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Building a cob house

Cara graver cob house builderCara Graver built a cob house. An artist who has worked in many materials, she had attended a six week workshop in Oregon on natural building and came back to build what is now “The Cob Studio.” A cob house is built out of clay, sand, straw, and water. Graver says cob building has been done on almost every continent, and in every age. “Cob” comes from the old English word for loaf. About her house: Most of the clay she got from a neighbor who was building a house. There was a big hole with a pile of dirt beside it and that dirt was full of clay. More clay she retrieved by the roadside where there was exposed land. Graver led a nine day workshop with 25 participants to build the cob house. Your correspondent asked her to demonstrate the process: First you put clay and sand on a tarp and add water. You stamp and mix it with your feet . Next with your arm full of straw, grab a chunk of the clay mixture, combine it all together and shape it into a ball. Once you’ve formed the ball you shout “Cob toss” and toss it down the line of people to the person at the wall. That person puts it into place and tamps it down with their fingers. The wall is just built up from there! (Gravers was interviewed at the High Point Cafe craft market at the Allen Lane train station in Mount Airy, Philadelphia,  in 2023.)

Watch video interview here


1903 Chestnut Hill stone building demolished for townhouse development

30 west highland demolished for CU


Garcia demolitionDamian Garcia , a member of the IUOE (International Union of Operating Engineers) Local 542, has been working in demolition for 20 some years and loves it. He may have single-handedly demolished the 1903 building at 30 West Highland Avenue in Chestnut Hill with a large powerful excavator, sometimes switching to a smaller bobcat bulldozer to move around piles of debris. (Of course he had a support team including laborer Melvin McClure who directed the action) According to an article in the April 28, 2021 Chestnut Hill Local, “The existing building was built in 1903 but does not qualify for historic preservation because of substantial changes made in the late 50s and early 60s. The plan is to tear down the original building and industrial garages, dig up the concrete drive and replace them with eight townhouses, 12 trees, a permeable-surface driveway, a 'pocket' park and a residential walkway with small lawns. The main issue for the neighbors, they said, is density. The proposal, they say, is too tall, too many houses.” The building had housed the EB O’Reilly HVAC business.

Over the course of about a week, Garcia brought down the structure and loaded most of the debris, which he had carefully separated into piles of wood, metal and stone into a dumpster truck. Garcia related that his company, Geppert Bros., Inc.,  had roots in Chestnut going back nearly 100 years when it was founded as Chestnut Hill Extraction. A short history of the related Geppert companies can be found bellow.

Before embarking on demolition Garcia studies the safety plan and determines the placement and orientation of the building’s trusses. Taking down a building is like solving a puzzle, he says and he takes it step by step. He often used an I-beam from the building as a poker securely held in the excavator’s grapple to brush the fragile stone wall, causing the pieces to crash down into dusty piles,“nibbling” away at it. He also used the large grapple to push over other sections of wall. For the second level wood flooring and the roof, he used the grapple’s large powerful jaws to take bites out of the structure. The main controls he uses are to raise and lower the boom, open and close the grapple’s jaws and to swing the boom left or right. After your correspondent complimented him on how delicately and skillfully he operated the excavator he demurred. “It’s not that hard but it is dangerous…the building could fall off on you, fall on somebody, hurt somebody. You just got to know what you’re doing.”

Interview of operating engineer and archival movies of the demolition process can be viewed by clicking here.

Still photos of the demolition can be found here.

Thanks to Alex Bartlett of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy for exploring the archives.

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Anecdotes brighten tour of Rosebach rare book Museum and Library

Rosenbach floor by floor

Docent Charlie Karl gives a floor-by-floor history tour of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in downtown Philadelphia. Known for its collection of important manuscripts first additions, illustrated copies of literary works and artifacts the Rosenbach houses the personal collection of the rare book dealer Dr. A.S.W, Rosenbach. With his brother, Philip, he had a 50 year run as a dealer in books and manuscripts. "Renowned dealers in books, manuscripts, and fine art, the brothers played a central role in the development of private libraries that later became our nation’s most important public collections of rare books, such as the Folger and Huntington Libraries."  (from the Museum's website). Karl sprinkles narrative with anecdotes. For an exhibition to celebrate Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, first published as “The Whale,” lamps were lit with whale oil. At the very top of the multi-floor staircase, we encounter a miniature model version of the Rosenbach’s New York office. So much attention is paid to detail that six tiny books in the model are actually miniaturized books. Watch video tour here.

MORE PHOTOS HERE

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Kemble for closeup

A portrait of the renowned actress Fanny Kemble painted by James Sully in 1833 is the departure point for docent Charlie Karl’s fact-filled and wry tour of the Rosenbach Museum and Library. Karl relates that Kemble, who came from a renowned British theatrical family traveled to the U.S. with her father in 1832 to do dramatic Shakespeare readings along the East Coast. During a stay in Philadelphia she met Pierce Butler and in 1834 they married. Britain had abolished slavery in 1833. The fact that her husband owned 700 slaves on a Georgia plantation and made trips there without the family was such a source of discomfort to Kemble that she insisted on going with her husband and children to visit. There she journaled and tried to improve the lot of the women slaves. The experience became the basis for her book “Journal of a residence on a Georgia plantation” not published until Kemble had divorced, returned to England and the civil war had ended. In her later years, Kemble, who saw herself more as an artist and writer, resumed dramatic readings, crisscrossing the ocean. Watch video of portrait and short life story of actress writer Fanny Kemble here.

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Rosenbach joyce
In a room of the Rosenbach Museum and Library dedicated to the literature of Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland the James Joyce manuscript of Ulysses sits in several boxes behind a glass covered bookcase. Guide Charlie Karl recites a ditty Joyce had written exhibiting his distain for Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, as a collector.

“Rosy Brook he bought a book
Though he didn’t know how to spell it
Such is the lure of literature
To the lad who can buy and sell it”
(According to the Rosenbach blog, a telegraph operator had apparently misspelled the title in a message)

Karl relates the backstory: At a manuscript auction, Rosenbach had purchased acclaimed Joseph Conrad manuscripts for a hefty sum but was able to acquire Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript from a collector, to whom Joyce had sold it, at a relative bargain. Subsequently, Joyce wanted the manuscript back but Rosenbach declined. Karl posits that Joyce didn’t really sufficiently appreciate Rosenbach as a bibliophile, who held literary works in such esteem that he mentored a generation of private collectors and enthusiasts dedicated to the preservation of these works. Watch video here.


New construction will shadow historic Chestnut Hill Baptist Church cemetery


Neighbor of chestnut hill baptist church cemetery

Chestnut hill baptist church and graveyardA man who lives in the house alongside the historic cemetery behind the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church regularly clears the flat and worn gravestones of leaves and other debris.

He gave your correspondent and buddy an impromptu tour. Pointing out different graves, “He was at Gettysburg. The fella over here was at the battle of Little Round Top. You can see it by the 20th Volunteers Main. The 20th Main was the line Chamberlain and his men did that right handed [ ] like a swinging door move to stop the Confederates from getting the hill; it won the day....This gentleman here is a veteran of the War of 1812.” He pointed out headstones for the Sands family which he believes was prominent in the early days of the church.

Some of the graves are partially grown over with grass and there may be others that are totally covered over. See photo album here.

The man says the cemetery is a kind of common ground for the neighborhood. People come through, some walk their dogs, children play. Referring to imminent construction of an apartment complex on the former Sunoco site, adjacent, “They’re going to block it out when they put this building up… I think it’s five stories. It’s a pity, huh? " See article about the new construction here.

More information about the history of the Chestnut Hill Baptist Church can be found on the church’s website here The Chestnut Hill Conservancy’s archives are rich with historical information. According to notes attached to a 1945 photo of J.S Jenks school students, children attending Christian Youth Brigade meetings at the church would play in the graveyard. The Conservancy also houses an 86-page, 1898 book by Robert Milville Hunsicker, “Chestnut Hill Baptist Church 1834-1897 Glimpses of Sixty-three Years” and a 2001 publication “ Tombstone inscriptions at two Chestnut Hill church cemeteries: Chestnut Hill Baptist and Chestnut Hill Methodist” by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania listing the churches gravestone inscriptions.  Watch video interview about historic Chestnut Hill Baptist Church cemetery here. A list of those interred follows

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Finds from a collapsed dairy barn

Dairy barn farmstand


Chey bouson dairy barnChey Bouson is helping her friends Lexi and Roger rehabilitate a property that was once home to a large dairy farm in Quakertown, PA. In recent years, major storms have badly damaged the barn and the roof has now collapsed so it may have to be taken down. Meanwhile, they are carefully taking out of the barn anything they can find that is unbroken. They have retrieved doors, cabinets and a wagon they’ve since refurbished. These finds populate the eclectic farm stand they’ve set up along the roadside. In addition to the salvage operation, they now have seventy chickens on the property and are considering adding pigs.Her friends explore abandoned places all the time, Bouson says and she’s an explorer, too. Originally from New York, she would regularly travel down to Virginia to scavenge around abandoned asylums and prisons.

Your correspondent came away with a cactus plant and a very long glass milk tube he hadn’t yet figured out what he would do with. Watch video interview here with abandoned place explorer

 

Chey inside barn


SEPTA bus and aerial bucket lift collide; "no major injuries"

Septa bus  aerial lift collision

On October 7, 2021, a SEPTA bus traveling south on Germantown Avenue came into contact with the elbow joint of an aerial lift holding painters doing work on the “One West”midrise complex just above Hartwell Lane. The roof of the SEPTA bus appeared to be badly mangled and a SEPTA employee at the scene said that a “crane” had “fallen on the bus.” Matt Spector, VP of Operations for Bowman Properties, owner of the property, in a statement released later on social media, said that Bowman has owned and operated the lift to do maintenance on its properties for years without incident and that the lift was parked, in contact with the curb, surrounded by safety cones and stationary at the time of impact. “The lift didn’t fall. The bus ran into the elbow joint that was sticking out over the street. I happened upon the scene not long after it occurred, when the lift was still there,” posted a Mount Airy neighbor on social media. “Fortunately there were no major injuries,” added David Hoylman, Director of Leasing for Bowman. Spector declined to share security camera footage of the incident or elaborate about the injuries to Bowman personnel, passengers or driver or about precautions being taken to prevent future, potentially serious injurious, collisions of this kind. A right-to-know request has been filed with SEPTA. See more photos here.

Watch a video of the accident scene shortly after the accident.


Going solar with car and house

Solar for canva

A renewable energy advocate and practitioner, Aaron Stemplewicz showed off both his house and his Tesla Model 3 for the National Solar House Tour on October 3, 2021. On multiple sections on the roof of his house in Wyndmoor, Pa he has a 16 panel, 5 kilowatt hour system. In 2016, he entered a Power Purchase Agreement with Solar City (now part of Tesla.) It cost him nothing to install or maintain. Now he is exercising his contract option to purchase the system outright. He has crunched the data and figures the purchase will make money for him eventually.

Next year, he says, Volkswagen, Hyundai and other manufacturers are introducing electric cars with bidirectional batteries. These big batteries will be able to act as backup power to a house like his . (His current Tesla has only a grid to car battery.) He advises people who are thinking of getting battery backup for their house to wait and buy such an electric car if they can swing it. The upfront cost of an electric car is much greater but Stemplewicz did lifetime analyses of the total cost to maintain an electric car versus a gas-powered vehicle. He deduced that the cost of his Tesla was comparable to that of operating the Subaru Impreza he was driving before.Stemplewicz’ electric cost is based on a time of use scheme. He pays approximately 19 cents per watt at peak time and, the rest of day, about 4 cents. Between midnight and 3 am, it goes down further to 3 cents. He touts the advantage of being able to rely on his own solar power during peak time and, if he generates more energy than he needs, selling back to the grid at 19 cents. By charging his car at night he captures the low rates. “So it will be super cheap to charge the car and I sell back to the grid at 19 cents. Can’t beat it!”

Watch video interview about renewable energy advocate with solar panels on his roof and and electric car.


We build a mudhif

Mudhif building sarah and mohannad
Your correspondent joined U.S. military veterans, Iraqi refugees and other volunteers from the community to break ground on Memorial Day and start work on a traditional Iraqi structure dating back thousands of years called a “mudhif“ on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, Philadelphia. More photos here. Watch a video about the first day ceremony and building start of an Iraqi mudhif.

“Al-Mudhif” is the brainchild of Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage and Mount Airy based designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi who, after attending a lecture Kavage delivered a year ago at Moore College of Art during which she displayed a photo of a mudhif, suggested they build one! It is, perhaps, the first in the United States. The project, sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is one of fifteen site-specific installations, six already completed, extending as far north as the Delaware Water Gap and as far south as Wilmington, west to Reading and east to Trenton, all within the Lenapehoking watershed, the home of the native Lenape people.

Building a mudhif, which your correspondent can attest to firsthand, is overlaying and binding together reeds into long columns. These columns are then placed in 32-inch deep, 2-foot wide holes to provide the vertical supports. They are then bent toward one another to form an arched roof. In upcoming days, mats will be woven and set in place to form a thatched roof. Air and sunlight will come through lattice panels to be constructed and attached. Adjacent to the structure, Kavage’s husband, Rob has been busy installing the structure for a large bench for seating and a view from just outside the mudhif.

On day one, we divided into two large teams- the first tasked with digging 10 large holes, 5 opposite 5 to form the length of the rectangular structure. I opted to work with volunteers assembling the columns. We used phragmites, reed grasses, harvested previously. (A non-native form of phragmites is considered invasive and it is likely a plus-side of the project was some invasive control)

From the sidelines, an older man from Iraq who went by “Kam” vividly recalled his father’s large mudhif in Nasriyah near the Euphrates River. His family would welcome guests and travelers to rest, stay, eat and drink coffee or tea in the mudhif, set apart from the main home. At that time, Kam said, people traveled distances by horse and would go from mudhif to mudhif to rest along the way.

A younger man, Hadi al-Karfawi, who left Iraq at the age of nine spoke of his strong emotional connection with the mudhif his grandfather, a tribal leader, had built . As a boy, he was tasked with preparing and serving the strong coffee to guests. He absorbed that the mudhif was community place where people would come to resolve disputes. Everyone was given a chance to speak without interruption. The disputes might be inter-tribal or among families  of one's own tribe.

As your correspondent spoke with al-Karfawi, Mohaned Al-Obaidi, the lead builder and Yaroub’s brother, was having some trouble bending the first two columns of reeds to form the arch at the entrance. Traditionally, al-Karfawi said, the reeds, of a different variety in use here, might be more moisture-filled, perhaps more freshly cut, which would make the bending easier. (The arch is not going to be the traditional rounded one; Yaroub has designed it to be more angular  so winter snow will more easily slide off and not weigh down the roof.) al-Karfawi spoke of helpers being divided into groups, just like us, with specific tasks and he demonstrated how he and others would stomp on mud mixed with hay to form the “cement” to applied inside the roof. He had brought along two of his young children and, as the project was about to get underway, they stood by with child-sized shovels at the ready.

In his opening remarks, Al-Obaidi spoke of how emotional this undertaking has been- recreating a traditional community structure from his homeland. He suspected many of us have only associated Iraq until now with war and suffering. He hopes this welcoming mudhif will bring about a better understanding of Iraq’s ancient and rich culture.

The grand opening of the mudhif is planned for June 24th and according to a Schuylkill Center blog many activities are planned. “We will activate the installation Al-Mudhif with extended programming around exchange of war experience, healing and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.”

Your correspondent asks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the dispute resolution aspect of a mudhif could be "activated”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if representative native Lenape could settle ongoing claims in this mudhif with representatives of the long dominant immigrant community? Descendants of former slaves with descendants of former slaveholders? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Israeli and Palestinian representatives could forge a just and lasting peace in this mudhif? And isn’t it fitting that this peace and justice-making take place on land taken from the Lenape, now in the safekeeping of environmental non-profit, in a traditional structure of a people who themselves experienced recent devastation to their own culture- the swamp Arabs of Iraq? A structure built for community, hospitality and peace-making. Inshallah.

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More videos here

Building Al Mudhif - short version

Mudhif groundbreaking ceremony

Docent tells about Iraqi mudhifs and ancient Sumer

Schuylkill Center Director acknowledges land belonging to Lenape people at mudhif groundbreaking


Rainfall increases, basement waterproofing jobs too!

Cu waterproof basement

Pete Golascewski and a workmate from David Brothers Landscape Services brothers were about to clean off a lower wall of a house and patch and seal it after excavating a 3 foot deep trench alongside it. Water had been coming into the house. An engineer suggested the project to stop the infiltration. The trench will be filled with a clay soil which is less penetrable than the naturally existing soil. The soil will be put down in layers, sloping away from the house. The work crew will also install new window wells. Golascewski says these jobs have become ever more frequent in recent years because of very heavy rain falls. He doesn’t profess to be a scientist but nevertheless believes the heavy rainfalls contributing to the burgeoning demand for this type of landscape construction work can be attributed to climate change. Watch video interview of landscaper describing basement waterproofing construction job here.


Chestnut Hill Library Friends open bookstore to public (softly)

Hilltop books royal table
Today, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library opened their new bookstore, “Hilltop Books” at 84 Bethlehem Pike in Erdenheim. A handful of the 100 some volunteers were on hand to welcome customers. Trading as “Hilltop Books”, the beautifully restored, high ceiling-ed space offers rooms and bookcases divided by subject area, many curated by subject specialists! Initially, books are being sold at 1/3 of the price on the jacket. Today’s opening was to give people who had ordered “blind date” Valentine’s Day/“Galentine’s” Day books another chance to pick them up. Until the expected official opening in mid-March, the store will be open by appointment only. The Friends bookstore has big hopes. An outdoor patio is planned to accommodate 50 people and the store wishes to offer coffee and pastries. And there are all sorts of book clubs in the works- murder mystery, cooking, garden, storytelling, family game night, birthday..Something for everyone. Photo album here.

(The British Royalty collection is being curated by a subject of her Majesty)