Berks groups work to transform Updike childhood Shillington home to museum

File photo John Updike's childhood home in Shillington.

As a way to preserve the arts, remember a local author and establish his former residence as a museum, The John Updike Society and Habitat for Humanity of Berks County have teamed together to preserve John Updike’s childhood home in Shillington.

Updike, one of the great American authors, lived in the home located at 117 Philadelphia Ave. from his birth until he was age 13. The location is en route to becoming a museum, and close recreation of the Updike residence.

The home has had other occupants since the Updikes resided there, but the dedicated fans of his writing are in process to preserve the memories and revert the details to mirror their style. In efforts to encourage students to study the Pulitzer-prize winner’s work, and promote his literary contributions, the society is transforming the house back to the look of the author’s childhood home. The Shillington born author may best be known for his novel Rabbit, Run but is also well-known for his short story, “A&P,” which is often a required read in many high school English classes. The John Updike Society is spearheading the renovations, with plans to have the majority complete in time for The John Updike Society Conference, which will be held in Reading in October. Currently, Berks Habitat for Humanity is stripping the home of the changes that have been made throughout the years by the more recent owners. This is the first step in restoring the home to when the Updikes resided there.

“There’s an importance of giving back,” Tim Daley, executive director for Berks Habitat, said. Daley expressed that the volunteers want to become more engaged in community projects. The Updikes’ home was painted white, with green trim around the windows and doors. The new coat of paint has already been applied to the outside of the home. “We want to get it back to what the house might have looked like when Updike was living there,” James Plath, president of The John Updike Society, said. Plath is a Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University; the board consists of professors from across the country; members include James Schiff, Jack De Bellis, Marshall Boswell, Peter J. Bailey, Sylvie Mathé, and Don Greiner. As a dedicated fan of literature, Plath completed his dissertation on Updike’s work. Plath credits Updike for his experimental writing style, which, he says, often gets overlooked by academia. “Certainly in Updike’s career he’s proven [his] ‘willingness to swim against the flow,’” Plath said.

Curator Maria Mogford exposes her students to Updike in her English courses at Albright College. Most high schools steer away from having their students read him at an early age, but Mogford sees value in exposing high-school aged students to his work. Both Mogford and Plath bring personal experience with the author to the transformation of the home. Mogford was been in correspondence with Updike in the later years of his life, and is still in contact with his children; Updike passed away in 2009.

As a college professor, Mogford brings her students to the residence , and will encourage that of other teachers in the area when the renovations are complete. The society is currently looking for donors for the reconstruction process.

“We estimate that the total cost of renovation will be in the neighborhood of $300,000 over time,” he said. But thanks to the volunteer efforts of Berks Habitat, who have saved the society around $30 - $40,000 in expenses. “The driving force of the deconstruction is Habitat For Humanity of Berks County,” Plath said. “Without that kind of help, there would be no restoration effort.”

The Updikes were integrated into the community as Updike’s father taught science at the Shillington High School, which is now the Governor Mifflin School District. His mother wished to be a successful writer, but her son’s success far surpassed her own. “My mother used to have dreams about being a writer and I used to watch her,” Updike has been quoted as saying. With the museum-to-be, fans of the author will be offered the opportunity to tour the home he grew up in and where the inspiration for his writing began, where he grew up and watched his mother write. Numerous stories have been inspired by the house and childhood. The City of Reading and outlying areas, such as Shillington, are revealed through the written word in many of his works. For example, in his novel Rabbit, Run, the character of Rabbit lives in Brewer, Updike’s literary reference to Reading.

If you are a familiar with the area, the author paints a clear picture of the neighborhoods and landscape, and references nearby towns, such as Pottstown. The fiction tale reveals great detail of the houses stacked houses that line the hill in Brewer. Samuel Shilling’s son was the first occupant of the residence. (Samuel Shilling is the man for which Shillington was named.)

Original deeds of the farm-type style home indicate that it was built around between the years of 1860 - 1880.

The Updikes moved to the Shillington location in 1920; John was born in 1932 and lived at the home until his family moved to Plowville in 1945. The couple who moved into the home after the Updikes, Dr. and Mrs. Hunter, added the addition to the home during their time in residence.

The society strives to preserve Updike’s history. The renovations of the home are only possible through volunteer efforts and monetary support from smaller funders, the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation and the PECO Foundation. Renovations will take the museum-goers back to experience an inside look into a writer’s experience of upbringing. “When we see a hedge surrounding the property, we’re returning to that hedge,” he said. On the porch on the side of the home, the Updikes had a grape arbor, which the society also plans to replicate. Chestnut trees previously were on the property on the corner, but they do not expect to get the city’s permission.

“It’s not going to happen instantly, but down the road,” Plath stated. A living remnant of Updike is in the side yard, a dogwood tree planted by Mr. and Mrs. Updike on their son’s first birthday. John’s dogwood tree (which usually live 40 years) is still flowering, and is 82-years-old March 18, 2014.

Inside the home, Habitat volunteers are stripping the home of changes. In the deconstruction process, volunteers have uncovered pencil drawings on the walls, one of which is a large rifle. “It has been known that Updike did draw on the walls,” Mogford said during a tour. Mogford said the Hunter’s have debunked the rifle drawing as Updike’s, but numerous pencil drawings have been found under wallpaper in various locations throughout the house.

Albright College donated wooden bleachers from their athletic center which were upcycled by Habitat volunteers. With the wood, a recreation of the original window frames was possible. “We have a group of retired men who work in a wood shop who have, from scratch, rebuilt the 100-year-old windows,” Daley said. “We want to keep the integrity of the architecture.” The society is looking for Tiffany lamp for the dining room.

There are plans in place for Dr. Hunter’s office space to be converted to a gift shop for the museum. The former patient rooms will be rented out as office space to keep the building active and in use. In the upstairs of the home, rooms inside rooms lead you to the bedroom Updike occupied. Discussions about utilizing the space as a writer’s retreat, or space for student’s to work have been considered.

“We’ll see what the community interests and needs are and try to take our cue from that,” Plath explained.

The society is encouraging and inviting the community to provide their feedback in how they want to recognize Updike’s contribution to literature.

To contact the society, visit them online at http://blogs.iwu.edu/johnupdikesociety/.

About the Author

Emily Thiel

Emily Thiel is the editor of The Southern Berks News and is the Community Engagement Editor for Berks-Mont Newspapers. Emily joined Berks-Mont in March 2013. She graduated from Kutztown University in 2011 with a degree in English with a concentration in Cultural and Media Studies. Emily is a native of Allentown, Pa. Reach the author at ethiel@berksmontnews.com or follow Emily on Twitter: @sthrnberksnews.