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Hammerstein’s Haven

<i> Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section</i>

Rambling around Bucks County, we have been staying at Oscar Hammerstein’s former home.

We also dropped in at the Pearl S. Buck house, traveled with a mule pulling a passenger barge along a tranquil canal, sipped wine in vineyards that are part of the legacy of William Penn and visited the place where Washington crossed the Delaware.

We previewed cross-country ski trails and Christmas walking tours of historic homes, and visited the National Shrine of our Lady of Czestochowa.

It’s been a typical autumn weekend in Bucks County, except for a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist being honored at the old county jail.

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That’s what brought us here--the gala opening of the James A. Michener Art Center behind the stone walls of the old Bucks County jail.

Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey was present to describe the new art center and the developing visual and performing arts complex around it as a “cultural beacon, a mecca that will draw art lovers from across the nation and around the the world.”

Another Perspective

Michener, 81, could look at it from another perspective.

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“Seventy-five years ago in this town, quite a few people were predicting I’d end up in the county jail,” he said. “Well, here I am, but not exactly in the way they expected.”

Michener was abandoned as a newborn baby on the doorstep of a widow’s foundling home and grew up as a brilliant--though sometimes rambunctious--student and athlete. Now after writing 34 best sellers he and his wife, Mari, are contributing their vast private art collection to universities and museums.

The art center opening was a highlight of the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of Doylestown Borough. The initial exhibit presents 20th-Century American art, much of it from the Micheners’ collection. It will be on display through next summer.

Hammerstein lived at Highland Farms, his Doylestown country home, for a quarter of a century. Soon after moving there he became interested in transforming Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tales of the South Pacific” novel into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that is still a favorite.

Hammerstein’s restored home reopened this year for bed-and-breakfast guests. We stayed in the room named after the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Carousel.”

Chapters of the Oscar Hammerstein story began to unfold as soon as we stepped through the front door at Highland Farms, which was built in 1741. Both the township, which has a population of about 13,000, and the county have long been a destination of relaxation and renewal for artists, writers and musicians; many have made it their first or second home.

Downtown Philadelphia is 30 miles south and New York City about an hour and a half drive north.

Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy, came here with their children in 1941. His Hollywood success, his collaborations with Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg, Broadway hits such as “Show Boat” and “The Desert Song” were already landmarks in his career, but he felt a need for a change of pace and new inspiration.

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The Hammersteins bought the three-story, 17-room Highland Farms home, along with 200 acres of land, and moved in, keeping a New York apartment for Dorothy’s decorating business. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart came to lunch; Richard Rodgers arrived for a conference on “Oklahoma!”

A Golden Haze

When we sat on the Highland Farms porch it was easy to imagine how lyrics could come to Hammerstein here: “Oh, what a beautiful morning,” and “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.”

The outlook from his porch did make him change one line that started out, “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye. . . .” But the corn kept reminding him it was taller than that, so the line became ". . . as high as an elephant’s eye.”

The Hammersteins lived here until Oscar’s death in 1960. Dorothy left soon after that because she did not want to be there without him. She died in a nursing home last year.

With ownership changes at Highland Farms over the last 25 years, the main property had been reduced to five acres. The home needed extensive renovation when John and Mary Schnitzer bought it two years ago.

He’s a tool and die maker, she’s an interior decorator. They had driven across the Delaware River from New Jersey to look for a home for their family of two sons and two daughters in and close to their teens.

They bought Highland Farm and took a year to work on the restoration themselves, setting aside four rooms for bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

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John Schnitzer works a night shift and continues to work on the property during the day. Mary devotes much of her interior decorator talents to Highland Farms. She also prepares breakfast for their B&B; guests.

Built to Match

The wallpaper replaced by Mary Schnitzer retains the tones of the Hammerstein life style. The bookcase, with its sculptured woodwork from the year 1710, is one that Oscar and Dorothy brought back from a trip to England; they had the complete wall of bookshelves built to match it.

The bed in Carousel Room is canopied and an old theater program of “Carousel” is beside it. The other three guest rooms fit the mood of their names: “Oklahoma!” “Show Boat” and “The King and I.”

Oscar loved to play tennis, but his tennis courts vanished with the acreage that is no longer part of Highland Farms. The Schnitzers have begun putting in new courts.

Highland Farms is bordered by a country club golf course. In winter, guests can cross-country ski over the fairways. The renovated swimming pool is available in the summer.

The Bucks County jail was closed in 1985. Its massive doors of steel and wood now open from the former prisoner passageway to a bronze sculpture in the courtyard and the entrance to the Michener Art Center.

More than $800,000 in county, corporate and private contributions, including a substantial gift from the Micheners, helped build the art center.

The Micheners have donated their Bucks County home and 35-acre estate to the nearby Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture. They will live in it for the rest of their lives--that is, when they aren’t somewhere else while he works on another novel, as they are now while he writes “Caribbean.”

A walkway leads from the Michener Art Center to the Bucks County Library Center under construction; it will have a Pearl S. Buck Room. The former jail warden’s house is to become a performing arts theater by 1990.

Across Pine Street from the complex is the Mercer Museum, a legacy of Dr. Henry Chapman Mercer, who was a leader in stimulating appreciation of American arts and crafts until his death in 1930. This National Historic Landmark museum has more than 40,000 exhibit items.

The Pearl S. Buck home at Green Hills Farm is open for visitors to view the famed author’s American and Asian antique furniture and artifacts.

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, on Ferry Road, links its heritage to the shrine in Poland believed to have the portrait of Mary painted by St. Luke and is visited by as many as 5 million pilgrims annually. Here in Doylestown the shrine depicts the history of faith in the New World, with images on 75 stained-glass windows.

New Hope, in the Delaware River Valley a few miles from George Washington’s crossing, is a Bucks County village of arts and boutiques, concerts, theaters and poetry readings. Mule barges give sightseeing trips on the 19th-Century canals. The site of the village is on a land grant from William Penn in 1681, and there are still a dozen 19th-Century covered bridges in the county, which takes its name from Buckingham, England, where Penn was born.

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Rates at Hammerstein Highland Farms home are $78 for the “Oklahoma!” and “Show Boat” rooms, $110 for “Carousel” and $125 for “The King and I.” For information and reservations, call (215) 340-1354. For a complete listing of historic places to stay, along with information on restaurants in Bucks County, contact the Bucks County Tourist Commission, 152 Swamp Road, Doylestown, Pa. 18901, phone (215) 345-4552.


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