New Hope: Forever welcoming – an offbeat town, celebrated for history and diversity

GERRY MONIGAN


The picture perfect New Hope train station is the starting point for rides through the countryside.

New Hope is the jewel of Bucks County – ask any New Hopian.

Seriously, though, no other town in the county attracts as many visitors every year, and there are lots of good reasons why.

The tiny borough comprises only 1.4 square miles, but it is jam-packed with fun. It has history, honky-tonks, art and antiques, a nationally renowned theater, all kinds of restaurants, and it just exudes cuteness.

That's why, on any weekend when the weather is decent, its narrow sidewalks are packed with tourists of every description. Denim-and-leather bikers, upper-crusty doyennes, tattoo-sleeved millennials, legions of LGBTers, and just plain folk flock to the town where everyone feels welcome.

As the historical society's website proclaims: “From the original settlers, the Lenni-Lenape Indians; to the Dutch and English; followed by the Quakers; to today’s varied population, New Hope maintains its historic status as a place where diversity is celebrated.”

Not bad for a place that began more than 300 years ago as a little mill and ferry town.

In 1700, William Penn deeded 1,000 acres to Robert Heath, who created two 500-acre parcels, the ferry tract and the mill tract. As the forested land was cleared and the land changed hands, a sawmill sprang up, followed by an iron mill and, later, grain mills.

The York Road, the major connection between Philadelphia and New York, crossed the Delaware River here, and because the settlement was a day's ride by coach from both cities, it became a natural place to stop for the night. The place became known as Wells Ferry, after the man who ran the river crossing and tavern (which exists today as the Logan Inn).

The ferry changed hands twice, and the place became known as Coryell's Ferry. During the American Revolution, John Coryell backed the rebels, and his ferry often played an important role in the war. George Washington and his army spent much time here, before and after the historic river crossing six miles south, at McConkey's Ferry, in 1776.

A turning point in the town's history came around 1781 with the arrival of Benjamin Parry, who came to be known as the Father of New Hope. Parry built grain and lumber mills on both sides of the river and was the area's biggest employer. In 1790, his Prime Hope Mill in New Jersey burned down, and he responded by building the New Hope Mill on the Pennsylvania side.

The name stuck. Parry went on to build a fabulous wooden covered bridge to replace the ferry, and he later helped create the super-highway of its day, the Delaware Canal, which still runs from Easton to Bristol. He was, as they say, a major player, and so was his little town.

Today, you can tour his family's home, the Parry Mansion, on South Main Street (for free) most weekends. And right across the street, you can see what eventually became of his mill: the Bucks County Playhouse.

At the turn of the 20th century, New Hope began its era as a haven for the arts. Impressionist painters congregated here, and later the theater and writing crowds made the area their summer getaway. In 1938, a group of Broadway notables decided to build a theater in which to try out new material, so they bought a Parry mill and converted it into the Bucks County Playhouse.

The biggest names in the business appeared here, and many a career was launched. Suddenly, New Hope became a destination, not just a passing-through point. Hotels, shops and restaurants proliferated, as did automobiles – and parking meters, which helped pay for the expansion of public works and the police force.

New Hope developed another colony, as well. Gays and lesbians found they could live openly here, and the word spread. Today, the LGBT community is part of the fabric of the town, including the borough council and other government agencies. New Hope Celebrates holds a Pride Festival with a parade every spring.

The borough has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years. Although some longtime residents pine for the “good-old days” when the town was a haven for all things offbeat, others have wished to shake off some of shabbiness that had become evident with the passage of years.

A slow decline began in 2005. The Delaware flooded three times in two years, and some businesses could not rebuild that many times. Most notably, Chez Odette, for decades a hugely popular restaurant and nightclub that sat between the canal and the river, shut its doors for good.

In 2010, the Bucks County Playhouse, which had been in decline for several years, also shut down, after a bank foreclosed on its loan. The town was growing ever more moribund.

Enter Kevin and Sherri Daugherty. The Doylestown couple set up a nonprofit, the Bridge Street Foundation, which bought the Playhouse, restored it to its original condition (but with modern mechanicals), and staffed it with New York City talent. It reopened in July 2012, and the town's turnaround had begun.

This year, Odette's will become a hotel and banquet facility, with the original 1784 building moving up onto Main Street; the long-derelict Club Zadar next to the Playhouse will become the new Playhouse Inn; and the Four Seasons Mall on Main Street will become the Ferry Market. The Logan Inn is in line for a major expansion, too.
Could solutions to the parking and traffic problems be far behind? Well, one thing is certain, the recent changes have given rise to ... New Hope.



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