Elise Rivers and other business leaders underwrote project designed by community craftsman Matt Sharaat; dedication part of annual community tree lighting
Once, the 146-year-old Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) gave the architectural impression of being “walled-off” from the Mt. Airy community it has historically and increasingly supported over the years.
Visually, that changed a year ago with the dedication of William Allen Plaza, a public square on Germantown Avenue in front of the seminary’s chapel. Seminary President Philip D. Krey says the inviting space was created to be a “gateway” to the neighborhood the school cherishes, serving also as a functional public space. The new plaza was part of a $3 million renovation undertaken by the seminary for its chapel. Community development group Mt. Airy USA suggested elements for the plaza’s design. Local officials secured $500,000 in state grants and $400,000 in city grants to cover the plaza’s construction. This summer, the plaza became the site of a Tuesday afternoon Farmer’s Market that attracted many community shoppers.
Now, several Mt. Airy business leaders, inspired by the initiative, have taken the project a step further by donating the creation and installation of three just-completed permanent benches to make the plaza even more accommodating to visitors. The benches, which “wrap around” three trees on the plaza, were fabricated by craftsman Matt Sharaat of Mt. Airy Custom Furniture, and dedicated December 3 as part of the tree lighting and caroling event held annually for the seminary and Mt. Airy community. (at right: William Allen Plaza with two of the new benches)
The plaza furniture project was the brainchild of Elise Rivers, who with her husband moved to Mt. Airy six years ago. Rivers explains she and her husband have both formed strong businesses, hers being Community Acupuncture of Mt. Airy, originally located on the 500-block of East Sedgwick Street, which at the end of last March relocated to new quarters at 6782 Germantown Avenue. Her business is steadily growing, she says.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors,” she explains, “and when I saw the space I thought it is just what the community needs along Germantown Avenue. I have felt so grateful for this wonderful, diverse neighborhood in which to live and work and the community support which has made my business so successful, and I wanted to give something back." She adds she found further purpose in the project through her role as a board member of the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District (MABID). Their mission in part is to add green space along Germantown Avenue between Cresheim Valley Road and Washington Lane. With the help of MABID she has already made improvements to the “pocket park” at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Carpenter Lane. Significant improvements to that park are in the works for next spring.
She explains she is hopeful that Germantown Avenue will eventually host additional green public spaces appropriate to the locale, and that she can be part of those projects as well.
In pondering the benches idea, Rivers contacted Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner and current MABID chair for advice and support. Weinstein said he told Rivers that the seminary has historically supported the Mt. Airy community in multiple ways.
“During the Germantown Avenue reconstruction, the seminary community really supported the diner, which was so negatively impacted for a time by the construction,” Weinstein said. The road excavation made access to the restaurant a real challenge for many months. Weinstein also praises the seminary for investing in the fledgling Valley Green Bank five years ago. The bank, which now has three locations, got its start across the street from the campus. In addition, Weinstein said, the seminary has energetically participated in Martin Luther King Day service projects and initiatives like cleanups along Chew Avenue.
Weinstein explains Elise Rivers became “hooked” on supporting the project when she learned more of the seminary’s history of community involvement. She met with Krey, then pledged a $4,000 gift toward the benches. Weinstein made a $1,000 supportive pledge and also contacted Robert Elfant of Elfant-Wissahickon Realtors, who pledged $1,000 toward the project. And Elfant contacted Edward Hillis, owner of Domus Inc., the Germantown general contractor recently involved in building a new Weaver’s Way Co-op store on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Hillis made a $1,000 gift. The Seminary also made a $2,000 gift toward the project. The $9,000 total made the project possible.
In addition to the successful Farmer’s Market, the initiative is generating a vision for other possible activities are well. Under discussion are ideas such as possible outdoor concerts and movies.
“I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for the seminary,” Elfant explains in describing his motivation for supporting the project. “The seminary is physically such a big part of the community, and it plays a major role in how it serves the neighborhood.”
Krey has said, “I think we’re part of a mutual admiration society in Mt. Airy. We all help each other.”
Participating in the Friday evening ceremonies were LTSP President Philip Krey, bench donors Elise Rivers, Bob Elfant and Ken Weinstein, East Mt. Airy Neighbors President Dan Muroff, Mt. Airy USA Executive Director Anuj Gupta, LTSP Professor Katie Day, and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller. Professor Day lead the prayer for the dedication of the benches, and Councilwoman Miller flipped the switch to light the plaza tree. Seminary Director of Music Ministries and Cantor Michael Krentz and seminarian Pam Peterson, playing the flute, lead the community in singing carols.