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 (, 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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Miranda Updike joins the JU Childhood Home board of directors

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 7.30.25 AMMiranda Updike today joined The John Updike Childhood Home board of directors.

The board of directors for The John Updike Society, which owns The John Updike Childhood Home and is turning it into a museum, had voted to create a separate governing board for the Childhood Home, consisting of the JUS board of directors plus a member of the Updike family and a curator/director, should the board eventually hire one to manage the property. Miranda will serve as the family representative.

Miranda, the youngest child of John Updike and Mary (Pennington Updike) Weatherall, is an artist who lives and works in Ipswich, Mass. Born the same year Rabbit, Run was published, she received her BFA from Mass. College of Art, where she studied with George Nick and Jo Sandman. Since graduating in 1993, Miranda has shown her work in numerous exhibits in and around the Boston area and also works on commissions.

Miranda says her paintings lately have focused “more on surface quality and paint texture than on subject. I have been exploring impasto, stains and washes, varnishes and waxes. With subject, I am drawn to negative spaces and strive to give substance to those voids through the use of color, texture, and contrasting sheen, as I continue to be inspired by the snippets and corners of commonplace domestic vignettes.”

Recent paintings

She brings to the board not only a family perspective but an artistic one, and the Society is grateful for her participation.



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Board appoints education director

The John Updike Childhood Home board of directors last week created a new position of Education Director and appointed Maria Mogford to the post.

Mogford-begleyMogford, who has taught as an instructor at Albright College since 2006, earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at Alvernia University and has been serving as docent and primary contact person for tours of The John Updike Childhood Home. John Updike Society members may also remember her from the 3rd Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, for which she served as program director.

Mogford will focus on working with area teachers. She intends to a) create curriculum guides meeting Common Core standards for specific works by Updike as a resource for high school teachers, b) develop and host teacher workshops with Pa. Act 48 professional credit, and c) create customized school tours of the house with assigned readings and/or activities. Teachers wanting to work with her should contact her by email:

Mogford will also coordinate and supervise such board initiatives as the implementation of reading groups and staged readings during Banned Books Week and on Updike’s birthday. In the photo she’s pictured relaxing after the 3rd conference with keynote speaker Adam Begley, Updike’s biographer.

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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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Museum acquires Clint Shilling sideboard-buffet

The John Updike Childhood Home recently acquired a sideboard that was owned by Clint Shilling (b. 12 January 1885, d. 10 September 1979) , a local artist who lived at 110 Philadelphia Ave., directly across the street from the Updikes, and who gave young John his first art lessons.  It will be displayed in the dining room against the wall where the Updikes’ less detailed sideboard once stood.


The piece came from neighbor Dorothy Huber, a friend of Clint Shilling’s. The grandson of Shillington founder Samuel Shilling, Clint was internationally known as a scenic painter for theater and ballet productions, with restoration another area of specialization—a skill he practiced for many years as artistic director of the Reading Public Museum.

In 1938, when John Updike was five years old, his mother, Linda Updike, arranged art lessons with Shilling. The precocious young Updike would have appreciated the lion’s head carved sideboard that was much more ornate than his own family’s—especially since, according to childhood friend Harlan Boyer, a favorite pastime of the two boys was lining up dominoes on the Updike sideboard and then knocking them down. It is not known how long Updike took art lessons from Shilling, but he was important enough for Updike to mention him by name in his long poem, “Midpoint”:

“Clint Shilling’s drawing lessons: in
the sun he posed an egg on paper, and
said a rainbow ran along the shadow’s rim-

the rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg.
My kindergarten eyes were sorely strained
to see it there. My still-soft head

began to ache, but docilely I feigned
the purple ghosts of green in clumsy wax:
thus was I early trained

and wonder, now, if Clint were orthodox.
He lived above a spikestone-studded wall
and honed his mustache like a tiny ax

and walked a brace of collies down our alley
in Pennsylvania dusk
beside his melodic wife, white-haired and tall.”
-“Midpoint” (1968)

The John Updike Society is grateful to Dorothy Huber for enabling us add a piece of furniture that has connections to Updike and the neighborhood. The acquisition of the Shilling sideboard is in keeping with our mission:  The John Updike Society is dedicated to awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike, promoting literature written by Updike, fostering and encouraging critical responses to Updike’s literary works, and, through The John Updike Childhood Home, preserving the history and telling the story of John Updike’s relationship with Shillington, Pa. and the influence that Berks County had on his literary works.

For a non-inclusive list of items the society is hoping to acquire, see our page on how to donate.

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R.J. Doerr Co. tabbed for historic restoration

Screen-Shot-2014-08-07-at-7.00.33-AMThe John Updike Society board has approved the hiring of R.J. Doerr Co., an Easton, Pennsylvania-based contractor that specializes in historic restorations and home museums. As the Reading Eagle reported, Doerr has “a 25-year history of restoring historic properties for nonprofits, including the home of George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

On Thursday, July 16, Robert Doerr did a walk-through with society president James Plath at The John Updike Childhood Home at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, and the two agreed to a three-phase restoration.

Phase 1, which is projected to be completed by the end of summer 2016, will include all the rooms that have been “deconstructed”—the dining room, living room, parlor, foyer, and all upstairs bedrooms. During this phase, the entire house needs to be rewired and the radiators need to be removed so that a more archivally-friendly forced air system of heating and cooling can be installed.

Phase 2 will include the restoration of the front, side, and second-floor porches.

Phase 3 involves the addition of a grape arbor that was there prior to 1945 when the Updikes moved to Plowville, and the addition of decorative exterior corbels that had been removed to make repainting cheaper/easier. The kitchen and second-floor bathroom will also be upgraded to be period, but functional, during this phase. Below Reading Eagle reporter Bruce Posten (l) questions Robert Doerr for the article as they sit in the “deconstructed” dining room.Windows Phone_20150716_014

The total for the three-phase restoration is expected to be around $300,00 to $350,000, and Plath said he is “currently and always” looking for additional corporate, foundation and individual benefactors. Those who donate $1000 or more of cash or in-kind contributions will have their names on a donor wall inside the house.

Work will begin the end of summer, after Habitat for Humanity of Berks County finishes “tear-out.” Plath estimates that Habitat volunteers saved the society $20-30,000 by scraping wallpaper and removing everything that was added to the house after 1945.

The Reading Eagle has the story; our Facebook page has a contractor’s view walk-through video.

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