A historic dedication to Pennsylvania and the opening of his childhood home as a museum.
A modest white house with wooden siding along Philadelphia Avenue in Shillington where John Updike spent most of his childhood is now home to Pennsylvania’s newest historical marker with Saturday’s dedication in the presence of the author’s four children deceased and several of his childhood classmates.
“This house,” Dr. James Schiff, vice president of the John Updike Society, told an audience of about 150 gathered Saturday for the unveiling ceremony of the new museum at 117 Philadelphia Ave, “will complete the writing of ‘Updike and will become a place on the world literary map, like Hemingway’s Home in Key West or Dickens’ Home in London.
The grand opening of the John Updike Childhood Home Museum took place immediately after the dedication ceremony for the new museum founded by the John Updike Society, which has members in 35 states and 17 countries.
Updike, novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic and literary critic, was one of only four writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. He died in 2009 at the age of 77, but his work, including the novel âLapin, coursâ and its sequel, continues to resonate with readers.
âThrough Updike’s writings, the town of Shillington and his life here have been preserved and mythologized,â said Schiff, who lives in Ohio. âIt was a gift for all of us. Shillington resonates with those of us who have read it.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission administers a historical marker program to capture the memory of people, places and events.
The more than 2,600 cast aluminum markers across the state tell the stories of significant people, places and events in the state’s history.
Nominations for historical markers can be submitted by any person or organization, but it is not done, Dr William V. Lewis, commissioner of the museum’s commission, said at the ceremony.
âGetting one of these markers is a huge accomplishment,â he said. âTo put them together, literally, you have to write the equivalent of a master’s thesis and a doctoral thesis. “
The Updike marker was approved in the first round, which rarely happens, Lewis said.
âJohn Update was such an iconic American author,â he said, adding that few American writers would address the richness and depth of his writing.
Fittingly, then, the marker “is the Commonwealth’s perpetual homage to John Updike,” joining such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, historical fiction writer James Michener and “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott, who were all born, raised or worked in Pennsylvania.
Lewis credited the support of local lawmakers, including Senator Judy Schwank and Rep. Mark Gillen, for securing the Updike marker.
The roadside blue and yellow marker and the National Register of Historic Places plaque on the building itself put together an arc on a John Updike Society’s nearly decade-long effort to preserve the childhood home of Updike and turn it into a museum.
“It may not seem like such a difficult task, but the reality is that we were a few English teachers who knew nothing about real estate, architectural preservation, conservation or how to start a museum,” Schiff said.
âWe weren’t a group you’d want to bet on initially,â he said, explaining that a simple decision to host a pizza party for graduate students can turn into a two-hour debate between him and his colleagues.
Fortunately, they were led by James Plath, the president of the company, who lived in a century-old house he had rehabilitated and warned the group that it would take a long time and a lot of collaboration to achieve their goal.
The Updike House was restored by RJ Doerr, who had previously restored the
domicile of one of the signatories of the declaration of independence.
Doerr based his restoration on Updike’s writings, the house’s architectural “footprints”, Updike’s interviews, correspondence with Updike’s friends and family, and comparisons to local period homes. .
The result is a recreation of what the house would have looked like during the years young John Updike lived there, from 1932 to 1945, after which the family moved to Plowville.
Reverend Colleen Cox, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church down the street and daughter of an English teacher, delivered a prayer ahead of the dedication.
âToday we stop to honor and celebrate the life and work of John Updike,â she said. “We are grateful for the stories and books he wrote, for the lives he created, for his ability to take us trip after trip and for his ability, as he put it, to” give to the commonplace what it deserves “.
âAs we take a moment to recognize and celebrate all that John Updike meant to this community and to our world at large, may we be inspired to find ways to give the mundane its due. “
Miranda Updike, the youngest of the author’s four children, said her father would be amazed if a group of fans made such a big effort to preserve her childhood home.
However, she said, he told her family that the 117 Philadelphia Ave. was more than a place to live, this is where the seeds of his creativity were sown and germinated through the relationships and sensibilities he had.
David Silcox, in whose kitchen the John Updike Society was founded, said his lifelong friend didn’t like to be the center of attention.
When Updike visited his friends, he didn’t want anyone to make a big deal out of it.
He once rode a fire engine during the 1976 bicentennial parade in his hometown and told his friends he wanted to hide under the truck.
âBut he never forgot Shillington,â Silcox said. âShillington was his home. This is where the eggs hatched in his handwriting. In fact, he said it like that.