PA German Cultural Heritage Center in the News - June 2008
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center recently received Pennsylvania German paintings taken from a home in Lehigh County.
The National Barn Alliance and the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, a Berks County preservationist group, sponsored a gathering that drew about 100 barn preservationists from around the country to KU.
Spring 2008 - Patrick Donmoyer receives Albert T. and Elizabeth R. Gamon Scholarship
6/22/2008 Reading Eagle
By Ron Devlin Reading Eagle
Mary Kathryn Sodaitis grew up in a house full of animals.
There were swans in the living room, raccoons in the kitchen and whitetail deer near the fireplace.
They animals weren't real, of course.
They were just inhabitants of wildlife scenes painted on the wood-paneled walls of her childhood home in Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County.
But the odd assemblage of critters had a profound effect on Sodaitis, who lived in the house until she was 21 and had graduated from Kutztown University.
"As a youngster, living in that house, I learned to love animals and art," said Sodaitis, 63, a retired teacher in the Brandywine Heights School District.
So, it was with particular reverence that Sodaitis went about preserving the paintings, believed to have been painted in the 1880s by an itinerant Pennsylvania German artist.
Though it took the better part of a decade, she finally found them a home in the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
In January, a team of preservationists removed the paintings from the old house near New Smithville and placed them in storage at the university.
Robert Reynolds, director of the heritage center, said it was a delicate undertaking.
The paintings were on wainscotting, a tongue-and-groove paneling, which easily could break apart at the seams.
The panels, some as large as 4 feet by 8 feet, had to be shored up from the back so they would remain intact as they were removed.
"It was challenging," said Reynolds, a noted historic preservationist. "We had to rip out the walls without damaging the paintings."
The paintings are particularly noteworthy, Reynolds said, because they represent Pennsylvania German folk art from the late 19th century. Most Pennsylvania German folk art collections, he said, focus on 18th and early 19th century.
"These paintings are important," Reynolds said, "because nobody is preserving artifacts from their era."
Sodaitis' research indicated the Rev. John Helfrich built the 2 12-story wood frame house along an old Indian trail around 1818. He was pastor of Ziegel's Union Church, Breinigsville, as well as a veterinarian of some repute.
It wasn't until the late Victorian era, when the house was about 70 years old, that the paintings were added during a major renovation.
Other than some fine cracks, Reynolds said, the paintings have aged remarkably well.
The paint is being analyzed to determine its age, which would be useful in more accurately dating the paintings.
An old sign found in the house - "Rooms for Tenants: Light Lunch" - suggests it may have been a boarding house once.
It also may have been a hunting cabin. Among the items retrieved was a gun cabinet adorned with hand-painted game animals.
Sodaitis' connection to the house starts with her grandfather, Dr. George Benjamin Bleiler, who bought it in 1932. He passed it on to his son, Dr. Russel Schaeffer Bleiler, Sodaitis' father. The Bleilers were dentists in Allentown.
Sodaitis's mother, Anna Wagner Bleiler, lived in the house until the mid-1980s. After that, she kept it as a summer home.
After her mother died in 2001, Sodaitis decided to sell the house.
The sale, though, would be subject to one condition - the paintings must be preserved.
"My mother insisted they had to be saved," said Sodaitis, who lives on a farm in Mertztown. "She wanted them to stay in the area where they were painted."
The paintings were offered to the Allentown Art Museum and the Historical Society of Lehigh County, but neither expressed interest.
After reading about the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in a Kutztown alumni newsletter, Sodaitis approached Reynolds about including the paintings in the center's folk art collection.
Sodaitis offered to donate the paintings if the center would pay to remove them from the house and promise that they would eventually be put on display.
Reynolds agreed and, though it took two years, the paintings were finally removed in January.
The plan is to make the paintings the centerpiece of a Pennsylvania German Folk Art Center at the university.
Sodaitis sold the house to Hillwood Development, a Texas real estate company with ties to H. Ross Perot, in January. It is to be razed to make way for industrial development.
In the storage facility at Kutztown, standing next to an 8-foot-tall painting of raccoons that once was in her mother's kitchen, Sodaitis said she was elated that the paintings found a home at Kutztown University.
After all, it is her alma mater.
It's also where she met her husband, Robert N. Sodaitis, a retired English teacher.
Her mother, too, would be proud.
For the more than 60 years she lived in the house, Anna Wagner Bleiler steadfastly defended the paintings.
She refused purchase offers for the house because she feared the paintings would be in jeopardy. To some, Anna had become "the old lady with the paintings."
"My mother felt they were one of a kind and they shouldn't be lost," Sodaitis said. "She's probably jumping around up there and saying, 'I knew you could do it.' "
Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
KUTZTOWN, Pa. — “I never thought I would be standing in the same room with three of the earliest and best barn research guys around,” said Greg Huber, master of ceremonies at a special tribute dinner for pioneers of barn research.
Huber was referring to John Heyl, Joseph Glass and Robert Ensminger, all regarded as experts on the Pennsylvania German barn and together represent three generations of historic barn research and documentation.
The tribute during the Pennsylvania Barns Conference here at Kutztown University last week gave conference attendees an opportunity to express appreciation to the honorees and ask questions regarding their research and experiences.
Renowned architect John Heyl, who is 102 years old and a native of Lehigh County, traveled from his home in Maine to share insights into experiences from his involvement in preserving barns and other historic buildings.
“Barns in this area are different than barns elsewhere. Their size is fascinating,” said Heyl, who in 1956 wrote “The Pennsylvania German Barn,” considered the first scholarly attempt to delineate the various types of Pennsylvania barns. The Pennsylvania barn, described as a bank barn with a forebay overhang, is unique to southeastern Pennsylvania.
Heyl, who has an excellent memory, shared experiences from his life during the early part of the 20th century and offered advice to young barn enthusiasts: “Develop a good sense of observation and memory and learn to recognize the differences between different barns.”
As an architect, Heyl restored many historic buildings and helped with the restoration work at The Ephrata Cloister.
Retired Kutztown University professor Robert Ensminger, author of “The Pennsylvania Barn,” became interested in barns during the 1970s.
“Since the Pennsylvania barn originated in Switzerland, I decided to travel there and see what I can find,” said Ensminger. “You have to go to the right place in Switzerland to see bank barns because they are not everywhere. However, in some areas there are lots of beautiful old bank barns.”
Ensminger, who expressed awe at the skills Europeans used to build barns that have stood for 500 years, traveled to Switzerland on two occasions, once in 1975 and again in 1978.
When offering advice to barn enthusiasts attending the tribute dinner, Ensminger said, “Do your research, record, compile information, and learn to communicate well with people. Once you fall in love with barns, you are gone.”
Dr. Joseph Glass, retired Millersville University professor, is author of “A View from the Barn,” written in 1986 as a revision of his doctoral dissertation. Glass studied more than 500 barns and developed an evaluation point system.
“When people came here to America, they only knew what they knew back home,” said Glass. “In southeastern Pennsylvania, people were invited here by William Penn and they became neighbors to many different people from all over Europe. Even though they tried to keep their old ways, the ‘melting pot’ brought a lot of change.”
Glass instructed young barn enthusiasts to become observant when studying old barns, adding, “Barn construction shows the conservative nature of the people who settled this part of Pennsylvania.”
The three-day Pennsylvania Barn Conference, co-hosted by The Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania and the National Barn Alliance, brought together barn preservationists and enthusiasts from around the country interested in raising awareness for the need to preserve historic barns. In addition to the tribute dinner, a number of seminars, workshops and lectures filled the event. The conference concluded with a tour of historic barns in the Oley Valley area of Berks County.
6/7/2008 By Ron Devlin
In the evening sun Friday, sitting on a log bench outside a 130-year-old
barn in Kutztown, John K. Heyl allowed his mind to drift into Berks County's
Updated: November 24, 2009
Heyl, an architect who wrote "The Pennsylvania Barn" in 1956, noted that the structure of the traditional Pennsylvania barn traces its origins to medieval Europe.
German immigrants brought the methods to America in the early 1700s, Heyl noted, and built barns by hand from oak and limestone indigenous to Berks County.
"You can bet a lot of neighbors helped put this barn together," Heyl said of the barn at the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.
Heyl was a featured speaker at a national conference on barn preservation that met Friday in KU's Student Union Building.
The National Barn Alliance and the Historic Barn and Farm Foundation of Pennsylvania, a Berks County preservationist group, sponsored the gathering that drew about 100 barn preservationists from around the country.
The conference concludes today with a tour of barns in the Oley Valley, one of the richest repositories of historic barns in America.
Heyl, who's 102, came from his home in Maine to join Robert F. Ensminger and Joseph W. Glass, both recognized experts on Pennsylvania barns.
Like old-timers meeting at a Grange hall, the Big Three of barn preservation sat and chatted about Pennsylvania German culture and the importance of preserving barns.
"We're preserving lighthouses, covered bridges and old mills," said Glass, 78, a retired Millersville University professor. "Barns should fall into the same category."
Ensminger, 81, a retired Kutztown University professor, said barns are one of the most enduring symbols of Pennsylvania German culture.
"They played a major role in our agricultural history," Ensminger said. "And they need to be preserved."
Sheila Miller, president of the barn foundation, called upon state and federal legislators to develop programs that would help preserve historic barns.
Proposed federal legislation contains a matching-funds program to aid barn preservation. And in Harrisburg, a House bill would develop a grant program patterned after one in Washington state. Neither measure has been adopted.
Miller, also Berks County's agricultural coordinator, said barns are as important to the region's character as castles are to Europe.
"Kids in Europe can walk past castles that are 500 years old," said Miller, a former Republican state representative from Tulpehocken Township. "Our barns are our castles."
The barn foundation is developing a program that, through private contributions, would subsidize repairs to barns.
Robert W. Reynolds, a board member, said the foundation is working to help pay for $25,000 of roofing needed on one deteriorating barn.
"Once the roof goes," said Reynolds, director of the cultural heritage center, "that's the beginning of the end of a barn."
Hours of Operation
Monday - Friday
10:00am - 12:00pm
1:00pm - 4:00pm
Tours by Appointment
Contact us at (610)683-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: November 24, 2009 paf