A former dance hall and art studio is saved
John and Karen Delaney are the new owners of the 1900s dance hall across from Lenape Park that was the longtime studio of artist Tom Bostelle.
By John Chambless
Standing in the cavernous shell of the 1900s dance hall, Karen Delaney smiled brightly. “My husband and I are project people,” she said. “We like to work together. The process is enjoyable for us.”
That's a good thing, because Delaney and her husband, John, are the new owners of the decrepit building across the Brandywine Creek from the Brandywine Picnic Park. They bought the decaying building last month after it had been vacant for years following the death of artist Tom Bostelle, who had lived there in spectacular obscurity since the late 1960s.
The 96-foot-long main building was built at the turn of the century as a dance hall for customers who would ride the train from West Chester or other stations nearby, and dance to live music played on a stage in the main hall. It functioned as part of Lenape Park, the small amusement park across the river whose rides were long ago replaced by the modern tents of the picnic park.
The dance hall eventually became a place to rent canoes to paddle on the dammed-up Brandyine Creek. Bostelle bought the place in 1968 for $2,500 and created haunting paintings and sculptures there until his death in 2005. The building has fallen into ruin, targeted by vandals and now leaning alarmingly toward the river. There are holes the size of a minivan in the roof. The floor is buckled. The porch running the length of the building is now mostly decayed pilings and planks.
It is something well below the level of a fixer-upper, but the Delaneys said they have been fascinated by the place since they moved here in 2004. Karen is the executive director of the Chester County Art Association.
“We learned about Tom over time,” she said. “I found his drawings at the Art Association, and then learned little bits everywhere.”
The Delaneys live near the studio, “and even driving by, it was barricaded, and we didn't know much about the place. I just thought, 'That's a mess,'” Karen said. “But John and I and our family spend a lot of time on the Brandywine River. We canoe, we fish and on hot days we throw our tubes in and spend a lot of time in the water. We've looked at this place so many times from the water, and it's fascinating. There's a sense of history. We wondered why it had been left to rot. We had an interest, never thinking that we'd own it.”
Bostelle taught generations of Chester County artists in the studio space, and lived in an adjoining, smaller building. In its heyday, the studio – which Bostelle dubbed The Aeolian Palace – was an artistic hub, but best known for its garden of metal shadow sculptures that Bostelle placed in the yard by the nearby train tracks. Lately, it's been known as a creepy building by the river that had become overgrown with weeds.
Bostelle's unique work is well-respected, and his paintings and sculptures are in the collections of several museums, including the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Some of them are on huge wood panels – something Bostelle was able to do because he had unlimited space in the gigantic dance hall.
One of the points working in the favor of the Delaneys is that the building was built to withstand the weight of hundreds of people dancing, so the pilings were thick and well-set in the Brandywine mud. But the past century has taken its toll. The place floods yearly, and there has been little maintenance on it in decades.
The Delaneys have been cleaning up the trash and stabilizing the structure while they consider their options. The building had been condemned by Pocopson Township, but Karen said she thinks the township will be happy to see it saved. “It is historical. I think that if we express to the township that we would like to remember its past that they may be a little more lenient,” she said. “Plus, it's commercially zoned and not residentially zoned, which is a little bit more favorable, too.
“We recognize that it's in the flood plain, and the water can come in here, four feet in height,” she said. “We're not interested in reconstructing it to have that happen again. At the same time, we have no use for a 96-foot building, but we wouldn't mind having some structure that recalled the history here. We'd like to pay tribute to Tom Bostelle, including some of the things that were part of the space when he was in it.”
The tentative plan is to shorten the building a bit, using the trusses which remain in good condition, and move the building higher up the river bank to raise it above the flood level.
The Delaneys would like to reconstruct the stage area for future performances, and if the building is able to be raised high enough, Karen envisions a sculpture display area nearer the railroad tracks, with additional seating. Perhaps there will be art classes and private studio space. But right now, the couple is putting in long hours of cleanup and moving things like the 1900s wooden benches that were an original feature of the building into a place where the rain can't decay them any further.
“Ideally what we'd like to do is recreate this building up above the flood plain, on a smaller scale,” she said. “That would allow this entire riverside area to be quite lovely. There could be a place for seating and sculpture, and maybe public events. We're going to try to do something here that preserves the past.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.