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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Restoration, full speed ahead

Workers from R. J. Doerr are set up for some serious work in the parlor of The John Updike Childhood Home (top) and living room (top middle). They have already reinstalled a dining room door that had been converted into bookshelves (bottom middle). Work is moving along well, says Doerr, who verified that the wainscoting in Updike’s bedroom is original and would have been there when Updike used the room.

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Treasures found at John Updike Childhood Home

marblesIn the early ’40s, when John Updike was an adolescent growing up in Shillington, Pa., marbles were treasured by children who played a popular game indoors or outdoors in which a circle was drawn or formed with string, and every child would put in a certain amount of marbles, like a wager on a roulette wheel. Then, using larger oversized marbles called “shooters,” they would try to knock the marbles outside the ring and got to keep all that they sent rolling beyond the perimeter. By the end of the game, the spoils—captured marbles—were highly prized. Most prized, though, was a good shooter.

Last week while they were repairing flooring, workers for R.J. Doerr, the restoration firm hired to complete the interior renovation of The John Updike Childhood Home, found a small stash of marbles under a loose floorboard in the room next to Updike’s bedroom, which he wrote about in a short story called “The Black Room.” That’s exciting but curious and a bit of a mystery, since there would be no reason for hiding marbles, especially in a house in which young Updike was the only child, and no friends were permitted beyond the kitchen and dining room—ever. Yet here were five marbles stashed during the time that Updike lived in the house, and none of them was even a prized shooter.

marblefloorboardWe asked childhood friend Harlan Boyer, whose father was Updike’s high school art teacher, if he remembered playing marbles with Updike as he did dominoes in the family dining room. “I don’t remember playing marbles with Uppy,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but we all had them. Some of us used them as projectiles since we all had slingshots as well.”

That’s one possible explanation. Updike’s second-story bedroom windows face a large back yard and an alley that, years later, was turned into a street and named Shilling St., to honor the family that built and first occupied the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. There’s no reason on earth to hide marbles that are used for playing the traditional game. But there would certainly be good reason to hide “evidence” if the marbles were used as slingshot ammunition, as  these may have been.

But while Updike may not have played marbles with Boyer, in his essay “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” which appeared in Assorted Prose (1965), Updike explained how he became best friends with a boy that author Jack De Bellis (John Updike’s Early Years) identifies as Fred Muth, who lived on the same side of Philadelphia Avenue between the poorhouse and the Updike house. “He had just moved from the Midwest, and his mother was a widow. Beside wage war, we did many things together,” he wrote, including marathon games of Monopoly, chess, and, yes, marbles. “We played marbles for days at a time, until one of us had won the other’s entire coffee-canful,” Updike wrote. So did the author hide a few marbles in reserve, to ensure he always had some to try to win back those he had lost without having to ask his parents for money to buy new marbles? Perhaps, but since Updike’s childhood friends said they weren’t allowed upstairs, why not just withhold a few marbles and stash them in a drawer? Why pry up a floorboard to put a few marbles underneath? Unless . . . .

They might have been deliberately and secretly cached by a young Updike reluctant to move out of the house he loved—perhaps as a way of leaving a part of himself there after the forced move to Plowville. After all, he did write in “The Black Room” of a tour he and his mother took of the house just before the Hunters (renamed the Jessups) moved to a retirement community. “No longer child and young veteran, they had become two aged men who had loved the same object. One had won and one had lost, but now the winner was surrendering the prize also. Time takes all.” But maybe young Updike had left a record of his having been there.

Pictured are the marbles and a shot of the flooring where they were found in the single open space to the right. According to Robert Block (www.marblecollecting.com), who is chairman of the Marble Collectors Society of America, “the ones at the 11 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions are Vitro Agate Company Conquerors, produced in Parkersburg WV between the late 1930s and late 1940s. The one at the top is a little hard to see, but looks to be Master Marble Company, 1940s. The one at the bottom is a West Virginia company, but I can’t identify the manufacturer. Possibly Ravenswood Novelty Company or Alox Agate Company. Early to mid 1940s.”

The marbles will be exhibited in a display case in Updike’s bedroom near where they were found . . . possibly alongside a vintage slingshot and a first publication of “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” in which Updike wrote about leaving the house behind.

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Schiff Family Foundation increases support of John Updike Childhood Home

With the R.J. Doerr Company making great progress on the historic restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, Pa., the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation increased their support of The John Updike Society’s efforts to turn the home into a museum. This fiscal year they have upped their donation from $75,000 to $175,000.

“This really gives us some breathing room,” John Updike Society president James Plath said, “and I hope that the Schiff Family Foundation donation spurs others to give to a restoration project that’s really picking up steam.” Plath said that Doerr has come up with a restoration plan that takes into account Updike’s writings about the house, interviews with people who were inside the house during Updike’s time, historic features in similar period architectural dwellings, and “footprints” and other clues found inside the house that identify where architectural features and finishes were located. Restoration plans include replacing modernized radiators with period-style radiators and installing UV-protective surfaces on all windows. Interior walls and ornate archways that had been removed or simplified after the Updikes left will be recreated.

The entire restoration process is expected to cost $300-350,000, and the society is committed to making this museum and literary site a showplace equivalent to such historic American literary venues as the Mark Twain Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo., and the Hemingway homes in Oak Park, Ill. and Key West, Fla. Plath said that the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation donation will carry the project throughout the second phase and he hopes to find additional foundation support and perhaps a crowd funding campaign to raise the remaining money.

The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation is located in Cincinnati, Ohio and is particularly interested in supporting projects that have to do with education.

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