Renovations at Old Economy in Ambridge could be completed by October

Bobby Cherry
| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

History is changing every day in front of Sarah Buffington.

As the curator of Old Economy Village, Buffington is getting a firsthand, first-time look inside the walls of one structure at the National Historic Landmark in Ambridge.

“They say history never changes, but what you know about it changes,” Buffington said about restoration work at the George and Frederick Rapp houses, which were finished between 1826 and 1828.

“I'm finding out so much interesting stuff just by walking in here. When you know the house very intimately, you see different things.”

The $1.2 million capital-project allocation of state funds was awarded several years ago. But the project began in 2012, with the bulk of the construction starting in December.

Old Economy was home to the Harmonists, a celibate Christian society that dissolved in 1906. The state acquired the complex in 1916, and opened it to the public in 1919.

Projects at the Rapp houses include repairing plaster walls and ceilings and electrical upgrades, and the houses will receive paint, carpet, window treatments and more reproduced from original artifacts in Old Economy's collection.

The project addresses structural issues with the joined houses.

“We were going to do conservation, but we didn't have enough money for that,” Buffington said. “We're finding stuff all of the time — problems and things we never knew.

“We're trying to save as much as possible in the structure, but when a wall is falling, we need to do the right thing.”

Plans call for the work to be completed by October, museum spokeswoman Mary DeMars said. If the project is completed by then, a grand reopening celebration will be held, and the Rapp homes again will be part of the landmark's Christmas events, she said.

“But there are many things we keep finding out, and we're not sure if it will stall our progress,” Buffington said.

Part of the finds included knowing that Harmonists built a staircase in one room of the George Rapp home. It had been a mystery for Buffington and others, as drawings made before the home was built show a circular staircase in what once was a dining room. It appeared the staircase was removed.

When pieces of the ceiling were removed during work, Buffington confirmed that a staircase once had been part of the structure.

“We've always just wondered,” said Buffington, adding that the staircase likely was removed to bring more light into the room.

While Old Economy has remained open during the work, DeMars and Buffington say visitors have asked when the homes would reopen.

“It's where the wealth of the society is put on display,” DeMars said.

“The rest of the homes are very simple. They lived well for their time period, but here, you have carpets and wallpapers and beautiful decorative arts.”

DeMars said leaders at Old Economy Village will be happy when the project is over, but the knowledge learned during the work has helped to offer a better understanding of the time period the site honors.

“It's fun things like (learning the staircase existed) that keeps history alive,” she said. “Some people say it's dead. We still are discovering new things.”

Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or

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