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Hey, Where are all the Nudists?

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Arden residents attend weekly community dinners that they hope include the famous pound cake of Caroll Page-Githens.
photograph by Shane McCauley
www.shanemccauley.com

 

When Sue Rothrock opens the door, she has just come in from gardening. Her complexion shows the first tinge of springtime sun and her brown hair is cropped close, like a pixie’s. Her husband, Rick, settles into a deep-cushioned lounge chair in the corner, his feet just touching the floor. With a small goatee and playful smile, he looks like Robin Goodfellow just wandered in from some mischief.

Their home, like most in the town of Arden, was originally a small cottage, but Rick and Sue expanded the design so that it now reaches into the trees. Rick’s stone sculptures provide a seamless transition from the garden yard to the interior. His work is everywhere inside, his  sculpture a kind of geometric intervention into the rock. He works on facets, slicing and polishing to reveal the pure geometric shapes natural to the stone, leaving the rest of the shape rough and unfinished. His pieces are often small enough to hang on the wall, but are also frequently architectural in scale.

 


Sue and Rick Rothrock view Arden as a place for people to live out their fantasies.

 

photograph by Shane McCauley www.shanemccauley.com

 

The Rothrocks, Ardenites for 20 years, have by their own estimation only recently graduated from the newcomer phase of their residence, but they play important roles in the community. For years, Sue has sat on the town’s civic committee, which manages all of the town’s public works projects. Spread out on the kitchen table is a street plan of Arden that Sue is reviewing for a speed bump project. Rick, who has a master’s degree in industrial arts, has brought his knowledge of architecture and construction to the renovation of many town homes.

“The Shakespeare woods—that’s Arden,” Sue says. “We even have fairies in the woods,” she laughs. “Really.”

In Sue’s view, Arden casts a spell over people. It is a place that fits into people’s ideals, a stage on which to live out their fantasies.

“Sometimes the fantasies work,” adds Rick. “Sometimes they don’t.”

“Arden” is the common, collective name for the towns of Arden, Ardentown, and Ardencroft. Just minutes from the unmagical interstate highways 95 and 495, it is a pastoral foil to big-city living, a quiet village where art, song and dance bring souls together and where kinship tempers the politics of power. It’s an environmental sanctuary, a land of forests and fairies.

The place is not entirely a secret. The New Candlelight Theatre is widely known, and the Arden Fair is a mammoth annual event. (The 100th celebration will happen September 1). But the Ardens, a century-old Utopian experiment that has prospered into America’s longest-lived intentional community, an enterprise of great pith and moment, has gone quietly about its business without a lot of notice. Its story and its culture merit as much.

The first of the towns, Arden, was founded exactly at the turn of the century by sculptor Frank Stephens and architect William Price, with significant financial help from Joseph Fels. Their intention was an ideal community based on the single-tax theory of Henry George and the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The town would be an experiment in Georgist economics, which maintained that wealth founded on land ownership led to social ills, as did a tax on initiative (labor). In Arden, the land would be held in trust, with half reserved for public greens and forest. The rest would be available to residents in 99-year leases, renewable or transferable.

Socially, the town would be a refuge from industrialism, a place where craftsmanship and individual expression restored individuality in the oppressive homogeneity of the machine age. It would be a pastoral refuge, hence it was named for the Arden Forest, the setting of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

The idea seems to have worked.

A century later, the town remains true to the spirit of its origins. The original plans for land dispersal and management still govern the 364 acres that make up the Ardens. Residents own their homes, but the land is held by elected trustees of the town. All residents, provided they have lived there for six months, are eligible to vote at town assemblies for all matters concerning town governance, and all the work of maintaining the town is done by volunteers. Community projects are directed by committee, while social events and arts are sponsored by guilds. (In the Ardens, the Renaissance spelling “gild” is used, one of the many nuances that reflect a way of life that looks to pre-industrial culture for inspiration.)

The history of the town is well preserved, both by academics and Ardenites alike. The town maintains an archives, open to the public, and regularly updates a comprehensive website. But the true drama of Arden is less in the history than in the work and lives of its residents.

Sue Rothrock believes that the presence of theater in the lives of Ardenites has an effect on that desire to live out a dream, on the tendency of people, residents and non-residents alike, to see Arden as an ideal stage in which to play out an idyllic existence. It would seem Arden is, well, as you like it.

Looking out the window between Sue and Rick, I spot the conspicuous straight trunk of a massive tulip poplar.

“That tree has a presence,” says Rick. “You can feel it.”

“It takes five people to stretch their arms around the base,” says Sue.

Trees are everywhere. Step out onto the landing of the study, 12 feet off the ground, and you can touch the mottled bark of a massive sycamore that spreads over the roof of the home.

Ardenites protect their trees, and strict regulations govern their management.

This is one of the areas where the romantic notions that conceived the town, notions like “garden city,” often collide—like a tree limb falling on a Miata—with utilitarian concerns.

Rick and Sue recognize the need to negotiate between the vision of the town founders (a village in the forest) and the quotidian needs of pressing realities (falling trees). For them, the concept of progress through a return to the past is a unique working paradox. There is always a tension between romanticizing the past and adapting to the present, yet the democratic functioning of the town assemblies and the creative solutions of residents resolve the tension.

The houses, for example, originally quaint Tudor cottages, were too small to accommodate families and workshops. Rick’s innovative designs and work have contributed to the reworking of quaint, impractical features. When he renovated the house next door, new footings were cast around the roots of the magnificent tulip poplar.

I reluctantly left the Rothrocks to drive down to the sweeping Village Green. Inspired by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park and the less famous Brandywine Park in Wilmington, the green is the natural center of village life and home to the Field Theater, stage of the Shakespeare Gild. I turned right and drove into the Arden Forest, the stretch of woods that borders the north of town. (The south is hemmed in by Sherwood Forest.)

 


Phil Fisher is a career pipe welder, an artist and the Ardens’ resident bell maker.
photograph by Shane McCauley www.shanemccauley.com

 

I was on my way to see Pete Renzetti, something of a prince in the Ardens. He was born of royal stock, his father, Marcus Aurelius Renzetti, having arrived in 1919 and taken a lease on one of the town’s outlying properties. Pete’s father attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia for sculpture, then taught the art for nearly 40 years at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. It was this breeding, and his grooming in the Arden school, that has led to Pete’s reputation as a Renaissance man.

Pete’s home, once an icehouse for the farm, is solid granite, quarried from the creek. The structure has the small Arts and Crafts proportions of most Arden homes, but its walls are medieval in their weight. A chimney juts out like a parapet, and a long wall runs out from one corner, framing the side of an addition his father began and that Pete is finishing.

Next to the house is Pete’s workshop, plain on the outside but, inside, worthy of Thomas Edison. A one-time machinist, Pete has spent a lifetime collecting and restoring the workings of early industry, and he has mastered the crafts of the time. He is best known for his ironwork. With Clare Yellin, Pete helped run the Samuel Yellin Metalworkers Company in Philadelphia, the legacy of America’s greatest blacksmith.

Pete looks like a blacksmith. A stout anvil of a man from Italian stock, he wears a metal hoop in one ear. He is energetic and friendly, quick to share his passions about art. In his most recent work, he uses an oxygen-acetylene torch to craft small steel figurines called “puddle people.” Only a few inches tall, they are formed without armature entirely from aggregated pools of molten steel that Pete dabs into place. The figurines are delicate in scale, but have the look of hammered iron, as though they’ve been forged and beaten into shape by a very tiny blacksmith or cast in bronze by a very tiny Rodin.

Pete’s work gives life to Arden’s philosophy. His marriage of the industrial machine world with that of hand-crafted art resolves the apparent contradiction of the Arts and Crafts movement. If William Morris’s ideas revolted against the dehumanizing force of industry and machines, his followers also appropriated the tools of industrial technology for self-expression. The Romantic notion of the antique forms and the old guild tradition is not the denial of the present, but a tempering of technology with individual expertise and intuition. In Arden, once again, things are not always as they at first appear.

It’s a fertile place for nurturing natural gifts. The old Arden School, which Pete attended, was not an institution separate from the larger community. There, says Pete, learning was not far removed from play.

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