Updike house featured in new PBS short film

WITF, the PBS affiliate television station in Harrisburg, Pa., recently produced a five-and-a-half minute film on “John Updike’s Shillington” for a national series titled “Great American Read.” These clips will be shown across the country, as we understand it.

And the film on Updike and Shillington prominently features the house, with John Updike Society members Richard Androne, Peter Bailey, and David Silcox appearing on camera to talk about Updike and the community that meant so much to him. The film was shot in and around the house with the help of Dave Ruoff, who was on hand to open the building and direct traffic.

Here’s the link.

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Updike family donates more items

On August 2, 2018, Elizabeth Updike Cobblah and her husband, Tete, got to see the restored John Updike Childhood Home for the first time (“The place looks great!”) and also brought another batch of unique, one-of-a-kind donations for display in the house-museum that’s taking shape.

Elizabeth donated her father’s “scratchy wool jacket from childhod,” along with an antique wind-up pendulum clock that came out of the Plowville farmhouse and most likely the Shillington house as well, given the age. She and Tete also brought the footboard and side rails of the moon and star bed, which came out of the Plowville house and again, probably the Shillington house, and Linda and her young son painted the headboard together. Elizabeth also loaned the house museum a precious family heirloom: an 1850 woolen coverlet, woven for Linda Hoyer Updike’s grandmother, Mary Fry, by John Kachel of Robeson Township, Berks County, an example of local folk art.

Elizabeth and Tete also brought objects donated by the siblings. Miranda Updike donated a blueberry ceramic well-used coffee pot from the Plowville farmhouse, which also was probably used in the Shillington house. Michael Updike donated a matching blueberry ceramic cup from the Plowville house, along with objects that came from John Updike’s office: a wooden darning egg, a boy/girl rubber stamp, a ceramic decorative rabbit, and a blue swivel office task chair.

Michael also donated a set of cobalt salt and pepper shakers that came from the Plowville house, and possibly the Shillington house as well, along with a reading lamp stand of Wesley Updike’s that may also have been used by John Hoyer from Plowville (and possibly Shillington), a U.S. flag that had been draped on Wesley Russel Updike’s casket (RIP 1972), two John Updike “business cards” from high school, a Trust Me promotional stand-up, and Linda Updike’s fountain pen–one she used “for everything from lists to checks to letters.”

At the house to receive them were John Updike Society board member Peter Bailey and his wife, Fran, and Dave Silcox, who has been helping the society to acquire items for the house-museum and in whose dining room Jim Plath, Jim Schiff, and Jack De Bellis met to plan the society’s launch at the May 2009 American Literature Association conference in Boston, Mass.

Only a few large objects are currently on display in the house. Other items will be added as exhibits are created.



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Reading Eagle supports museum delay to ‘get it right’

In today’s Reading Eagle, the editorial board weighed in on the The John Updike Society’s recent announcement that the grand opening of The John Updike Childhood Home would be delayed until October 2020, when it was decided that it would coincide with the Sixth Biennial JUS Conference hosted by Alvernia University.

“The long delay just makes sense, given the nature of the largely volunteer effort and the need to raise more funds and collect additional materials. A site that’s expected to attract global interest should aim to be world class” (from “Editorial: Museum at Updike home should be worth the wait”).

The society appreciates the Eagle‘s support and the support of neighbors and area residents. “Getting it right” has been the society’s mantra from the very beginning. John Updike deserves no less, and neither do the people of Shillington and Berks County.

Pictured is a folk-art headboard and chairs that were painted by Linda Updike and her then-young son while they were living in the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. Young Updike used to lie in that bed when he was home from school sick, and there he would watch his aspiring-writer mother work at her typewriter in the front guest bedroom.

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Society aiming for 2020 Childhood Home Grand Opening

As the Reading Eagle reported today, The John Updike Society, which owns The John Updike Childhood Home, is now planning to hold the grand opening of the museum the first week of October 2020, to coincide with the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University.

Previously, the hope was that the grand opening could take place sometime in 2019, but the restoration is still incomplete and society president James Plath said that rather than simply buying display cases and stuffing them with exhibit items, “We want to do things right. We want this to be a world-class museum, something that the residents of Shillington can be proud of.” He said that they need to find a curator to design and install exhibits, working with the knowledge of Updike scholars to identify highly displayable items already in the society’s possession.

But as Riley Murdock reported, the society is still looking for a turn-of-the-century or late 1800s slate kitchen sink to install, and a Tiffany-style one-bulb chandelier for the dining room. R.J. Doerr, who has been working on the restoration, still has the side porch to finish and grape arbor to construct. Then the society plans on tearing out concrete walkways and replacing them with brick, as it was during Updike’s time in the house. Additional parking spaces also need to be created before the grand opening, and for the finishing touch a new hedgerow of privet needs to be planted on the perimeter of the property.

Plath said that he has several possible curators and exhibit designers in mind, and that the transformation from house to museum will continue once the society hires someone to consult and/or design the flow of exhibits.

In the meantime, tours of the house are still available upon request by contacting John Updike Childhood Home director Susan Guay (susan.guay@alvernia.edu) or walking up to the single-story annex of the house and asking for Dave Ruoff.

Here is the full Reading Eagle article. The photo is by Lauren A. Little.

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Shillington approves renaming section of creek Rabbit Run

In an unsigned article published in the Monday, April 23 2018 Reading Eagle, it was announced that the Shillington Borough Council “on Thursday voted unanimously ‘to name a portion of the unnamed tributary to the Angelica Creek, which runs along Gov. Mifflin School District property, in commemoration of novelist John Updike’.”

School officials described the section in greater detail:  “The stream originates within Cumru and winds through Shillington Park, then adjacent to Mifflin Park Elementary and Governor Mifflin Intermediate Schools to eventually join with Angelica Creek in the Ken-Grill area.”

Jeanne E. Johnston, assistant secretary of Cumru Township, said that the name “Rabbit Run” was suggested last September by Cumru Township’s board of commissioners to commemorate the second and perhaps best-known novel written by John Updike, “whose childhood home was in the borough,” and that “the Kenhorst Borough Council already has agreed to support the comprehensive naming. The Berks County Planning Commission is also onboard. Thomas C. McKeon, vice-chairman of the BCPC, wrote a letter of support to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) stating that “The Commission notes that the naming is a great way to honor author John Updike, who was a resident of Berks County. In addition, the stream naming will aid local emergency services in identifying places around the area.”

Since the BGN has already notified Johnston of “its willingness to name the entire stream, including those portions in Kenhorst,” it is expected that the final decision “likely will be rendered this summer,” according to Johnston. Here is the online version of the story; below is a scan of the article that appeared in the newspaper.

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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, by Updike’s description in the short story “The Brown Chest,” used to be in the front guest bedroom in the Philadelphia Ave. house, the same room where Linda Updike had her typewriter and worked at her writing while young John, when he was home from school with an illness, would lie in that bed and watch her work. 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.”

Continue reading

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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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