Detective work: R.J. Doerr spots restoration clues

Since beginning to examine the house for “footprints” and signs of what The John Updike Childhood Home looked like prior to 1945—when the Updikes left the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. to move to the Plowville farmhouse—historic restoration expert R.J. Doerr has been uncovering clue after clue, using as starting points interviews the society conducted with classmates and members of the Hunter family, excerpts from Updike’s writing, photos provided by David Updike, and his own research and expertise.

In his short story “The Black Room,” John Updike wrote,

“Outside the guest-bedroom door, the upstairs hall, having narrowly sneaked past his grandparents’ bedroom door, broadened to be almost a room, with a window all its own and a geranium on the sill . . . . Curtains of dotted swiss” and a “rug of braided rags.” In this space sat a large wooden chest: “It was big enough for him to lie in, but he had never dared try. It was painted brown, but in such a way that the wood grain showed through” with hinges “small and black, and there was a keyhole that had no key.”

Updike further wrote, “The guest bedroom [front bedroom], where his mother would go for her naps when she needed to get away from them all, and where [young Updike], when sick, would recline in a litter of picture books and cough-drop boxes, had been expanded outward, into a massive master bedroom, swallowing the hall window, whose sill had always held a potted geranium. At the back of the house, other walls had vanished as his little room with its stained and varnished wainscoting had been merged with the mysterious one [the “black room”] next to it.

columnardividerOn August 12, Doerr and his team of sleuths found filled nail holes and other evidence of where an upstairs front bedroom wall had been before the Hunters knocked it down to create that master bedroom. He also found physical evidence to prove that the existing wainscoting in Updike’s bedroom was not original, except for the exterior wall on Shilling Street. Later Doerr found evidence of why the black room was called that: “There are small fragments of black foil paper that are stapled to the ceiling in the rear room section only. It was a layer that was directly under whatever layer was removed from that ceiling. There are still some small fragments on the ceiling, but it was only held in place with staples, so it came down with the covering. I saved some fragments as well as leaving the small amount that are still adhered to the ceiling,” Doerr said.

By carefully removing finishes Doerr and Co. were able to expose the original dimensions of the downstairs arches and door openings. They also located an original strip of wainscoting in the dining room so that they can restore that exactly as it was, and they removed the dining room cupboard/cabinet so that the original door opening could be reinstalled. Using “selective paint removal” in the dining room they were able to conclude with certainty that the wood in the dining room was a grain painted finish. By measuring the footprint for the divider between the parlor and living room, they were able to identify the type of columnar divider that was original to the house and remained so during Updike’s time there. This type of divider is consistent with what Updike classmates and the Hunter family recalled, and also consistent with the type of dividers used for houses in the area in 1884, when the house was built.

Pictured is the type of columnar room divider that Doerr is fairly certain was original to the Updike parlor/living room. Work on Phase 1 of the restoration is expected to be completed by the end of summer 2016.


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