Updike house interior restoration nearly complete

With only a kitchen slate sink left to install and a Tiffany-style light fixture in the dining room—work that will be done when the pieces can be located—the interior restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Ave. is finished. Using Updike’s writing, photos provided by David Updike, detective work to locate “footprints” and small samples of original paint and wallpaper, and restoration expert R.J. Doerr’s knowledge of local/period architecture, the restoration meticulously replicates what the house would have looked like between 1932-1945, the years that young Updike lived there.

All that remains of exterior work contracted for “Stage 1” and “Stage 2” restorations is the completion of a side porch staircase and side lath work. After that, when more money can be raised, the grape arbor and brick patio will be recreated on the side of the house, and additional parking spaces will be created behind the house, with lines painted.

Below are some photos taken by John Updike Society president Jim Plath during his recent visit to meet with various people concerning the house. Pictured, in order, are the view when you enter, the parlor/living room, dining room, kitchen, upstairs hallway with the chest that Updike described as always having been there, a view of the dogwood tree from the newly restored second-floor porch, the bathroom, and Updike’s bedroom.

 

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Miranda Updike visits house, brings family treasures

John Updike’s children—Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda—have been supportive of The John Updike Society from the beginning, even to the extent of participating in the society’s conferences. And they’re supportive of the society’s efforts to restore The John Updike Childhood Home and turn it into a museum and literary center.

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, Miranda Updike traveled to Shillington with a van stuffed full of furniture and other treasures that the family was donating to the society for display in the house. Those who attended the 2nd Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Boston may recognize some of the items:

—A large wooden chest that Updike described as having been in the upstairs hallway in the space where the hallway widened near the front of the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. Donated by Miranda Updike.

—The wooden headboard from the bed that used to be in the guest room of the Philadelphia Ave. house, that room facing the street in which Linda Updike had her writing desk and young John would lie in bed watching her write. The moon and stars were painted together by Linda and John. Donated by Elizabeth Updike, who says the rest of the bed is coming.

—Two companion “moon” chairs, one of them still painted and the other stripped by Linda. Donated by Michael Updike.

—A rocking chair that came out of the Plowville house and likely also was the chair that John Hoyer used to sit in downstairs in the living room, which the family also called the “piano room.” Donated by Miranda.

—A portrait of John Updike painted by Edward Hemingway, Ernest’s Grandson, as the prize when Updike went to Key West to accept the Conch Republic Prize for Literature. He posed for the painting in a suite at the Ocean Key House while talking with young Hemingway and James Plath, who was then director of the Hemingway Days Writers’ Workshop & Conference. Donated by Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda.

—Two Big Little Books (Bambi’s Children, Mandrake the Magician) that belonged to young John when he lived in the Shillington house. Donated by Mary Weatherall, the
children’s mother and Updike’s first wife.

—Updike’s writing chair, used until he was 70 and encouraged to switch to a new one. Donated by Miranda Updike.

—Half of a Mickey Finn comic by Lank Leonary that young Updike had on the wall of his room when he lived in the Shillington house. Donated by Elizabeth Updike Cobblah, David, Michael, and Miranda Updike.

—An American Academy of Arts and letters cloth hat, the same one described in the essay “A Desert Encounter.” Donated by Michael Updike.

—A corner cupboard that came out of the Plowville house and, again, likely the Shillington house as well. When Updike lived in Georgetown he tried to move the two-piece cupboard by himself and the top section fell on him, breaking all but one pane of glass. Donated by Miranda Updike.

—A drop-leaf kitchen table that came out of the Plowville house and also quite probably the Shillington house. Donated by Miranda Updike.

The society is grateful to the family for donating these treasures for the house museum, and appreciates as well the work it took for Miranda and her boyfriend, Jeffrey Kern, to haul the items down and move them into the house.

It was the first time that Miranda, who represents the family on the board of The John Updike Childhood Home, had seen the house. Though the children visited their grandparents at the Plowville farmhouse, other people were living in the Shillington house at the time. Given the recent restoration, Plath told her that she is the first in the family to see the house as it would have looked when her father, his parents, and his maternal grandparents lived there during the ’30s and early ’40s.

“This is a gorgeous space,” Miranda told the Reading Eagle, “and I can certainly understand why my father missed it so much and felt uprooted when the family moved to Plowville.”

 

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Alvernia professor Susan Guay named John Updike Childhood Home director

The John Updike Society board of directors unanimously approved Alvernia University professor Susan Guay to serve as director of The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa.  Her appointment is effective immediately.

Society president James Plath made the announcement on Tuesday, October 10, at the house on 117 Philadelphia Ave. where Updike lived from 1932-45. “It was important to have someone local who can make decisions and be the go-to person in Shillington,” Plath said.  “Although as president I will still be involved with the house, this was the first step toward creating regular hours for the house museum and literary center moving forward and getting the house and society more involved in community affairs.

“Sue lives 10 minutes from the house, while I have to drive 12 hours to get here.  We really did need to appoint a local director once we neared the end of the restoration phase, and Sue knows how to get things done.”

Plath said that Guay was an obvious choice. “She’s knowledgeable about Updike, she’s well liked within the society, she’s well known and respected in the Reading community, and she shares our passion for this project.”

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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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