Custom touches transform Rapp homes at Old Economy Village
After being closed for two years, the George and Frederick Rapp houses at Old Economy Village will reopen Nov. 8 to show visitors a riot of authentic 19th-century color and pattern on the walls and floors.
“We're very, very excited,” says Old Economy Village site administrator Michael Knecht of the reopening of the refurbished homes, closed since December 2012.
“These homes were the center of the Harmony Society,” Knecht says. Whenever dignitaries visited the society, they would have visited these homes, which were considered the seat of the Harmony Society government, Knecht says. The society trustees would have met in the George Rapp parlor.
“It was not just a residence,” Knecht says.
“These houses are a very important part of the (Harmonists') story,” says Sarah Buffington, Old Economy curator. “To have them closed for 2 1⁄2 years was very challenging.”
The two homes of the founder of the Harmony Society, George Rapp, and his adopted son, Frederick, have been undergoing refurbishment and renovation under a $1.2 million grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and a $125,000 grant from the Richard C. Von Hess Foundation of Columbia, Lancaster County. The Von Hess Foundation grant paid for the furnishings plan and some of the wallpapers.
Knecht says the renovations included new plaster and electrical systems, as well as installation of doors in their original locations.
Wooden floors throughout the two homes had been dark, “but they would have had unfinished floors,” Buffington says of the Harmonists. So, in rooms with wooden floors, those floors are now light in tone. Floor cloths will be placed in some of the rooms, such as in the hallways of the two homes.
The project has been a dozen years in the making. Buffington and Gail Caskey Winkler, a design historian from Philadelphia, who began working on the project in 2004, did extensive research into the site archives to find furnishings from the time period of 1828-47. They found scraps of wallpapers, including samples that had been used to cover “band boxes,” cylindrical boxes the Harmonists used to store small items, much as modern residents use baskets and bins today. Other original wallpapers were found behind stairways or radiators during a previous renovation in the 1960s, Buffington says.
The new furnishings, which were custom-made to match the archive samples, “are a pretty accurate view of what the houses looked like during the target dates” of 1828 to 1847, Winkler says. “They were all based on written documents or samples.” Winkler calls the research process “like being a detective.”
The entry hallway in the George Rapp house now has a gray “Ashlar” paper in a rectangular pattern reminiscent of stone blocks. The paper was practical because entries received much use. If an area were damaged, only one rectangle would be needed to replace the damaged area.
Wallpaper stylist and designer Laura McCoy of Laura McCoy Designs re-created the wallpaper. One pattern, a taupe wallpaper depicting fruits, in George Rapp's family sitting room, had to be designed from a 12-by-19-inch sample. McCoy, of Newport, N.H., says the paper was one of her favorites. Another paper in the George Rapp dining room contains 16 colors.
Adelphi Paper Hangers of Sharon Springs, N.Y., reproduced a very unusual paper called a “rainbow” or “irese” paper in a two-phase process. First, the wallpaper was hand-painted in vertical greens that faded into yellows, similar to the blurred colors of a rainbow. Then, the painted papers were hand-blocked with a dark neutral pattern over the painted colors. The rainbow wallpaper hangs in George Rapp's parlor.
“I don't think a better, more accurate rainbow paper has been printed in the last 150 years,” Winkler says.
“It's the most special paper in the house,” McCoy says. “It's very unique.”
Old Economy Village officials say some of the combinations of carpet and wallpaper patterns and colors in the same room might seem unusual to modern-design sensibilities. Borders that did not necessarily coordinate top the upper rims of the papers.
“They did not match things,” Buffington says of the Harmonists. So, a red carpet with dark flowers was laid in a room with blue-patterned acanthus-leaf-patterned wallpaper. The interiors do not necessarily reflect exactly the furnishings that were in those particular rooms, but Winkler says the Rapps would have recognized all of the patterns.
The red carpet was reproduced from a so-called “ingrain” carpet from the 1830s. Buffington says Old Economy archives did not have any original carpets, “though we do have records that they had wall-to-wall carpet in the 1820s and 1830s,” Knecht says. Langhorne Carpet Co. of Penndell, Bucks County, manufactured the floor coverings. The carpets were specially woven to take the punishment of visitors' feet. And because the carpets are worsted wool, they also have been moth-proofed.
Family Heir-Loom Weavers of Red Lion, York County, wove the fabrics used for bed coverings, bed curtains and window valances, using Old Economy's archived textiles as a guide.
Winkler compiled a furnishings plan of each room, detailing where the furniture should be set. About 60 percent to 70 percent of the furniture at Old Economy Village was either made by the Harmonists or bought by them. The rest are antiques from the 19th-century era.
“They have a wonderful collection of great furniture,” McCoy says. “And they're finally being put against the proper backgrounds.”
Sandra Fischione Donavan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.