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My Life as a Soda Jerk and Some Art Tile and Duke Ellington for Good Measure

Soda Fountain via airstreamlife on Flickr
Soda Fountain via airstreamlife on Flickr

A little known fact about my biography is that I was a soda jerk for the 1986/87 school year at community college, at Kostas Drugstore in Bethlehem, PA, across the street from Liberty High School.  I came across the book Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains by Anne Cooper Funderburg, which brought back memories of my tenure as preparer of sundaes, ice cream sodas, milkshakes and cherry, lemon, vanilla or chocolate cokes.

Two unique sundaes, of which I had never heard(and I’d never been to a soda fountain either) were the “CMP”(chocolate, marshmallow sauce and ground peanuts) and the “Dusty Road” which involved vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and a dusting of malted milk powder(my first one was just ice cream and malted milk, because I didn’t realize chocolate was included.  My customer was amused).  I had a long list of prep duties, including mixing fluff and simple syrup to make marshmallow sauce, chopping the peanuts in a meat grinder, refilling the syrups, cones, straws, and napkins.  The best perk was being allowed to eat as much ice cream as I wanted.


Franklin Fountain Mosaic Floor

Kostas was already archaic when I worked there, since soda fountains peaked in the 1950’s, and were done in by suburbia, but the location across from the high school insured we had a steady stream of students after school and football games descending upon the counter.  Kostas lasted 10 more years after I left to transfer to a 4-year college.  Stratoz suggested we find an authentic soda fountain for our anniversary in 2011, and a friend who knows about such things told us about the Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia.  I had a fabulous “Cherry Bombe” soda, with cherry syrup, soda water and chocolate ice cream.  I dived in before Stratoz could get a proper picture of it.

I was fascinated to discover in Sundae Best, that there was a genre of soda fountains at the turn of the 19th century which featured art tile, from companies like the Low Art Tile company.  The fountain above is at Eagle’s in Yellowstone, and has delightful “pillow tiles” with rounded corners.

front of old soda fountain

In a synchronicity of my love of soda fountains and quilts, I found a photo of the Needle Basket in Sutton, WV, which was formerly a soda fountain and is now a quilt store, and the owner keeps all sorts of notions in the old stainless steel drawers and dispensers.  And even more cool was discovering the article Confessions of a Soda Jerk which lists some famous soda jerks, including one of my favorite jazz musicians, composer and pianist, Duke Ellington.  The story goes that he wrote his first song, Soda Fountain Rag, while working as as soda jerk, at age 14 or 15.


Check out My Secret Life as a Soda Jerk on Pinterest.

Kate’s Place and Capogiro Gelato: The Wonder of 1929 Sansom Street in Philadelphia

Tile at Kate's Place 1929 Sansom Philadelphia
Tile at Kate’s Place 1929 Sansom Philadelphia. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

I was walking down Sansom Street in Philadelphia, looking for Capogiro Gelato, and this tile caught my eye.  Then I turned further toward the courtyard beyond the tiles, and there in an oasis of peace within the buzz of Philly was a statue of the Virgin Mary.  I was intrigued by this building, with textured walls, with bricks standing proud every foot or so, and ram’s head gargoyles.  The bronze plaque named the place “Kate’s Place,” and later I discovered it was affordable housing in the heart of Rittenhouse Square.  If you’ve ever been to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, you will know that there isn’t much that is affordable, and to have a building of such beauty renovated for this purpose is a wonderful thing.

Originally, it was Warburton House built in 1926 by Arthur Loomis Harmon, and run by the Emergency Aid of Philadelphia, and the latter’s name is carved in Gothic lettering.  The Dominican Sisters of Elkins Park bought it in 1952 and turned it into a refuge for single women who needed a place to live.  When they could no longer keep it running, they approached Project H.O.M.E. about taking it over.  Kramer + Marks Architects led the renovation, and completed it in 2004.

As I walked on, the very next thing was Capogiro Gelato, which is actually part of the Kate’s Place building. Later, Stratoz and I stopped in for some delicious pineapple mint and orange cardamom gelato, and he took photos of the courtyard, and of course of the gelato:

Capogiro Gelato 20th and Sansom in Philadelphia
Capogiro Gelato 20th and Sansom in Philadelphia. Photo by Wayne Stratz.
Statue of Mary at Kate's Place 1929 Sansom, Philadelphia
Statue of Mary at Kate’s Place 1929 Sansom, Philadelphia. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

Joyce Kozloff Mosaics in Suburban Station Philadelphia

Joyce Kozloff Mosaic of William Penn in Suburban Station, Philadelphia.
Joyce Kozloff Mosaic of William Penn in Suburban Station, Philadelphia. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

Missing my train has led to some wonderful art discoveries, such as when I decided to go in the grand front entrance of Suburban Station while waiting until the next train.  I usually enter via a staircase that rises suddenly out of the sidewalk.  One Penn Center is an Art Deco building with a spacious lobby and I turned a corner to find two mosaic murals by Joyce Kozloff.  The first is Topkapi Pullman, with a juxtaposition of an Art Deco train poster and patterns from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.  The second is William Penn holding the charter of Pennsylvania in his hand, inspired by Byzantine churches.

47 75/365 inside the main entrance
47 75/365 inside the main entrance. Close up of Joyce Kozloff’s Mosaic of William Penn. Photo by Wayne Stratz.
Joyce Kozloff and her Son in Soho Women Artists, 1978 by May Stevens
Joyce Kozloff and her Son in “Soho Women Artists, 1978” by May Stevens. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

By serendipity, when Stratoz and I were on vacation, we saw a painting by May Stevens, Soho Women Artists, from 1978, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.  Joyce Kozloff is pictured sitting on the ground facing her son, who is leaning against Louise Bourgeois wearing a sculpture(!)  When I was an undergraduate, I took a class in Feminist Art Theory, and wrote a paper on artists who used text in their work, since I was a poet, and loved words.  May Stevens was one of the artists I featured, and I read about several of the others in this painting.

Kozloff was attracted to decoration and pattern early in her painting career, and by 1977 was moving toward public art installations, including mosaic.  I was intrigued by her quote,

The feminist revelation—that the decorative arts were largely created
by anonymous women and people of color, and therefore degraded in the
eyes of historians and critics—forever changed my thinking.”  Since I began making mosaics, I am drawn to pattern, and at times wonder if I should be doing something representational, as if pattern were somehow without meaning.

I’m glad Kozloff pursued the art she loved, and brought it into public places for everyone to enjoy.

Five Cool Art and Architecture Sites in the Philadelphia Area

Long before I began making mosaics I was drawn to visual wonders, places where art was made, and historic buildings.  Moving to the Philadelphia Suburbs, I found some places that delighted me with their creativity.  I would absorb the beauty through my pores, breathing it in.  Here are 5 to put on your list.


Esherick's Silo
Wharton Esherick’s Silo in Paoli, PA. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

1)Wharton Esherick House and Museum

Outside Paoli, just west of Valley Forge Park, in the woods, Wharton Esherick’s house sits like a secret waiting to be discovered.  The carved wood spiral staircase, the custom made furniture, the peek inside a sculptor’s mind–it’s all good.  Guided tours of the Wharton Esherick Studio are available by reservation only.

fonthill by paladinsf
fonthill by paladinsf

2) Fonthill

James Mercer, founder of the Moravian Tileworks in Doylestown PA, built himself a mansion entirely out of concrete.  It rises up from the grounds like a fairytale crossed with science fiction.  The inside is covered in samples of Moravian Tiles, and Mercer’s collection of tiles and artifacts.  There are concrete reading tables at strategic windows so he could follow the sun as it rose and set.

fire place
Fire Place by Vilseskogan

3)Moravian Tileworks

This is where Mercer’s tiles were made Doylestown, and it is open for tours, a tile festival in May(which is a tile lover’s dream), a gift shop full of tile goodness, and classes if you are interested in making ceramic tiles.

bryn athyn door hardware
bryn athyn door hardware by shadysidelantern

4)Glencairn Museum
and Bryn Athyn Cathedral

All I knew about Swedenborgians was that Helen Keller was one, but then I moved within driving distance of Bryn Athyn, and discovered the Bryn Athyn Cathedral and the adjacent Pitcairn museum of religious art.  The Cathedral was constructed in a mini reconstruction of the craft guild past with workshops for stone, wood, metal, and stained glass that were built on site by experienced craftsmen.

Stained Glass Light at the Frank Lloyd Wright Designed Beth Sholom Synagogue
Stained Glass “Basket of Light” at the Frank Lloyd Wright Designed Beth Sholom Synagogue. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

5)Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park, PA

The only Synagogue built by Frank Lloyd Wright!  Just knowing Beth Sholom is nearby makes me happy.

I’d love to hear about more art places in the Philadelphia area!


Related Posts from my Column at Handmade in PA:

A Gathering Together: Collecting Pennsylvania Craft and the Legacy of Henry Chapman Mercer.

Wharton Esherick and the Pennsylvania Legacy of Wordworking.

Over at Stratoz:

The Ambler Theater


Philadelphia’s Jacob Reed Building

Reed Building Philadelphia
Reed Building Philadelphia via harpo42 on Flickr.

I had a few minutes before my train in Philly, and I was walking down Chestnut Street, and suddenly my eyes fell upon this building. I looked up at the graceful arched doorway, and there were mosaics! I recognized the work of Mercer’s Moravian Tileworks, and wondered how they got to this street.  The building houses a CVS, but when I went across the street, I could make out an original sign for Reed’s, set into mosaic medallions at the the top of the building. Mosaic spotting is one of my favorite activities.

When I got home, I did a search, and discovered it was the  Jacob Reed’s Sons Building, built for a clothier in 1903 by local architect William Lightfoot Price.  The tiles are indeed by Mercer, and the ones inside the arch represent crafts related to clothing, including spinning and weaving.  Mercer was a great reviver of handmade tile in the United States, and visiting his home, Fonthill, for the first time was quite an experience.  Picture a cement castle, lined with tiles from all over the world, plus samples of just about every tile line Moravian Tileworks produced.

Then I looked up William Price, and discovered that he was the founder of the Rose Valley Association, just outside of Media, PA.  I had heard of this utopian community, but didn’t expect to stumble across a connection while among the many athletic shoe stores of Chestnut Street.  Rose Valley was modeled after William Morris’s Arts & Crafts Movement ideals.  The houses are still there, and someday I want to see them.

Spinning Mosaic by Henry Mercy Moravian Tileworks
Spinning Mosaic by Henry Mercy Moravian Tileworks by tiz_herself on Flickr


Strata: Anniversary trip to Philadelphia


Strata by Cynthia Back

The first full moon of April is our anniversary of being together.  I like having a floating anniversary, connected to the moon.  22 years!  We took an anniversary trip to Philadelphia to hear the Blue Note 7 at the Kimmel Center. Blue Note is celebrating 70 years as a jazz label, and 7 of their fine musicians are on tour together, with an album aptly named “Mosaic.”  We enjoyed the concert, in spite of Wayne’s clogged head, and my bandages from the fall I took on Tuesday(I suppose it is convenient to have been on the way to work, at a hospital, when I tripped.)

We spent Saturday walking around Rittenhouse Square, visiting the Rosenbach Museum for the first time, and seeing Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village apartment delightfully intact within the museum.   My librarian self was thoroughly mesmerized by the Rosenbach’s collection of first editions, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the photograph of Belle Da Costa Greene, friend of Abraham Rosenbach, librarian to J.P. Morgan, passing as Portuguese to elude the prejudice she would have faced as an African American.  Quite beautiful and stylish, she’s quoted as saying that although a librarian, she doesn’t have to dress like one. . .I’ll have to keep that in mind.

We came across an exhibit of prints at the Philadelphia Free Library, Intaglio a Go-Go:  Etching Moves Forward.  That is where I saw Cynthia Back‘s Strata, 2002, aquatint, etching, deep bite, chine colle.  I love the layers, the colors and textures, and my mosaic artist self is intrigued by the tesserae-like stones.  It made me think of my 22 years with Wayne, and his also apt name, Stratz, all the layers of history, of our travels, our love.  He is my bedrock, and I am grateful what we have built together.

Phillies in Mosaic: Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell Mosaic at Citizen Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Jonathan Mandell Mosaic at Citizen Bank Park in Philadelphia.

In 2006, I took a fine art mosaic class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Jonathan Mandell. I learned how to use a tile saw, and discovered representational mosaic is not where my passion is! Of course I chose to render a scene with 4 sets of hands and feet. I admire Mandell’s ability to make lively figures and scenes, and one of the coolest is at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, home of the Phillies.

 I am not very familiar with baseball, having grown up in Canada, where it is not the national past time. Edmonton acquired a minor league team, The Trappers, in 1981, when I was 14. By then I was already embittered by my complete lack of ability in softball during gym class, and couldn’t understand why anyone would actually watch the sport. But now that I live in the Philadelphia Suburbs, I saw my first Phillies game, and to my surprise, enjoyed it! My husband introduced me to pleasures of snacking throughout on Cracker Jack, pretzel’s, and in his case, beer. I saw a new side of him when he would reflexively stand up and shout on the occasion of good plays by the Phillies. I was fascinated by the zenlike pace of play, and how I felt content to just be there. And there’s a lot to like about an organization that commissioned local artists to create pieces of baseball related art for the new park.


Related Posts:

In a Dream:  Jeremiah Zagar’s Document of his Father

Mosaic Immersion:  The Magic Garden

Tiffany Dream Garden Mosaic: A Philadelphia Treasure