Sunday, December 4, 2011

Peters Valley: arts, crafts and a lesson in decay

No matter which National Park Service location I visit, I'm struck by a simple fact: the historic buildings that are in use are the ones that seem to better withstand the rigors of time, weather and, unfortunately, vandalism. Leave a building empty, and it rots. Get it occupied with a museum or a business or offices or residents, and it fares much better.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is a case in point. You might remember that back in May, we visited the abandoned town of Walpack Center (check out that post here for an account of why there are so many unoccupied buildings within the boundaries of the park). Like Walpack, Peters Valley was once a thriving little community nestled in the hills, with a general store, church and a few homes nearby. That's where the similarity ends, though, for Peters Valley has been transformed into an artists' community, with resident craftspeople, workshops and a gallery where visitors can view and purchase the art created there.

This time of year, the studios are largely quiet, and while visitors can take a self-guided tour during the summer months, when we arrived, we found that none of them was open. The Peters Valley Store, however, was. Originally the general store for the town of Bevans/Peters Valley, it contains crafts made by resident artisans as well as others from around the country. I'm generally not a crafts enthusiast, but I liked a lot of what was there -- well made, substantial and reasonably priced (though I'm still a bit dismayed that a great hat I saw cost over $100).

The general store is one of several buildings clustered near the 'hens foot' intersection of three roads, two that that T-stop on the same side of the another almost perpendicular, continual road. A National Park Service tour notes a variety of architectural styles that are unique to Peters Valley among the other small communities in the Water Gap. Just behind and to the left of the store is an interesting three-story Greek Revival-style home. The second and third floors are built out to the columns on the facade, making for a rather unique approach to the architecture. Another home on the corner exemplifies stucco-finished cobblestone construction.

We walked out a little bit to an old Dutch Reformed Church that hasn't been used for years, locked up but surrounded by a still-active cemetery. A couple of other people were there, decorating a family grave as we took a look at some of the older stones. As expected, many of the names were repeated, particularly Bevans, the name of the postmaster for whom the town had been named. I found a unique metal grave marker which seems to have held up better over time than its stone cousins.

Peering into the church windows, I could see several rows of auditorium-style chairs bolted to the floor, as well as a few more modern folding chairs lined up behind them. The interior paint looked pretty decent, but the plaster walls and ceiling were decaying in spots, with big plugs of it resting on the floor. At one time, I imagine, this had been a very nice, though unadorned place of worship, and now it's pretty much left to decay.

Looking at this community, even in its dormant state, it's interesting to wonder how long the original town would have remained vibrant had the residents not been displaced by the Tocks Island Dam project. Would people still be farming and working there as their ancestors had, or would most of them been lured away by opportunities elsewhere as New Jersey got more suburban?

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