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Black Horse Inn

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 16, 2005
Byline: Bonnie L. Cook

Hoping to restore an inn to an idealized condition

When artist Anthe capitan-valais imagines the historic Black Horse Inn in Flourtown, she pictures it on a good day that perhaps never was.

In her mind's eye, the structure that served as watering hole for working joes gleams with white paint, red roof, green shutters.

On the front porch, where farmers kicked dust off their boots, she imagines flower boxes. In a word, she sees the inn as charming.

"It's important to add charm, so it doesn't look like the norm — then or now," the artist said.

capitan-valais, 51, whose working name is "Anthe," offers up her vision in a watercolor that will be auctioned off Oct. 15, part of fund-raising for the restoration of the 261-year-old building. Posters are also being sold.

The painting gives form to a scheme for creative use, something the artist sees as critical to the building's continued existence as a landmark on Bethlehem Pike.

capitan-valais, who spent time studying the inn to grasp its aura, pictures this modern scenario:

Visitors enter through a green courtyard, past the statue of a rearing black horse that spits endless water into a fountain.

Inside is a warren of artists' studios; a potter here, a gift shop there. The place buzzes with creative energy. People browse and sun themselves outside.

"I'd like to have a park and some benches to give it a homey feeling on the pike," capitan-valais said.

Starting in 1744, the Black Horse Inn was the first 10-mile stop along the route from Philadelphia to Bethlehem. Laborers and lime workers moved through its doors. Later came stage-coach and trolley riders, then modern drivers.

It closed during the 1990s when it could no longer attract bar trade, and has stood vacant ever since, the object of public debate.

The inn faced demolition, then a possible move, until August 2003 when Moreland Development of Bryn Mawr agreed to place the pharmacy and super-size liquor store destined for the site around it.

That shift in direction was due to questions raised by a citizens group called Friends of Historic Bethlehem Pike.

Upset that the historic building was deteriorating, the 75-member organization formed to try to rescue it.

The Friends became especially alarmed last May when construction workers accidentally gouged a hole in one corner. The mishap showed there were no plans to stabilize or preserve the damaged landmark.

On March 7, though, the Friends presented a proposal to the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners suggesting that the two create a public-private partnership to restore the inn.

Township Manager Donald Berger couldn't be reached for comment yesterday on whether the proposal was viable, but Mitchell said the board had asked for examples of other municipalities where similar plans had been tried.

Once an estimated $1.5 million of repairs is done, the inn could be used as offices for the Springfield Township Historical Society, a thrift shop for a hospice, or a travel agency, he said.

Mitchell said the Friends approached capitan-valais for a fresh view of what might become of the property because "it was important for citizens to see this property in a new light, not as a rundown building."

The artist says she was eager to try. She went to the site, took digital photos, then asked the Friends for historic views of the building.

The resulting watercolor, she said, depicts the inn removed from its actual historic context, projected through the lens of her artistic sense. The building is shown bathed in late afternoon light.

capitan-valais earned a 1995 certificate of fine arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. She does oil painting, watercolors and prints from a home-based studio, and has produced many building portraits.

The Black Horse project, the artist said, was especially challenging because in real life, the inn wasn't an architectural standout; it was just an ordinary tavern.

"It can be beautiful," she said. "That's why I did the painting. If people don't see that, they won't have a vision of what it could be. Artists can see things that other people can't."

Inn Posters

The artist is offering Black Horse Inn posters of her watercolor in three sizes for $20, $40, $50. Half benefits the inn.

For information, call 215-519-7541 or write Anthe capitan-valais, P.O. Box 153, Flourtown, Pa. 19031.