Northwest: Built History and Natural Future Combine at Glen Fern

Main house at Glen Fern

Philadelphia takes history seriously.

Home to many of the nation’s “firsts,” including first brick house, first capital city and first hospital (to name a few) the “green country towne” is as overflowing with historic sites as it is with pride regarding them. Still, in a swelling modern city, the question of what to do with all these properties can be confounding. Unwilling to rip down old structures but perhaps unenthusiastic about filling them with re-enactors and attempting to turn them into sites for historic tourism (there are, after all, plenty of other similar programs in Philadelphia), the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust came up with an innovative and practical way to maintain some of the city’s beloved aging buildings. w=500 h=281]

In 1993, FPHPT began searching for long-term tenants for 43 sites within the Fairmount Park system.

“It is a very lengthy process,” FPHPT executive director Lucy Strackhouse said of the leasing system, “but it’s designed to protect the building and Fairmount Park.”

As sites with historic protection inside a city park, seemingly endless layers of bureaucracy must be consulted before a new occupant is approved. In the case of Glen Fern, currently occupied by interpretive designer Craig Johnson, the contracting process took a full year.

“The location and nature of the building requires a very unique tenant,” said Johnson, who was inspired to move his business and home into the more than 250-year-old property at the bottom of steep and winding Livezey Lane back in 2010.

To ensure that he was the right sort of occupant, Johnson was required to prepare and present a proposal to FPHPT as well as its partnering organizations detailing his plans for making the space more sustainable and vibrant. Some of his ideas include installing composting toilets, implementing rainwater recycling and raising chickens.

Johnson tends to his potted plants

“It’s been a great partnership for us because we have someone who appreciates the important historic nature of the building,” Strackhouse explained. “We’re very protective of our buildings. Any changes need written approval.”

In addition to rent, Johnson is responsible for shouldering the significant financial burden of maintaining the historic structure. This means routinely replacing the roof, commissioning paint sample analyses to make sure new paint jobs align with historic precedent, managing landscaping and more, all with the approval of FPHPT.

Johnson sits in his living room, which functions as a historical model during tours

With so much oversight and financial commitment, you may think that living on a historic site sounds more onerous than charming. Johnson copes by approaching his home not as private property but as an evolving public work that he has the opportunity to contribute to in partnership with his landlords, who he describes as highly knowledgeable and skilled around all things ‘this old house.’

“They’re experts in this in a way that I’ll never be,” Johnson said.

Even with all the restrictions, the house itself and the land it sits on have been evolving constantly. Johnson’s early background in anthropology makes him most fascinated by the relationship between culture and landscape, rather than the European history related to the house itself.

“I’m actually more interested in the complexity that happens when humans and plants try to co-habit together, which is what happens here,” he explained.

A ferret hides on the lush forest floor.

Johnson encourages others to appreciate nature’s gifts and to abandon the hubris that so often characterizes humans. He speaks fondly of the cardinals, chipmunks and fox that he counts among his neighbors and takes a somewhat zen approach to the frigid winters and moist summers, focusing instead on the mild days that he describes as exceptionally lovely.

“There’s a cool breeze, temperatures are moderate and waking up in the morning with the windows open and hearing all the birds in the morning at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning is gorgeous, it’s just gorgeous,” he said. “That membrane between nature and the built environment? I like it to be a little more permeable. Things are more interesting that way.” w=500 h=281]

The chance to contribute positively to that legacy was one of the features that attracted him to the property. In addition to making sense as a studio space for his business, Interpret Green, which focuses on eco-friendly interpretive design, it was an ideal location to expand his personal passion for connecting deeply with nature and enabling others to do the same. To this end, Johnson hosts full moon gatherings in his lush backyard and plans to construct a yurt to expand the practice.

“Being able to nurture our relationship with nature and each other,” he said, “to help with that connection and not just by energy conservation and using LED lights and practical things- but the emotional connection that we have with each other and nature… that’s going to change the future.”

– Text, images and videos by Alison Vayne and Victoria Marchiony 

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