Historical Markers
Chester Springs [Fine Arts] Historical Marker
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Chester Springs [Fine Arts]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
PA 113 at Chester Springs

Dedication Date:
May 13, 1948

Behind the Marker

"The countryside is remarkably paintable, with many attractive old dwellings, quaint barns, and spring houses, with old trees, abundant woodland creeks, and ponds with beautiful views at hand."
Black and white image of students creating paintings of the landscape
Students painting the landscape.

In 1916, John Frederick Lewis, director of the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, (PAFA) decided to open a summer school on the site of an abandoned orphanage outside of Phoenixville. The forty rural acres along Pickering Creek in Chester County, as indicated by the 1923 catalogue quoted above, was ideal for a residential program for instruction in landscape painting.

First settled in 1722 and named for the color of its iron-enriched waters, Yellow Springs, during the colonial period, attracted up to several hundred bathers a day and remained a spa until 1865, except for four years (1777-1781) during the Revolutionary War. The first Inn (founded in the 1750s, the present structure dating from 1760s) served as General George Washington's headquarters at the markerBattle of Brandywine. For four years Yellow Springs was the site of the only hospital officially authorized by the Continental Congress.

Washington's insistence on cleanliness ensured that many of the wounded lived to fight again, a neglected factor in his victory in the American Revolution. After the Springs closed an expanded complex of buildings and grounds, it served from 1869 to 1912 as a Soldiers" Orphans School for the children of Civil War veterans.

Black and white Image of Artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, summer school Chester Springs
Artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
When the number of Civil War orphans declined to the vanishing point, the School was put up for sale and remained on the market four years before the PAFA purchased it. From 1916 to 1952, thousands of students from the United States and abroad attended the school, which by the 1930s also offered teacher certification in the fine arts for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction and credit toward a Bachelor's in Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Although regular classes were only conducted in the summer, instructors from the PAFA such as Arthur B. Carles and Daniel Garber visited throughout the year to offer students criticism of their work. A newspaper wrote in 1925 that "the rare charm of the old Revolutionary place and its delectable countryside have made possible the only summer school of art in the United States of this sort, a school where students live together for four months and not only learn from their instructors but from the give-and-take of constant daily foregathering."

Art students sketched and studied in the Portico which connected the Lincoln building and the Inn, in what is now the Cultural Center. They also workd in the Chester Springs Studio, which was originally built as a stable. The East Meadows was the site of the spa's bath houses, a gazebo, and a pool house dating to the 1830s; the West Meadows contain the restored "Oriental Bog Gardens" originally built in the 1920s for the art students to sketch. Four other houses, one named after the nineteenth-century soprano Jenny Lind who stayed in Yellow Springs on her P. T. Barnum-sponsored tour of the United States, became residences for students.
A women wearing a long dress, apron, and bonnet works in her garden. A stone house sits to the left and another smaller building to the right. It appears to be spring time.
Sun in Summer, by Daniel Garber, 1919.

By the 1940s, art students were becoming less attracted to the traditional landscape and realistic styles of taught at Chester Springs. Nearly two decades of depression and war and the attractiveness of urban centers and more modern styles made it increasingly difficult to attract students. The school received a reprieve in the late 1940s as veterans supported by the GI Bill attended the school, but it closed in 1952. From then until 1974, Chester Springs served as the headquarters of Good News Productions, a company dedicated to producing Christian films. Some commercial films, most notably The Blob starring Steve McQueen, were also made there.

In 1974, Historic Yellow Springs, Inc. was formed to purchase and care for the site, which it continues to run as a museum village that is free and always open to the public. Extensive on-site archives include thousands of photographs, artifacts, documents, and oral histories. Different parts of Yellow Springs currently function as a museum for rotating and fixed art and historical exhibits, a cultural center for musical events, speakers, and exhibitions, a hotel/catering complex, an art school, an elder hostel, summer camps, and gardens and meadows where visitors may enjoy the surroundings. Eight of the nine surviving buildings are splendidly preserved examples of eighteenth and nineteenth vernacular architecture.

Today, a smaller school and museum, now dedicated to regional artists, still functions and holds annual award exhibitions much like the PAFA school. The current school is set in one of the few places in America that preserves side-by-side, in a beautifully preserved community, nearly all the historical purposes it has served over a history of three centuries.
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