What is home?
That’s the question Benjamin Fehl poses.
The instructor of engineering design in Penn State’s College of Engineering is using a version of an old home as a public park and art piece — the “Crooked House” — that is meant to make visitors consider the concept of house and home.
Fehl’s vision for the house, which stands at Market and Center streets in Milesburg and was built in 1857, is to tear down the structure, other than a large hearth, and re-create the facade. The new front will be a sculpture of sorts, with a garden shaped in the former backyard area. Organizers also have called the project Milesburg Historic Park.
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“For me, I’m very interested in ‘home,’ having traveled a lot, not really having places to call home,” Fehl said. “The questions are: What is it to be homeless? Is home a shelter over your head? What does it mean to go home? These ideas of what home means to the individual vary.”
Two houses were on the property that Fehl purchased in 2003: a house Fehl is using as his residence and the “Crooked House.” The facade will be used to create a cast concrete slab to look like the original front — a very basic rectangle with windows that faces Market Street.
“It’s a very simple facade, something a child would draw with little windows on the top, windows down below,” he said. “It’s a common subject for anybody. It’s really accessible. If somebody goes there, I’m hoping they have to reflect on what home means. That’s a subject everybody can connect to.”
Fehl moved to Centre County from Philadelphia, and bought the property with plans to renovate it. He had updated a 100-year-old carriage house in downtown Philadelphia before that, and always had an interest in the ideas around home.
“I started working on it and stripping it down, pulling off the layers — most on the inside, some on the outside,” he said. “There was paneling, wallpaper, paint. It was thick. There were layers on the floor and the ceiling. I kept peeling back these layers to get to where I could patch it and put it back together. It never happened.”
The structure, a heavy-timber construction, was no good. It had been compromised over the years, in spite of renovations. The primary element keeping the house together was an evolution of layers by homeowners.
“It had sagged and moved around, but it wasn’t in bad shape until I started pulling off the layers,” Fehl said.
Within a two-month period, Fehl knew renovation was out of the question.
“I thought, ‘What else can I do with this building, a wonderful 1800s building that was historic and belonged to a Miles family at one time?’ ” he said. “I was stuck on it.”
It sat for a couple years. Fehl would sketch almost daily, trying to process ideas for the building.
“My interest from my graduate studies in architecture was ‘home,’ ‘places we live,’ ” he said. “So that was my area of study.”
He finished that degree and went back to Penn State in 2008 for a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts.
“When I went back, I decided to take on this house as the subject and content of my studies,” he said. “I draw. That’s the way I explore ideas. I wanted to find a way to recreate this house in a way it could be art work.”
Fehl received a series of seed grants, several from the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, a funding program of the Pennsylvania Council of Arts, and another grant for artists from the Puffin Foundation, an opportunity Fehl found on a cereal box.
Friends of the Crooked House also have held events to raise money and educate the public. Altogether, grants and donations have amounted to around $8,000. That’s not counting labor and in-kind donations from the community. The overall project budget would be about $80,000 without volunteer help, Fehl said.
Fehl will host an open house event on Sept. 27, during the Milesburg Apple Harvest Festival and Car Show. Visitors can see the result of the work so far — a lot of site work — as well as drawings and models to show the vision.
They also can be part of the project, by putting handprints or prints of mementos into clay that will become panels for the back of the facade.
“Anytime someone comes over, they are welcome to leave their print behind,” he said. “It’s more about awareness.”
The value in the community piece is more than preserving a facade, according to Christine Robinson, who has helped with the project’s grant applications.
“Because people are contributing their memories and handprints and being involved in the project developing, it’s becoming their sculpture,” Robinson said. “I have this image of them coming back in five, 10 or 25 years with a grandchild and saying, ‘This is granny’s handprint.’ ”
The fireplace — another of those pieces formerly hidden beneath the layers — is meaningful, too, she said.
“You can think of it as a warm community back there behind the face of the house,” she said. “It’s also going to be very unique public art work. There is a chance and a hope that it can draw people in.”
Robinson said she hopes the project will create a talking point for a small community, where its message is just as relevant as it would be elsewhere.
“It’s about: What is the meaning of home to all of us, whether you’re one one of the Miles family or whether you grew up on the same block as your grandparents or whether you’re one of the people who have grown up all over the world, like Benjamin,” she said. “Every one of us has an idea of home.”
More photos of a model and information is available at benjaminfehl.com. The community members have been quick to offer help, Robinson said.
“It really takes somebody with a vision for a piece of history that loves the community to do something like this,” she said. “It’s not a piece of property. It’s not a house. It’s a home that’s been part of the town since the 1850s. It would have been such a loss to bulldoze it, and I think people see that.”