The large house or mansion which we know today as the Rapp House is actually not one but two houses. The first was completed in January 1826 for Harmony Society founder and leader George Rapp. The second was built in 1828 and attached to the first for George’s adopted son Frederick Rapp. The houses have had several names over the years, including President’s House and Trustee’s House. John Duss, who lived there as a child and later as a grown man coined the name Great House, which is how some still refer to it today. As new visitors to the houses traverse through the many rooms, the building seems endless. Soon it will be a little more obvious that the building is actually two houses, as it was originally intended. The Rapp Houses may have a long history during the Harmonist time period, but they also have a long history of restoration too.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania formally acquired the property known as Old Economy Village in 1916 through an escheat proceeding. The following year the Harmony Society Historical Association formed to administer and take care of the property for the Commonwealth. Their immediate concern was to repair the buildings, restore the garden, and refurnish the Great House, after which they could open the site to the public. Developing funding to do this was a very difficult task, and sometimes members took money out of their own pockets just to keep the rain from getting into the buildings. To raise money, they rented out some of the buildings and used some as storage space. John and Susie Duss were allowed to keep living in the Great House until their deaths. They also helped maintain the building.
In 1936 the Commonwealth began to appropriate funds for the maintenance and restoration of Old Economy Village. The projects were done from 1936 until 1965 under the direction of Charles M. and Edward Stotz, Jr. architect and engineer. Charles Morse Stotz (1899-1985) was an architect who documented early western Pennsylvania architecture by creating the Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey in 1931 and writing The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania, published in 1936. His many restoration projects also included Fort Ligonier, Fort Pitt, Drake Well, the Old Stone House, Hanna’s Town, Johnston Tavern, and the Compass Inn.
The enormous project at Old Economy began with the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. By 1943 plans were being laid to restore the Rapp Houses and other buildings. Funding was still an issue for a majority of the 29 years of the site restoration project. The play, Man’s Reach, by Gladys L’Ashley Hoover was performed on the grounds of Old Economy from 1956 until 1961 to help raise money for restoration. Much of the restoration work on the Rapp Houses was completed in 1962, and the houses have remained almost completely as restored to this day.
During the 1990s, and perhaps even earlier, the staff at Old Economy Village determined that with new understandings of the Rapp Houses and historic interiors, the Rapp Houses should be restored once again. Through a grant from the Von Hess Foundation in 2002, the site was able to hire Gail Winkler to write a furnishing plan for the Rapp Houses and to begin work on reproducing the historic wallpapers from the original documents that were found on the walls during the first restoration. Gail Caskey Winkler, PhD, FASID is a partner of LCA Associates of Philadelphia. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Interior Designers and an ASID Medalist recipient for her outstanding contributions to the profession of interior design. She combines scholarship, research, and practical experience in the recreation of historic American interiors. Winkler has worked on the restorations of the Chambers of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, the superintendent’s quarters of the United States Naval Academy, the Capitol of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Capitol of Virginia, the Abraham Lincoln Summer White House, and the residence of President Rutherford B. Hayes. She teaches two courses in the history and re-creation of American interiors for the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation in the School of Design. Winkler also lectures and has written several books about historic interior design.
Winkler completed the Historic Furnishings Plan for the Rapp Houses at Old Economy Village in 2006. The plan was based on research by Raymond V. Shepherd, past site director and historian, who wrote the George Rapp House Study (unpublished) and transcribed numerous Harmonist accounts dealing with furniture, implements, and decorative arts. The Historic Structures Report, 1990, by Clio Group, Inc. and Mariana Thomas Architects, provided some background for the houses. With Von Hess Foundation funding, Old Economy Village was able to have four wallpapers reproduced from the original papers that were found in the Rapp Houses during the 1960s restoration. The artwork was done by Laura McCoy Designs, Inc. of Newport, New Hampshire, and the blocks were carved and wallpaper printed by Adelphi Paper Hangings, LLC of Sharon Springs, New York.
The project now at hand is a $1.2 million capitol project to restore the interior of the Rapp Houses, based on Winkler’s Historic Furnishings Plan, to the time period of 1828 until 1847. The remainder of the wallpapers will be reproduced, as well as carpets, bed hangings, and window treatments. Some rooms will have different interpretations than they have in the past and some artifacts will be conserved. Structural repairs to the building will also take place. An exhibit in the Steward’s wing about Harmonist architecture and town planning was to be a part of the project, but had to be postponed due to funding limitations. Artifacts were packed in the summer and fall of 2012 to prepare for the work. It is estimated that the houses will be closed until July 2014. Stay tuned for more information in coming posts.
This post was published almost in its entirety in The Harmonist (Fall 2012) newsletter of the Friends of Old Economy Village.
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