If you want to know anything about the history of Phoenixville, Barbara Cohen probably has the answers.
With Phoenixville just miles from the King of Prussia Mall, Barbara Cohen understands why it would be easy to just head there instead — but that’s also why she has been working to make Phoenixville a top-notch destination.
If you want to know anything about the history of Phoenixville, Cohen probably has the answers.
The Northeast Philadelphia native and former Beth Emeth congregant (now closed) moved to Valley Forge 42 years ago after her husband, a radiologist, took a job in the area. She took her love for history with her. Since then, she has helped transform the historic Foundry Building in Phoenixville from a neglected dwelling to a centerpiece of the town — but we’ll get to that.
On May 4, her efforts are being recognized when she receives the 10th annual Rebecca Lukens Award during an event at the Graystone Mansion in the Lukens National Historic District. The award honors Lukens, a mother of six and a widow who ran the Lukens Steel Company in the 1800s. She is considered the first woman in the United States to be a part of the iron industry.
Cohen’s Philadelphia roots gave her an introduction to her continuing fascination with history and teaching it to others.
“The idea of history coming alive and sharing that with the next next generation is incredibly important,” she said.
In 1976, she along with a group of other women involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia participated in and gave a “Judaic bicentennial tour of historic Philadelphia,” which she still does. Highlights include Elfreth’s Alley and Congregation Mikveh Israel, particularly their roots during the Revolutionary War and how that history is present today.
“I love history, I love Judaic history,” Cohen enthused. “I’ve written a presentation on 2,000 years of foundation for architecture in Philadelphia. Linking that with Judaism for me is a way of showing what we have achieved in the U.S.”
Cohen attended Temple University and later earned a master’s degree in interior design from Drexel University in 1983 at the age of 38.
It was this intersection of her affinities for history and architecture and design that led to the accomplishments she’s made in Phoenixville — while remaining connected to her Philadelphia roots.
She served on the board of directors of the Schuylkill River Greenway Association and was executive director of the Phoenixville Area Chamber of Commerce; during that time, she also became a board member of the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corp. (PAEDCO). PAEDCO and Jane Davidson — who worked as Chester County’s Preservation Officer and was a past Rebecca Lukens Award recipient — were able to help create Phoenixville’s historic district in 1989, which ultimately led Cohen to the Foundry Building.
“When the steel industry closed in 1887 — I won’t go through all the various things that took place in regard to the buildings being gone — but the Foundry was saved because two guys thought about putting a townhouse community, and they saved the Foundry as a place for a workout gym and restaurants,” Cohen explained.
In 1996, she continued, the Foundry Building was named one of the nine most endangered buildings in Pennsylvania.
Instead, she worked on turning the building — built back in 1882 with “extraordinary architectural features” — into a communal centerpiece, which today is used for weddings and social and corporate events, while still paying homage to its historical roots. PAEDCO raised $5 million to completely restore the building.
There were all different kinds of fundraisers, she said, including a rubber duck race that raised $10,000 from 2,000 people buying $5 raffle tickets placed inside of the ducks.
“Community consensus and a lot of motivated people and obviously generous organizations contributed to the Foundry’s restoration. It was wonderful,” she said.
Now owned by the Hankin Group, which invested $5 million in the restoration, the building also houses the Schuylkill River Heritage Center — so she spends a great deal of time there as she is its president.
The museum housed in the Foundry Building was something she helped design, so she was able to have a hand in many different aspects of the building’s restoration and how others are able to use the space.
In 1996, she also was a part of raising funds to restore the 1903 Colonial Theatre — famous for its role in the movie The Blob — when its owner was ready to sell it to a local business. Instead, PAEDCO bought it and it transferred ownership to Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT), a nonprofit organization, which reopened the theatre in 1999.
Being involved in huge projects that helped transform Phoenixville while remaining connected to its history is something Cohen, needless to say, greatly enjoys.
When she wasn’t too busy rebuilding Phoenixville, she spent time with her two children, started getting interested in photography and, at one point, even took to the road.
Though she doesn’t do it so much anymore, she got her racing license in the 1990s and competed in the Poconos for a few years.
“I never came in first, and I never came in last,” she said with a laugh.
At the moment, Cohen and the Heritage Center brought “Phoenix wheel” built in 1895 in Phoenixville for Palace Amusements in Asbury Park, N.J. back to town.
“We discovered the Phoenix Bridge Company made four Ferris wheels, but they were called Phoenix wheels,” she explained.
They have raised more than $160,000 so far, she said, and have restored all 16 baskets on the Phoenix wheel.
But the wheel has a surprising bit of Jewish history.
“There was a gentleman who owned the Palace Amusements in Asbury Park from the 1930s to the early 1970s: Zimel Resnick,” Cohen said. “He had served with David Ben-Gurion in the first World War in the British Army.”
Resnick was passionate about wanting to establish the State of Israel. He later became involved with the secret shipping of weapons to the Haganah during the War of Independence.
Because this was illegal, the FBI was tapping phone lines, Cohen said, and Resnick “would ride this Phoenix wheel so the FBI wouldn’t know what’s going on.”
“The Phoenix wheel has a place not only in Phoenixville history, but in Jewish history — go figure,” she laughed.
Now, she said, they are just trying to figure out a place to put the Phoenix wheel so that citizens can enjoy it.
Working on these projects is a passion that connects her to the community.
“As you mature and get older, your children grow up, it is my feeling that you want to feel passionate about something,” she said. “Obviously you love and care for your family, but they are off and grown up leading their lives in various places. You need a good reason to get up in the morning, and history and architecture and showing all generations what that’s all about and telling that story, to me, is critically important.”
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