a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Odd mourning art frames this house museum

By Scott Beveridge

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – This story would probably be better told at Halloween because it involves an old portrait of a dead girl with creepy eyes.

Some claim those eyes follow them while they visit the children's room where the retouched photograph hangs at an historic mansion in State College, Pa.

"It's a death portrait," says Mary Osborn, a docent at Centre Furnace Mansion dating to 1792, when a nearby factory was constructed to forge pig iron ingots.

"If a child died before anyone had a photograph taken, they would have one done while the child was in the casket," Osborn explains. "It was a fashion at the time."

Such artists would retouch the photograph to make it appear as if the child's eyes were open.

Oddly, mourning art was a big fad in the late 1800s when Queen Victoria ruled Britain and spent three full years wearing black following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. The fashion of it having been more important how one wore their grief than the death itself spread wildly, especially among women.

No one knows the identity of the Centre Furnace child, whose morbid portrait is among an impressive collection of Victorian antiques in this mansion. The house museum owned by the Centre County Historical Society also is home to a colorful framed grouping of tiny flowers intricately handcrafted in wax and adorned with several locks of a young girl's blond hair.

Wax flowers with blond ringlets created by Laura Yearick Martin and adorned with the hair of her niece, Estella Artimitia Shaffer, after the girl received her first haircut. (Scott Beveridge photo)

There is wonderful piece of not-so-grim folksy miniature art under glass featuring bunny rabbits nibbling on carrots around a Christmas tree in the kid's room, as well.

"There are at least two holidays in there," Osborn said.

The early history is sketchy at best as to who built and lived in this house. It began as a one-story log structure and was remodeled into a four-story Georgian mansion with Victorian adornments as its owners made a fortune in the iron industry.

The museum is frozen in time to represent the era when the house was occupied by Moses Thompson, shown at left, who donated nearby property in 1855 to form the Farmers High School, which evolved into Pennsylvania State University. The school charter actually was signed during a formal dinner in this house.

The last occupant was Penn State physics professor Davie Bowles Garver, who died in 1975 and left the house to the historical society, which spent millions dollars to restore the place. The work included peeling off cheap paneling from the interior walls and replanting the grounds with a kitchen garden.

Its obvious upon walking through the doors of 1001 E. College Ave. this historical society works hard and lovingly to preserve its treasures, which fortunately include a large number of items that once belonged to the Thompson family.

Society members provide free tours highlighted with great stories, creating a fantastic tourist destination in this mountainous region of central Pennsylvania.

Centre Furnace Mansion, the birthplace of Pennsylvania State University and a gem of a house museum in State College, Pa. (Scott Beveridge photo)

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