High on a hill in Bryn Athyn, a vision of old Europe towers over the surrounding greenery. Built as a private residence between 1928 and 1939, the 20th-century castle was constructed in the medieval style, using symbolism that reflects the faith of the community's earliest inhabitants. The building now serves as a museum that houses religious art and relics dating from Babylonian times up to the present. The museum's permanent and temporary exhibits range from a medieval collection of stained glass that spans the years 1100?1300 to an Egyptian collection that includes an ornate granite libation bowl, which Egyptian priests are said to have used to dump Gatorade on their football coach.
For many galleries, art is something that resides behind a velvet rope, separated and unaccessible to its viewers. For the curators of Abington Art Center, it is something to be experienced, enjoyed, and, above all, created oneself. Located on the 27-acre expanse of Alverthorpe Manor, the center hosts classes and workshops for students of all ages and exhibitions of community artists. The outdoor Sculpture Park captures the center's sense of playful creation, inviting sculptors to craft their own temporary installations each year—this also helps erase the temptation to carve a mustache into a nearby town's statue of its mayor. The guest artists are encouraged to have their creations respond to the nature around them, such as massive faces carved from tree trunks. Inside the mansion, one can find galleries of young creators and solo exhibitions by professional artists.
At the turn of the 19th century, it became all too clear to historian and archaeologist Henry Mercer that handmade objects were being cast aside for machine-made things. He wanted to help preserve the pre-industrial way of life, and so he built a museum for his artifacts adjacent to his own home, Fonthill Castle. Today, Fonthill Castle is a National Historic Landmark and a museum in its own right, displaying handcrafted art both made by Mercer and collected by him during his world travels.
It all started with a farmer's generosity. In 1924, a civic-minded citizen handed over 16 acres of lush farmland and a small group of critters to the Borough of Norristown. Today, the Elmwood Park Zoo and the Norristown Zoological Society welcomes guests in hopes of creating a future stock of wildlife lovers and conservation advocates. A menagerie of around 300 beasts indigenous to the Americas—including jaguars, howler monkeys, timberwolves, and bald and gold eagles—peer back at visitors. Even though they're from Africa, giraffes get in on the fun too during certain seasons, grazing on foliage and the toupees of particularly tall patrons. Guests can also spy on more than 15 species that are threatened or endangered. All the while, smaller animals mosey around at the petting barn, tots climb aboard gentle ponies, and winged beauties sail through the air at the butterfly preserve.
Sensory overload doesn?t begin to describe Philadelphia?s Magic Gardens. A seemingly boundless compilation of colors, textures, and shapes, the labyrinthine mosaic creation spans 3,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. The masterpiece originated in the brain of Isaiah Zagar, a Philadelphia native who grew up in New York. During his third year of art school, he stumbled upon Clarence Schmidt?s folk-art-inspired installations?assemblages of found objects and recycled materials?and the young artist?s view of the art world changed. ?I didn't know that I was looking at art,? Zagar reflects in his mission statement. Self-admittedly, Zagar has been somewhat ?copying? Schmidt?s dynamic, free-flowing style ever since.
The years after art school brought Zagar an onslaught of new opportunities. He spent time as an artist in China and India, joined the Peace Corps with his wife Julia, settled in Peru for three years, and even tried his hand at ceramics in Wisconsin. In the ?60s, he and Julia returned to his birthplace?specifically, the waning South Street neighborhood. Isaiah quickly leapt into action, renovating dilapidated buildings and often adding mosaics to formerly barren walls. Eventually, Isaiah?s imagination outgrew their projects, and in 1994 he began constructing a new piece in a vacant lot near his studio?the project would become Philadelphia?s Magic Gardens.
Isaiah spent 14 precious years, which he should have applied to Y2K preparations, scooping out tunnels, erecting multitiered walls, and splashing the entire space in colorful tile. The finished product stretches across half a block of South Street; the outside enclosure shimmering with vibrant tiles, the inside housing folk art, colored glass bottles, and countless sparkling mirrors. Now a nonprofit organization, Philadelphia?s Magic Gardens invites visitors to enjoy its visual candy with guided or self-guided tours.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) celebrates art from America's entire history. Its galleries take visitors on a chronological trip through the country's ever-changing aesthetic landscape, with special attention paid to sculptures, paintings, and paper works. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts also trains the next generation of artists, with full-time degree programs at the bachelor and masters levels.