Bucks County Herald

Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

A legacy in tile



Preston Harrison has created a mural for New Hope Borough Hall.

Preston Harrison sees a clear progression in his path to creating a mural for New Hope Borough Hall.

He made the mural because New Hope is the town that nurtured him.

New Hope was the go-to place for Preston and his friends, who had a band they called The River Styx. From Hamilton Square, N.J., they visited New Hope often. The most memorable visit was Christmas Day 1965.

The boys were doing the teenage “bored with Christmas thing,” so they called older friends who had cars and headed for Bucks County. One car was a 1965 Ford Galaxie convertible – with the top down – the other a 1937 Plymouth coupe that one of the boys had just inherited from his grandmother. They sailed into town, radio blaring, and they never went anywhere without some kind of musical instruments.

The town seemed deserted, Preston said, so “we saw no harm in walking around the streets singing odd versions of Rolling Stones songs.” Except for some awkward meetings with another group of teenagers – “they were all wearing those black leather jackets like you see in ‘Goodfellas’ type movies.’”

The police stopped the band and said they were disturbing the peace so they went past the center of the bridge to the New Jersey side to play. “Being future ‘anarchists, we thought that was really cool,” Preston said. Finally, back in New Hope on the way to their cars, the Jersey boys brushed against the black leather guys. When shoving began, the police car arrived, flashing its lights and sliding hard to a stop. “You long-haired jerks have to leave town,” the officer said, hands on his pistol.

“That was the first time I played in New Hope,” Preston said.

Two years later, The River Styx Blues Emporium won a band contest in Princeton. Author James A. Michener and Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim were judges. “We were were given an audition at Capital Records,” Preston said.

Meanwhile, the Playhouse Inn in New Hope was opening a new nightclub called The Birds Nest. The manager hired River Styx as the house band.

“Here we were still in high school and all the rest of the kids still seemed like kids and we were out there with a career. I was 17, working under age at a real club.” The band played from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, strobe lights flashing and Corky the glittering go-go dancer moving to its music.

And parents let them play. Preston’s father bought him a big blue station wagon that carried the band and its instruments to the nighttime gigs and the musical career continued.

By 1973, Preston had enough of the night life. He married, had a family and a job. But then, in the ‘80s, he found the era of open mics and jams with local bands. In New Hope again, he was often at John & Peter’s, a club that’s still rocking. “Thank God for John Larsen,” Preston said. “John has always been a stabilizing force for the drifting musician ... someday he should be sainted.”

Preston Harrison Raggedy Band emerged in 1989. It played at John & Peter’s with a banner on the wall, “The world doesn’t need another bunch of slick musicians.” In warm weather, the musicians played on the “wing dam” across the Delaware as tubers and kayakers paddled by.

In between music stints, Preston managed to study art and architectural design. He was hired by Hill Refrigeration in Trenton to design and equip supermarket interiors. He designed the DelRay Market, which became the SuperFresh in New Hope (now a Cornerstone gym).

But, Preston said, life was catching up with him. In 1994 his employer downsized and he went through a divorce. He found his way back to New Hope, playing at John & Peter’s, Havana, the Towpath House, jazz vespers at Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church.

As a new career, Preston formed a partnership with his new wife, Sharon, a collector of porcelain. Together, both with art backgrounds, they learned how to make glazed tile, which led to installing murals – the first for Marrazzo’s in Ewing, then McCaffrey’s Markets in Yardley and Princeton. Still designing markets, Preston did the layout for Altomonte’s Italian Market and McCaffrey’s in Doylestown.

In 2008, Preston said, “I wasn’t feeling so well. I thought I had Lyme disease. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), which has been in remission.

On a cold winter night, Preston stood high on a hill in the parking lot next to the old St. Martin’s Church, no leaves on the trees, so he could see New Hope lights and the river. “I do love this place,” he thought. “The town has given me a lot.”

The church had been converted to borough hall. So Preston thought of a mural, a bright one, like the art of the ‘60s.

Geri Delevich, on borough council at the time, and creator of a book and video about New Hope, “Embraceable You,” spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for the mural, selling tiles to individuals and businesses. Preston designed the mural and he and Sharon painted the tiles.

The Harrisons will take the kiln from their home in Washington Crossing to Waterford, Maine, a cooler climate, in mid-June. They will move into a 1798 house across from the town square.

Preston calls the mural a salute to the progressive art and music of the 1960s and ‘70s. “It would be sad for me if the passion and vibrancy of that time were forgotten.

He painted on the mural "With New Hope Bring Sunshine to the World."

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