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Sweet Spaces

July 22, 2010 By:
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Philly sites: Elfreth's Alley (left), the oldest continuously inhabited street in America
I have a soft spot for books like Jewish Philadelphia, works that allow you to "travel" -- even through the byways and side streets of familiar terrain -- without ever leaving home. The book's author is Linda Nesvisky, who I've come to know personally over the years once she and her husband, veteran writer Matt Nesvisky, settled in Melrose Park after decades of living in Israel. And my friendship with her has no bearing on my being able to objectively assess her compact little book, which is knowledgeable, easy to digest and functional in the best sense of that word.

I've also been informed through the grapevine that she's considered one of the best local guides to the region and now she's proven, through this amply illustrated work, published by History Press, that she knows the intricacies of Jewish Philadelphia as well. All of the standard sites are here -- the Holocaust Memorial on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park -- along with certain surprises that even longtime residents might not be aware of.

Take, for example, the fact that in the first half of the book, titled "Personalities, Places, Resources," she includes a discussion of architect Louis Kahn, the towering figure called "a philosopher among architects" by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Raised in Philadelphia (Kahn was born in Estonia in 1901 and brought here three years later), his professional offices were for years located at 15th and Walnut streets. As Nesvisky notes in her endearing profile of him, Kahn could often be found wandering the streets of his beloved city -- if he wasn't lecturing on his equally beloved profession at the University of Pennsylvania. His apprentices happened to be gifted people like Robert Venturi and Moshe Safdie.

But most interesting here is that rather than go into extended detail about the Richards Medical Building on Penn's campus as an example of Kahn's work, Nesvisky describes a more modest but clearly more compelling and beautiful project -- the Fisher Home in the suburbs of the city (lovely exterior and interior photos of the residence are also included).

Writes the author: "Norman Fisher was a physician, and his wife, Doris, was a landscape designer. They commissioned Kahn to design their home in 1960. They had already purchased an attractive two-acre wooded lot in Hatboro, and Kahn seemed the obvious choice to build it for them. The doctor was also a skilled woodworker -- we can see some of his sculpture and furniture in the home -- and this made the men kindred spirits. The proximity of Pennypack Creek in the yard was another draw. Many of Kahn's spectacular buildings included an element of water in relationship to the structure. Discussions devoted to refining the design stretched over seven years. Said Norman Fisher, 'Had we known that, we might not have gone ahead.' But then he added, 'But we're glad we did.' ...

"Fisher's daughters Claudia and Nina and their families still visit the home frequently," continues Nesvisky. "Both sisters animatedly told me that when they were kids they enjoyed hiding in the interesting cubby spaces and shimmying out of their ingenious bedroom windows into the yard. They said it was akin to living in a treehouse, particularly due to all the natural light and the home's openness."

In the Jewish Philadelphia's second half, called "The Walking Tour," readers will find out such wonderful tidbits about the Jewish element that exists within Christ Church at Second and Market and why Major David Salisbury Franks, a Jew, is buried in the church's cemetery, located at Fifth and Arch.

And did you know that Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, the Prussian-born longtime religious leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, traveled to Russia in 1894 and met and spoke with the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy?

Nesvisky knew it, and she can fill you in on the details.


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