More Than Wrong: Wharton Esherick’s hammer-handle chairs and art in the world

I get to the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley early, so I can take a look around. The others are coming down from the Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli. They have been picking up some prints and books that museum is generously lending ICA for Up on My Back and I Will Take You Thither, the inaugural program in our new Excursus series. The Hedgerow Theater, for which Esherick made furniture and did carpentry work in trade for acting classes for his daughters, is lending us a special chair called a hammer-handle chair, because hammer handles were what Esherick used to make the frame.

I park in the gravel lot outside the old stone building. Inside, the lobby is beamed and low-ceilinged with wide floor boards and rough plaster walls. Wandering into a reception room, I see a long table—obviously by Esherick—where cookies are served at the intermissions of the plays.
Miranda: HedgerowB

Miranda: HedgerowB

Written material and photographs on the walls tout Hedgerow’s history with the artist: the “No” sign he made to mark the private staircase to the actors’ quarters, and Jeeter and Cheeter, the life-sized horses he sculpted to stand outside the theater. Looking at the photograph, I realize I know these horses: one of them now stands in the turn-around at the School in Rose Valley, just down the road, where my daughter attended kindergarten. The kids used to sit on the horse while they waited to be picked up at the end of the day. No doubt they still do.

Andy, Alex, and Mark come in, excited from their visit to the Esherick Museum. Andy goes over the row of chairs where I have been sitting. These very chairs, it turns out, are the hammer-handle chairs! Comfortable, run-down seats in daily use for decades, they look like they were made for this particular room—which, of course, they were.

“Esherick bought a barrel of hammer handles at auction because it was cheap wood,” Andy says. “Then the theater wanted chairs.”

Mark points out how each one is slightly different. “This one has a crossbar here, and this one has a crossbar there.”

“Which one are we borrowing?”

Andy points to the chair next to the one I’ve been sitting in. “I liked the one with the darker straps,” he says.

It feels wrong to have been sitting (well, practically sitting) on the object we are here for—that we will swaddle in packing blankets, ask Hedgerow Director Penelope Reed to sign official paperwork for, and carefully transport back to ICA. We certainly won’t let anyone sit on it there!

More than wrong, though, it also feels right. I think it’s wonderful that these chairs are still being used today, in just the way Esherick intended them to be. It may wear them out faster, but it brings art out into the world.
Miranda: CentaurA

Photo: Andy Beach

Up on My Back and I Will Take You Thither, an ICA program by Andy Beach, is inspired by Philadelphia’s prohibition-era radical press, bookstore, and bohemian meeting place, The Centaur. From now through mid-December you can come to a series of talks, hands-on events, and informal conversations related to this piece of Philadelphia history. There will also be a play reading and a chance to play chess with Esherick’s own chess set—all in a space in ICA that Andy has reimagined, furnishing it with blue stools, a sectional table, books and prints in flat files, a re-creation in neon of the sign Esherick designed for The Centaur, and one worn hammer-handle chair perched on a plinth.
Miranda: ChairA

Miranda: ChairA

Now, with the chair stored snuggly in Alex and Mark’s car, there’s not room for Andy in the car, so I give him a ride. We pass the turn off for the school where my daughter went to kindergarten. It’s just about three o’clock. There must be children up on that Esherick horse right now, waiting for their parents. Art in the world.

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