Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

As Pennsylvania’s State Capitol marks its one hundredth anniversary this year, institutions and individuals throughout the Commonwealth are showcasing their treasures associated with the building (see “Through the Halls of History with Ruthann Hubbert-Kemper, Keeper of the Capitol” by Michael J. O’Malley III). Collectors are seeking out early twentieth-century souvenirs and mementos, such as commemorative china plates (mostly made in England and Germany), silver souvenir spoons, postcards, newspaper articles featuring construction and dedication articles, mugs, medals, and ribbons. On online auction sites, Capitol-related objects and artifacts change hands swiftly, many of them commanding premium, unprecedented prices.

Among important pieces held by the Keystone State’s historical organizations and institutions is a presentation key to the State Capitol commissioned by its architect, Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940), of Philadelphia, who gave it, in 1907, to Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker (1843-1916), governor of the Keystone State from January 20, 1903, to January 15, 1907. The key, with its original box, and a personal letter from Huston to Pennypacker was recently returned to Pennypacker Mills, Schwenksville, Montgomery County, his residence during and after his term of office.

Engraved JOSEPH M. HUSTON / ARCHITECT / TO / SAMUEL W. PENNYPACKER / COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA and on the reverse KEY OF THE CAPITOL / OF/ COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, the key is fitted in a velvet-lined presentation box, which bears a medallion inscribed with KEY OF COMMONWEALTH / OF / PENNSYLVANIA / PRESENTED TO / SAMUEL W. PENNYPACKER / GOVERNOR OF PENNSYLVANIA / BY / JOSEPH M. HUSTON / ARCHITECT. The letter from the architect to the governor is dated January 7, 1907.

“Before the dedication of the new Capitol Oct. 4th. 1906,” Huston wrote, “I had made on my own account and paid for myself, the golden key, and had it placed in a box, keystone in shape, which was intended by me to be a symbol of transfer of the Building. This was a matter of sentiment on my part. It was my intention then and is now to present this to you as a token of my esteem and hope you will accept it to be a small part of a valuable collection of souvenirs.” Four days before he left office, Pennypacker formally thanked Huston. “I accept the key, which you have been good enough to present to me because of my association with the Capitol at the time of its completion and dedication, and I shall take care that it be preserved and cherished as a memento of the most excellent work of its kind which has ever been done within the Commonwealth or upon the Continent.”

The key was returned to Pennypacker Mills in 2001, the gift of a caretaker employed by the last family member to own Pennypacker Mills, Margaret Pennypacker (1906-1980), who had given it to the individual. The key is included in an exhibition in the rotunda of the State Capitol on view through December 2006.

An avid book collector, Pennypacker assembled a large library and also acquired thousands of manuscripts, personal and family mementos, keepsakes, and antiques. He also wrote about individuals and events in local and regional history. After visiting the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, he compiled a scrapbook, now safeguarded by the State Library of Pennsylvania (see “Library of the Founding Fathers: The Rare Books Collections of the State Library of Pennsylvania” by Susan K. Solarczyk.)


Karl Klase is the assistant administrator of Pennypacker Mills.