Pennsylvania: Unlocking the Keystone state’s antiques and vintage finds

By Susan Eberman – For Antique Trader

American history comes alive in Philadelphia, thanks to historic preservation and 21st-century technology. Begin your tour at the Independence Visitor Center as early in the morning as possible. That’s because free tickets to see Independence Hall are issued here on a first-come, first-served basis and they’re usually gone before noon. This center also provides detailed information about more than 4,000 area attractions.

The City of Philadelphia purchased Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1816. The purchase price was $70,000. Completed in 1753, Independence Hall displays original copies of both the U. S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Opened in 2003, nearby Liberty Bell Center uses interactive displays to explore fact and fiction about the famous bell.

Home of America’s most famous flag maker, the Betsy Ross House is where the Quaker seamstress, under commission of President George Washington, is believed to have sewn the first American flag, in 1777. Also opened in 2003, the National Constitution Center has more than 100 multimedia displays to explore the four-page document on which America was founded. Walk among life-size bronze sculptures of the 39 signers, don a judicial robe and render your opinion on key Supreme Court cases, take the presidential oath of office, and e-mail your Congressperson from the Citizens Cafe. And the short performance of We the People by a live actor is a must-see.

Noteworthy specialized museums include the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Fireman’s Hall Museum, American Swedish Historical Museum, Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum of Philadelphia, Mutter Museum of Medicine, Rodin Museum, Independence Seaport Museum, National Museum of American Jewish History, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Polish American Cultural Center Museum and University of Pa. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
During the Battle of Gettysburg in1863, Union troops successfully turned back General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army. More than 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during this bloodiest battle in America history. Today the Gettysburg National Military Park has nearly 6,000 acres with 30 miles of roads and 1,400 monuments, markers and memorials, making it one of the world’s largest collections of outdoor sculpture. The Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg contains more than 7,000 interments, with half from the Civil War. This is also the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, which he delivered during the dedication ceremonies in 1863. The Visitors Center is the orientation point for an18-mile driving tour or a one-mile walking tour through the battlefield.

The Eisenhower National Historic Site is the farm purchased in 1950 by General and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower a few years before he became the 34th president. When they lived in the White House, this country estate was a weekend retreat and a meeting place for world leaders. During the 1960s, this farmhouse was their home during an active retirement. Visitors today can see original furnishings.

Located near the western boundary with Ohio where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet and form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh has 723 bridges. (Venice, Italy, is the only city with more.)  The rivers form a Y, with the fork pointing east. Pittsburgh’s downtown business area, the Golden Triangle, is in the fork of the Y.

Pennsylvania’s largest history museum, The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, operates in association with the Smithsonian Institution. After completing a major addition in 2004, the facility now has 200,000 square feet on five floors filled with state of the art displays about 250 years of Pennsylvania history. Before it was known for steel, Pittsburgh was America’s Glass City, producing glass for White House tableware, the walls of New York City’s great tunnels and searchlights at the Panama Canal. A permanent exhibit illuminates the beauty, science, utility and technology of western Pennsylvania glass. Learn about the H.J. Heinz Co. as you relish exhibits in the Heinz 57 exhibit area. Explore a 1790s log cabin; uncover the myths about the Underground Railroad and climb aboard a 1940s trolley. Other museums popular with visitors include the Frick Art and Historical Center, the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art and George Westinghouse Museum.

Harvard graduate and millionaire Henry C. Mercer constructed three extraordinary buildings in his hometown. Without the help of an architect, he designed the interior rooms and then planned the exteriors to accommodate them. His home, Fonthill, was completed in 1912. This concrete castle has 44 rooms and 18 fireplaces decorated with thousands of tiles Mercer designed. His collection of more than 1,000 foreign tiles includes Babylonian tablets, ancient Chinese roof tiles and 300 Delft tiles. His 600+ piece pottery collection includes pre-dynastic Nubian ware, majolica, German salt-glazed ware, Pennsylvania slipware and Mercer’s own ceramic wares. Other collections include lighting devices, early pewter, 150 Windsor-style chairs and early Pennsylvania furniture.

The Mercer Museum contains more than 50,000 tools and artifacts gathered by Mercer, a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement. This seven-story concrete National Historic Landmark with unusual towers and gables contains items from more than 60 early American trades, including woodworking, metalworking, agriculture, textile and husbandry. Mercer established the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in 1898 and worked there until his death in 1930. The main building, built in 1911, is an adaptation of a California Mission church, partly because Mercer believed good art came from religious faith. A variety of tiles depicting nature are set in both interior and exterior walls. The self-guided tour begins with a short video about Mercer and the tile making. The rest of the tour reveals tile installations and exhibits, tool and machinery displays, the building’s architectural features and live demonstrations of tile making. A special commemorative tile is currently being sold to raise funds for building renovations.

The James A. Michener Art Museum honors another Doylestown native son. Located in a renovated 19th- century jail, it includes a replica of the Bucks County office where he wrote South Pacific.

Frank Lloyd Wright
The master architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed Kentuck Knob in the town of Chalk Hill in 1953. This home is built entirely of tidewater red cypress and native fieldstone with a copper roof. It is furnished with contemporary sculpture, ancient artifacts and historical items collected by its present owners.
Located right over a waterfall, Fallingwater in Mill Run is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright house with its natural setting, original furnishings and artwork intact. Wright’s most widely acclaimed work, it was designed in 1936 for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann and entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963. In addition to world-renowned architecture, visitors can view decorative arts, textiles and home furnishings collected through the world travels of the Kaufmann family from the 1930s through the 1960s. Tours require a lot of walking and step climbing.

Pennsylvania Dutch
The Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t Dutch at all; they’re German. It is believed that this name was created when early colonists mispronounced Pennsylvania “Deutsch.” Promised religious freedom by William Penn, large groups of Amish and Mennonites moved from Germany and Switzerland to what is now Lancaster, Pa., during the late-17th and early-18th centuries. Today this area is a popular tourist attraction, as thousands flock to see the lifestyle of about 20,000 Amish residents. Even in the 21st century, the Old Order Amish males wear dark suits topped with broad-brimmed hats while the females are attired in modest dresses. Many Amish families have stores offering a variety of items ranging from home-baked pies to quilts. Look for homemade signs posted outside of farmhouses. This informal exchange is a good way to have direct contact with the Amish. Just remember the Amish are not costumed interpreters, and their religious beliefs do not permit them to be photographed. And watch out for horses and buggies.

These early Pennsylvania Germans adapted to their new homes while preserving much of their heritage, especially their craft techniques. Today’s collectors value their works for their high quality of workmanship and the colorful designs in wood and textile crafts.

These emigrants were mostly poor and arrived with few possessions. Therefore, they had to make what they needed. Instead of copying the ornate mahogany furniture being made in Philadelphia, these craftsmen made everyday chairs, tables and chests out of soft woods, such as pine and poplar. They were then coated with bright paint and fantastic ornamentation. Their artistry incorporated tulips and other flowers, angels, hearts, stars, peacocks, blockhouses, fruit and geometrically shaped signs known as “hexafus.”

The women were responsible for making coverlets and quilts. Many early textiles are in surprisingly good condition thanks to the tender, loving care they received. But since demand far exceeds the supply, prices remain high. Painted tin, or toleware, is another popular collectible that was once a necessity. Collectors and decorators prize painted trays with curved Chippendale-style edges. Popular designs include birds and flowers. Coffee pots were usually black or black-brown with round flowers.