Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

Extreme might be a hyperbole but the current restoration of the interior of the Rapp House at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, is a significant undertaking nevertheless. The project will provide a substantive update to the initial restoration work in the 1960s.

Old Economy Village presents the remarkable story of the Harmony Society, a Christian communal group with roots in what is now Germany. Economy (originally Oekonomie) was the group’s third and final home. The Harmonists settled first in Harmony, Butler County, Pennsylvania and then in New Harmony, Indiana, before returning to Pennsylvania in 1824 to settle on the Ohio River. The celibate community thrived during much of the nineteenth century, accumulating wealth through agriculture, textile production, winemaking, and investments in railroads and the oil industry. They supported themselves, their hired workers, and many charitable causes. They also stored funds in vaults on the site for the second coming of the Messiah. By 1892 the society – and what few members remained – and its assets were caught up in a complex series of complicated legal battles that were not fully resolved until the twentieth century.

In 1916 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired six acres of the heart of the community, and in 1919 Old Economy Village opened to the public. The historic site, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in partnership with the Friends of Old Economy Village, is a fraction of the original 3,000-acre settlement, although many buildings survive in private ownership in the surrounding historic district. Visit the Old Economy Village website for a thorough account of the historic site and a bibliography for those wishing to delve further into this fascinating destination along PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of History.

Society founder George Rapp (1757-1847) and his adopted son Frederick (1775-1834) oversaw the community’s religious and business activities during the first half of the nineteenth century. The adjoining houses built for them in Economy were points of contact for visitors who traveled expressly to meet with either or both men to learn about the society’s religious beliefs and prosperity. George Rapp’s grand-daughter Gertrude Rapp (1808-1889) also lived in his house which continued to serve as an informal headquarters for the society, even after his death.

The current project to revise selected finishes and furnishings of the Rapp House complex and restore others, pulls together years of research and study by PHMC professionals and consultants, scholars, and experts. The original interior restoration work was undertaken by brothers Charles M. and Edward Stotz Jr. Charles is generally known as one of the first architects to “do” historic restoration work and was involved at other PHMC sites, including Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh, and Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Venango County. At the time the field of historic preservation was in its infancy and some of the decisions made during the Rapp House restoration, such as replacing the wooden floors on the first floor, removed physical evidence that we now have many tools to analyze. We live and we learn.

A Historic Structures Report (HSR) prepared in 1990 by Mariana Thomas Architects and the Clio Group Inc. analyzed and documented original paint colors and the physical alterations made to the houses during the society’s post-Rapp period and during later restorations. In 2003 a grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation enabled Old Economy to engage decorative arts historian Gail Caskey Winkler to prepare a Historic Furnishings Plan. (A note worth mentioning: funding from the von Hess Foundation supported PHMC’s Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum’s exhibit on the Lancaster Long Rifle, on view through June 10 [2013].)

Winkler drew on a number of sources to create room-by-room recommendations for changes to the Rapp House interiors. The HSR, supplemented with additional analysis by John Milner FAIA, helped create a basis for the physical arrangement of the rooms; for example, walls and doorways had been changed and re-changed. Paint analysis and study of wallpaper fragments prompted a new look at the color schemes of stair halls, hallways, and parlors. Raymond V. Shepherd Jr, site director and later site historian, had transcribed many Harmony Society records documenting business transactions and purchases of furnishings, carpets, and wallpapers. Much of Winkler’s extensive report involved referring to the documentary research in concert with existing physical evidence. For example, coupling records of wallpaper purchases with fragments discovered in the Rapps’ residences and on a number of bandboxes that had wallpaper fragments applied to interior and exterior surfaces confirmed the papers had been purchased for use and not solely for resale by the Harmonists.

In addition to site-specific research Winkler relied on descriptions of the dwellings by nineteenth-century visitors and reviewed the collections with Old Economy’s staff, including former site director Mary Ann Landis, former curator Eric Castle, and current staff including curator Sarah Buffington and assistant curator Dodie Robbins. Winkler, a Fellow of the American Society of Interior Designers, brought to bear her considerable knowledge of late eighteenth- and nineteenth century interior design. Since the physical evidence proved the Rapp House interiors included fashionable wallpapers, she consulted paintings and depictions of circa 1830s-1850s interiors to inform her recommendations for reproduction papers, floor coverings, furnishings, and textiles.

Winkler’s report, together with previous research efforts, provided PHMC a great deal of information on which to base the ongoing restoration project. Not all recommendations in the report will be implemented, and staff members continue research to support decision-making. Ultimately this work will provide visitors to Old Economy a more accurate view of this historically and culturally significant space.

In December 2012 the Rapp Houses closed to the public (although the rest of the site is open for tours) and staff began to prepare for the work. Collections that could be moved have been cleaned, wrapped, and placed in storage to make way for papering, painting, and carpeting. Christ Healing the Sick, a large painting by Bass Otis (1784-1861) based on Benjamin West’s original, presented a weighty problem. The 400-pound painting is too large to be stored anywhere else on site, and it has been removed from the wall by curators and conservators, crated for its own safety, and stored in the house.

Fingers are crossed the restoration of the Rapp House interiors will be completed this summer. Please visit Old Economy Village’s website, for project updates. We also intend to periodically provide sneak peeks on the progress in the weekly Trailheads blog.

 

The author acknowledges the work of many hands in compiling the research from which this article is drawn but takes responsibility for any and all inaccuracies and omissions. Special thanks go to Old Economy Curator Sarah Buffington for providing a copy of the historic furnishings study, which was particularly useful and fascinating to read.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator based in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums, supporting education, interpretation, and communications efforts bureau-wide and at individual historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History. She writes an informative weekly blog entitled Trailheads.