force in his art, as yet,” the New York Tribune opined in 1921.

Esherick started carving frames for his paintings and then pushed further into three dimensions, sculpting chess sets and abstracted figures of animals and people—dancers outstretched, lovers intertwined, mourners bowed. He thriftily built furniture for his family and, when it appealed to clients as well, ventured into new styles. Galleries and patrons started clamoring for his Expressionist desks; slab-topped tables on scissor-like bases; and chairs made out of tree stumps, hammer handles, and wagon wheels. Upon concluding that he ranked as “a successful sculptor, not a failed painter,” he discarded and burned many of his unsold paintings.

Wharton Esherick Kahn-Tyng Workshop

photo by: Samuel Markey

A fireplace with a pigmented plaster chimney forms the heart of the Kahn-Tyng workshop.

Wharton Esherick Spiral Stairs

photo by: Samuel Markey

The red oak Spiral Stair (1930), one of the artist’s most famous creations, twists its way through the studio.

Needing space for his machinery and wood inventory, he built a studio and a garage on a nearby hillside, which previously had been slated for excavation as a stone quarry. He started construction without blueprints: “Turn when I tell you,” he would tell the crew. Building components, some paid for by remortgages, had previous lives. Oak timbers came from a razed barn, and sandstone chunks had been discarded from a local quarry. Esherick deeply raked the mortar joints to maximize textures and shadows.

Reinforcement rods between beams are exposed, as are the bolts attaching a spiral staircase’s cantilevered wooden risers to a torqued oak pillar. The garage’s roof planes curve convexly and concavely, and ochre chinking is tucked between the dyed-green exterior logs. Esherick’s children were invited to pitch in as the buildings grew, speckling red and blue pigments on orangey fiberboard ceiling panels.

Wharton Esherick Studio Front Exterior

photo by: Samuel Markey

The original stone-walled studio (1926) grew to include a taller bedroom structure (1940) and a silo (1966).

During my tour, I feel weirdly welcome and comfortable, although everything is a little topsy-turvy—a common reaction to the funhouse, I’m told. And I am amazed at the seeming freshness of the marks of the craftsman’s hands. Sculptural latches of rosewood and ebony are snugged together on two of the studio’s doors. I admire an antique mastodon tusk embedded along a staircase and peruse bookshelves documenting omnivorous interests in Hokusai, van Gogh, and Zora Neale Hurston. The coat pegs have faces and torsos, portraying Esherick and some of his favorite collaborators at the site: a stonemason, a hod carrier, and a songbird, projecting like angels aloft from a snowy stone wall. A 19th-century printing press rescued from a local newspaper’s office is on view, along with the woodblock for a print that Esherick made with the press. Light bulbs are veiled in rawhide sheets, and a shoehorn and a wooden acrobat dangle from the strings that operate the light switches.

“He made it fun to turn on the lights,” Gore explains.

Wharton Esherick Main Studio Gallery

photo by: Samuel Markey

Esherick’s interests in organic architecture and Expressionism come across in the works on display in the studio’s main gallery.

By the late 1930s, Esherick lived full-time at the studio, although it lacked an indoor bathroom. (Its wooden outhouse was shaped like a knife-sharp prism.) The scale of his projects grew, but he never charged enough to make much profit. Customers, including local philanthropists Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok, filled rooms with his architectural woodwork and commissioned dizzyingly tight spiral staircases. He adapted to new technologies, supplying the Boks and other patrons with lidded, slotted cabinets for hi-fi equipment and record albums. The only creation of his that dissatisfied the Boks was Esherick’s curving sofa, too shallow for napping—they returned it, and it remains a highlight at the studio.

Wharton Esherick Kitchen

photo by: Samuel Markey

The kitchen in the studio contains more of Esherick’s beloved curves.

Venues as prestigious as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair exhibited his work. He came up with a few marketable, easily reproducible products, steadily turning out three-legged stools, bowls, and amoeba-shaped cutting boards. He took on commercial and institutional assignments, including furniture, staircases, and sculptures for the Hedgerow Theatre at Philadelphia’s outskirts. His children and Letty often performed there and helped out backstage, and Miriam Phillips was an actor in the Hedgerow company.

Esherick remortgaged several times to improve his acreage. He added on to the studio and created a kitchen in a stuccoed silo, pigmented to resemble dappled autumn leaves against blue skies. To create yet more workspace, he asked the renowned Philadelphia-based architect Louis I. Kahn to draw up plans. (Esherick made him a captain’s chair as a thank-you.) Kahn designed a workshop building with his collaborator and romantic partner Anne Tyng, who proposed a series of three hexagonal rooms. Esherick snuck in some curves during construction, including an arched fireplace. One side of an exterior corner of the stucco-clad walls is inscribed “L·I·K· / W·E·.” (Tyng’s contributions, Siglin tells me, merit more credit and scholarly attention.)

In the 1960s, Phillips moved into the studio to care for Esherick, and she stayed on after his death to help run the museum with Ruth and Mansfield Bascom, who lived in the Kahn-Tyng workshop. Tours for small groups were offered by appointment, as Phillips and the Bascoms “fiercely defended the site to be preserved as it was in Wharton’s time,” Siglin says.

“It is a place that keeps giving and rewards you for looking.”

Emily Zilber

The museum brought in sympathetic contractors over the years, including Andrew Gustine, who now serves as the site’s building preservation director. Gustine, in his effort to analyze every inch of the compound, admires Esherick’s pragmatic use of traditional pitched roofs with overhangs that protect facades. On the more experimental silo, however, the walls are cracking and spalling. Salts are crystallizing on the interior, and swaths of the kitchen’s dark gray plaster are crumbling. Gustine calls the silo “the one thorn in our side” and says that he wonders, “Why was that off the map of following the basic laws of keeping water out?” Investigations, including lab tests of wall samples, are underway to determine how moisture is seeping in: “We’re still facing mysteries,” Siglin says. Gustine says that when he hires restoration team members, he looks for people with curiosity, “who can’t help themselves and want to understand something unique.”

Wharton Esherick Studio Dining Room

photo by: Samuel Markey

In the studio’s dining room, a wood-shaded light fixture illuminates a 1967 dining table.

In the past decade, Siglin explains, “We have been in a period of extreme change and growth.” In 2014, with funding from the Little Rock, Arkansas–based Windgate Foundation, the museum bought back Sunekrest, which the family had sold off in 1999. In 2018, the studio’s HVAC system was overhauled, and the museum merged with the nonprofit group that had long tended the octagonal schoolhouse. In March 2020, just as a master plan was completed for adapting Sunekrest into a visitors center (with space for storage, offices, exhibitions, and programs), the pandemic put expansions on hold. Late that year, a transformational $10 million endowment gift came from the Windgate Foundation to create a fund for the long-term stability of the site, providing annual interest that helps with operational, preservation, and curatorial needs.

Wharton Esherick Studio Bedroom

photo by: Samuel Markey

Books by writer friends and acquaintances line the walls of Esherick’s bedroom in the studio.

Grants from organizations including the Henry Luce Foundation and the Save America’s Treasures program have allowed the museum to inventory and preserve furnishings, artworks, and documents. In recent years, staff members found cutting boards stashed away in a private section of the Kahn-Tyng workshop, and a closet yielded two suitcases full of Letty’s colorful handwoven textiles in plaids, checkerboards, and bargello patterns. A cardboard shoebox in the basement turned out to be full of Esherick’s bronze powders, along with recipes that he used when pigmenting his picture frames.

The museum’s program roster now includes artists’ residencies, concerts, lectures, film screenings, and temporary exhibitions. During my tour, the staff is gearing up for the multidisciplinary artist Martha McDonald to perform dances and songs based on excerpts from Esherick’s archives while costumed in shimmery fabrics textured with high-relief prisms. The site is also preparing for the Brandywine exhibition loans, including an acrobat-shaped light pull, a wooden bust portrait of Theodore Dreiser, models for staircases at the Hedgerow Theatre and the Boks’ house, and chairs made from hammer handles and wagon wheel segments. Two large desks will leave the studio: One rests on flared stacks of drawers and the other is carved with low-relief tableaus of bare tree branches.

Wharton Esherick Main Rear Exterior

photo by: Samuel Markey

Rear view of the Wharton Esherick Studio.

Cognoscenti may notice absences in the rooms as the Brandywine show travels for more than a year, but first-time visitors will likely have no idea that some masterpieces are temporarily out of town. After all, thousands more remain on hand. “It is a place that keeps giving and rewards you for looking,” says Emily Zilber, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs and strategic partnerships.

There are plans afoot to allow public access to Sunekrest and to restore the Kahn-Tyng workshop and make it accessible to visitors. It currently serves as program and office space, with treasures including Esherick’s workbench, a bandsaw powered by a bicycle wheel, and a giant figure of a mourner at Sherwood Anderson’s grave. “Investing in our fundraising capacity will be a critical next step,” Siglin says.

As her team strategizes about taking some less traveled paths with programming and exhibitions, she says, “We do ask ourselves if Wharton would love this or hate this—he’s our North Star.” She likes to paraphrase his advice to kindred spirits: “It doesn’t take much thought to draw a straight line. But a curve, oh, a curve. You have to think.”

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Eve M. Kahn is an independent scholar based in New York City, covering art, architecture, and design. The author of "Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams, 1857-1907" (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), she is finishing a biography of the journalist and reformer Zoe Anderson Norris.

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