Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

The restored fifth-floor lobby, with reupholstered Savoy chair set, sofa and ottoman. On the right is the original multicolored dividing screen. The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Photo by Don Giles.

October 14, 1964

With the construction of the new William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building (now The State Museum and Archives Complex) in Harrisburg, Dauphin County, PHMC Executive Director S.K. Stevens penned an urgent memo to the commonwealth’s secretary of property and supplies requesting nearly $25,000 worth of “chairs, sofas, and upholstered benches,” as well as numerous “occasional tables, desks, credenzas and a board room table” so that museum and archives staff could occupy the buildings before the end of the year.

Designed by the Harrisburg architectural firm Lawrie & Green, the new complex represented a stylistic departure from traditional repositories of heritage collections – Modernist architecture expressing a futuristic, progressive mode and emphasizing the catchphrase “form follows function.” Interior furnishings and enhancements would need to reflect that timely aesthetic as well.

Furniture manufacturer John Savoy & Son Inc. of Williamsport, Lycoming County, built and supplied the complex’s first sofas, chairs, occasional tables and gallery benches, fulfilling Stevens’ wish to provide new furnishings for the comfort of visitors and staff. John D. Savoy and his son, John A., had been in the home furniture trade since 1946 and, at the time of the complex’s construction, converted to producing product lines solely for the contract furniture market. Savoy Contract Furniture, a trademark of John Savoy & Sons, now operating in Montoursville, Lycoming County, still manufactures furnishings for medical facilities, dormitories and the military.



New PHMC Executive Director James M. Vaughan, a former administrator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, leads commissioners and staff in an organizational vision that includes a renewed appreciation for The State Museum and Archives Complex and preservation of its original design, with the intention of nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places. Looking ahead to the complex’s 50th anniversary in 2015, he sets as a priority the refurbishment of the interiors and exteriors through a variety of efforts ranging from simple cleaning of surfaces and restoration of original wood paneling to refurnishing the galleries and spaces with period furniture.

PHMC Executive Director James Vaughan on cushions produced by East Penn Upholstery to replicate original seating in the foyer to the Auditorium.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Photo by Beth Hager

By 2012 various pieces of sturdy, clean-lined Midcentury Modern furniture from John Savoy & Son had been scattered throughout the complex, with much of it battered and broken after nearly 50 years of hard use by thousands of visitors and multiple staff members. Some pieces were hidden in plain sight: a sleek turquoise sofa and matching ottoman, removed from the fifth-floor lobby, were found in a tiny, dark staff lounge; dozens of vinyl-upholstered benches that once furnished the wide galleries were stacked high behind the formidable walls of the extensive 1970s Ecology Hall exhibition on the museum’s third floor. Other pieces, faded and stained, were still in use, but were forgotten or regarded as backstage eyesores. Because the furniture was of a type commonly used throughout state government buildings and in later years was considered out of style, some pieces suffered a worse fate: banishment to state surplus.

Concurrent with the search for original furnishings, the rehabilitation of interior spaces turned up some interesting details, also long forgotten. While reviewing original drawings and plans for the complex, PHMC architect Andrea Lowery identified the building designers’ intended color scheme and learned that vivid tones had once adorned doors, office walls and furnishings, and no doubt also informed the palette for the panoramic Vincent Maragliotti mural of Pennsylvania history, The Vision of William Penn, which frames Memorial Hall. Featuring complementary tones characteristic of Midcentury Modern architecture, a trio of coral, slate blue and yellow dominated a set of hues chosen for the complex that were based on Federal Standard 595C, a pre-Pantone color guide developed by the United States government in the 1950s for standardization of procurement. This revelation enabled staff to exactly match the colors and begin a program of repainting and reupholstering to revive the interior’s original look.

A popular mid-20th-century chair design from Savoy & Son.

A popular mid-20th-century chair design from Savoy & Son. Savoy Contract Furniture

With the goal of restoring places of rest and contemplation in the galleries for visitors, staff gathered original Savoy & Son furnishings from their disparate landing places to be inventoried and prepared for refurbishment. Harrisburg-area upholsterer Neil Choquette rehabilitated a first set of a dozen benches for galleries and hallways, recovering them in a vinyl consistent with the building’s original color palette while renewing the pieces’ original handsome walnut legs and trims. A second phase was begun through the Philadelphia-based Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts, working with East Penn Upholstery in Emmaus, Lehigh County. East Penn is helmed by Dave Erbe, a furniture maker and upholsterer who trained and worked for a number of years in the 1960s and ’70s at the internationally known Modernist furniture design company Knoll in East Greenville, Montgomery County. Erbe and his team were enlisted to reconstruct The State Museum’s many precise and loose cushions for built-in seating features in Memorial Hall and the foyer of the Auditorium, as well as to reupholster and renew a number of original Savoy & Son chairs and sofas for galleries and the fifth-floor administrative lobby.

The effort to renew period furnishings for The State Museum and Archives Complex has proven to be timely. The return of Midcentury Modern motifs in popular culture today coincides with the complex’s 2014 listing in the National Register of Historic Places and its 50-year milestone. The refreshing of select spaces in time for this anniversary has resulted in stylish and engaging interiors that Mad Men’s lead character Don Draper or PHMC’s pioneering S.K. Stevens would certainly recognize.


Beth Hager is PHMC’s director of strategic initiatives and has coordinated the anniversary furnishings project at The State Museum and Archives Complex.