Reading Eagle lauds Updike home restoration

In their Tuesday, August 15, 2017 “Editorial: A terrific way to honor a Berks native’s literary legacy,” the Reading Eagle, where young Updike worked as a teenager, approved of The John Updike Society’s progress in turning the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. into a literary landmark and museum celebrating Updike and Shillington.

“We feel a special affinity with Updike at the Reading Eagle. He was a copy boy and Teletype operator for us in the summer of 1950.

“In his prolific career, he published novels, short stories and poetry, and was an estimable art and literary critic. His work garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and numerous other honors.

“We congratulate the organizers, builders, scholars and others who have made extraordinary progress on turning Updike’s childhood home into a museum and look forward to the day it opens and readers young and old can see where the artistry of its namesake was born.

“Now all we need is a like-minded group to do the same for Reading’s other Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), a colossus of 20th century American poetry, born at 323 N. Fifth St.”

Pictured is the newly restored kitchen of The John Updike Childhood Home (photo provided by R.J. Doerr, whose company is handling the restoration).

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Updike house restoration story goes international

From tiny seeds . . . . Earlier this week a Reading Eagle reporter contacted John Updike Society president James Plath asking for help updating the story of The John Updike Childhood Home restoration. Plath passed along his email response and also the phone number for tenant/docent Dave Ruoff, whom he thought would already be on site to let the photographer in to take interior photos. It was intended as a space-filler story, a hurry-up piece for the next day’s paper, but the article by Ron Devlin, with photos by Harold Hoch, filled almost a whole page. Then the Associated Press picked it up, and the following day JUS board member Biljana Dojcinovic reported that the Serbian news service printed a story on it. Since Biljana is directing the June 2018 conference in Belgrade, of course she took the opportunity to share information about the upcoming Updike conference.

Obviously there is still great interest in John Updike, and the society is excited to finally see the restoration coming to an end, and the next chapter—turning the house into a museum and literary center—beginning. The society is hoping that people who purchased items from the Linda Updike auction at the Plowville farmhouse will contact James Plath (jplath@iwu.edu) about a possible donation. The society is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organized for educational purposes, and your donation is fully tax deductible . . . plus, the names of donors will be recognized permanently with the exhibits, and all donations valued at over $1000 will also land the donor on the donor tree wall that is planned for one foyer wall.

Because the house is also significant to Shillington history— borough founder Sam Shilling had the house built for his son in 1884, presumably as a wedding present—the museum will also celebrate Shillington and the importance it and Reading and Berks County held for Updike, and the influence it had on his work. The society is especially looking for a round oak clawfoot dining room table and chairs from the turn of the century, as well as an upright Chickering piano.

 

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Restoration progress: Corbels up!

John Updike Society member Carole Sherr, who was a friend of Linda Updike’s, recently visited the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. to check on the progress. R. J. Doerr has been reinstalling decorative corbels at the top of the building—decorative features that had been removed in previous decades—to bring it back to the way it looked during Updike’s time in the house. Thanks to Carole for the photos:

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Restoration progress: the John Updike Childhood Home kitchen

All that remains of the interior restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home are two rooms:  the upstairs bathroom and the kitchen, and the kitchen cabinetry has been re-done in the exact “footprints” of the original cabinets.

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Roemer and Constance McPhee honored for John Updike Childhood Home support

Roemer and Constance McPhee, whose support helped The John Updike Society to go all out and hire a historic restoration specialist to bring The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa. back to the way it was when Updike lived there from “age zero to 13,” have received the society’s Distinguished Service Award.

In presenting the award at the society’s business meeting on Thursday, May 25, at the Westin Copley Hotel in Boston, society president James Plath recalled a phone call he received in December 2012 from “a man named Roemer McPhee, who told me he’d read about our efforts to turn The John Updike Childhood Home into a museum and wanted to help by sending us a check for $3000.” McPhee was a big John Updike fan and thought it was a perfect opportunity to give the writer his due.

Since that first donation, H. Roemer McPhee III—an author himself (The Boomer’s Guide to Story: A Search for Insight in Literature and Film) and a New York investor who studied at Princeton and the Wharton Graduate School of Business—has demonstrated his love of Updike by driving to Shillington to tour the house and Updike sites with his mother and later attended the Third Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pa. with his wife and co-benefactor, Connie. Through their PECO Foundation, Roemer and Connie have contributed more than $70,000 over the years to help with the restoration, making them the second largest donor, behind the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, whose initial donation enabled the society to purchase the home. With some work still outstanding and museum display cases needed, the McPhees have also pledged additional help and said they are considering joining society members in Belgrade, Serbia for the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in June 2018.

“It’s fairly common to find foundations that care enough about a cause to donate money,” Plath said, “but to have the people behind those organizations also become involved on a personal level and to be so knowledgeable about Updike that they can discuss texts such as the Rabbit novels with members, that’s highly unusual, and it underscores the impact that Updike had as a writer.”

Because of their shared love of John Updike and his works, and because of the passion they’ve shown and the impact they’ve had in helping the society to fulfill its mission, the board of directors of The John Updike Society unanimously voted to award Roemer and Constance McPhee the society’s Distinguished Service Award, Plath said.

Over the nine years that The John Updike Society has been in existence, the society has given Distinguished Service Awards to James Yerkes, for his important contributions to Updike scholarship through The Centaurian print and online newsletter; Conrad Vanino, whose pro bono work as realtor helped the society acquire The John Updike Childhood Home and who continues to act as the society’s agent; and The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, whose generous support enabled the purchase and restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home.

Roemer McPhee’s most recent book is Killing the Market: Legendary Investor Robert W. Wilson.

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Work on the Updike house is moving along

Thanks to a $380,000 donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation and $10,000 from the PECO Foundation, work has resumed on The John Updike Childhood Home restoration. Bob Doerr and his crew are now able to finish up the two remaining rooms (kitchen and upstairs bathroom) and begin work on all three porches outside, as well as the reinstallation of decorative features that had been removed from the exterior. The John Updike Society still needs to raise $70,000 to cover all the costs of restoring the historic house, and will soon be starting a crowd funding campaign to reach out to people who might not already be aware of our important project.

Tours of the house have stopped as of Feb. 14, 2017, but will resume after the restoration is complete. We apologize for any inconvenience, but those of you wanting to see where Updike lived as a child will be able to more fully enjoy the tour when everything is complete . . . and safe.

Note on the second photo that the side porch that was wooden during Updike’s time is being recreated—built over an existing massive concrete slab that would have posed a challenge to remove. Thanks to Dave Silcox for the photos.

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New photos of John Updike Childhood Home restoration

Dave Silcox recently toured The John Updike Childhood Home and took a few pictures of the restoration-in-progress. Below are shots of the dining room, upstairs hallway (with newly extended wall, as described by Updike), and Updike’s bedroom showing the original radiator placement on the right. The only change required by the restoration is the “bump out” on the left, needed to conceal mechanicals. The colors match what was in the house during Updike’s time, with R.J. Doerr and his subcontractors finding evidence of period wallpaper and paint matches behind molding.

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Paintin’ Place; progress made on Updike house restoration

The R. J. Doerr Co., who have been meticulously restoring The John Updike Childhood Home based on Updike’s descriptions and evidence inside the house, are at the point where all of the walls are being primed in preparation for painting or papering. Below are photos of Updike’s bedroom with the newly restored “Black Room” wall to the left, and two different views of the columnar divider and Victorian fretwork that Updike lamented had been removed from the parlor/living room.

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Phase 1 of Updike house restoration on schedule

Recently John Updike Society president Jim Plath and his adult son, Brian, drove to Wabash College (Indiana) to pick up the Kevin Schehr collection of John Updike and deliver it to The John Updike Childhood Home. While there, they did a walk-through with contractor Bob Doerr to check on the restoration. It’s a major effort with some major changes, all designed to return the house to the way it looked when Updike lived there prior to 1946.

A non-period front door and transom have been replaced, rounded archways into the living room and parlor have been restored to the square openings they once were, Victorian spindle work between the foyer and front parlor has been reinstalled, a columnar divider between the living room and parlor is back where it once was, and a new built-in bookcase in the dining room was replaced by a period door and transom, as it was during Updike’s time in the house.

Upstairs, the wall that separated “The Black Room” from Updike’s bedroom has been reinstalled, as has the hallway wall that had been removed to create a master bedroom at the front of the house. Now the hallway widens near the front of the house with a window where Updike said a potted plant always sat, near a large wooden trunk. A modernized second-story bathroom with glass block windows and tub surround was taken out, with period window reinstalled and donated fixtures (claw foot tub, pedestal sink, vintage toilet) waiting to be installed. For safety reasons, and to pass inspection, the whole house had to be rewired, so it is now much safer. And non-period radiators were replaced with functional replicas of period radiators throughout the house.

Below are three photos showing the dividing wall between Updike’s bedroom (right) and the Black Room, the extended upstairs hallway, and the downstairs column divider. If you go to The John Updike Childhood Home Facebook page you can see more photos of the restoration-in-progress. If you want to help us get to the finish line, we’re in need of more donations, which are fully tax deductible because The John Updike Society is a 501 c 3 non-profit organization. Donations can be sent to:  The John Updike Society, ℅ James Plath, 1504 Paddington Dr., Bloomington, IL 61704.

Dave Ruoff, who rents space in the annex, reports that interest in touring the house has really risen in the past few months, with whole groups inquiring about how to see Updike’s home. We expect that in the future it will be a starting point for literary pilgrims visiting Updike sites in Berks County.

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Updike’s dogwood blooms again

Dogwood2016Dogwoods of this type typically only last fifty years or so, but Updike’s dogwood is still going strong at The John Updike Childhood Home, 117 Philadelphia Ave., in Shillington. The side garden, planted by volunteers, is also starting to bloom.

Thanks to our tenant and docent extraordinaire, Dave Ruoff, for the photos, and to Emma Bausher and her friend, Ann, for tending the garden.

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