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Local architect switches into high gear as project deadline looms

The future site of The Crooked House at Homecoming Park, taken earlier this year and showing the restored original stone fireplace. The 1857 house that came to be known as The Crooked House stood on the site.
The future site of The Crooked House at Homecoming Park, taken earlier this year and showing the restored original stone fireplace. The 1857 house that came to be known as The Crooked House stood on the site. Photo provided

First thing’s first, the hole needs to be filled.

Benjamin Fehl hears the clock. He can’t have an 8-foot pit yawning in front of his property when the annual Milesburg Apple Harvest Festival and Car/Truck Show takes over the town on Sept. 24.

It’s not just a matter of safety. Fehl hopes to give tours of his sculpture in progress — for which he’s seeking funds to finish — and he can’t very well do that with the sidewalk closed off and his lawn a mess.

“It would be bad because I also have a 6-foot mountain of dirt behind it,” he said.

So there’s no time for dithering: The job must be done. Fehl has the necessary permits, and now a contractor must come to the corner of Market and Centre streets soon and pour the concrete that will form the foundation and footing for “The Crooked House at Homecoming Park” installation.

Think of it as one deadline to meet another.

Fehl, an architect, artist and Penn State engineering design instructor, is pushing to complete the transformation of a dilapidated 1857 house into a community space and public artwork.

For 12 years, he dismantled The Crooked House, so named after it began listing from his early renovation attempts. Its timber frame had weakened beyond repair, held up simply by layers of construction added over decades, but Fehl had another idea besides demolition.

If he couldn’t save the body, he would preserve the spirit.

He carefully removed the narrow house’s facade, from which he’ll make a rubber mold to create a concrete facsimile 16.5 feet by 22.5 feet, complete with a front door, windows and a roof section. Visitors will walk into an open park that includes the original stone hearth, uncovered and restored after being hidden for years.

Little by little, fueled by donations and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and others, Fehl’s dream has inched toward reality. But now, he must slip into a higher gear.

He must be done by March.

After then, the local building inspector, Rick Hampton, a steadfast ally and liaison with the borough, is ending his municipal contract. His advice this spring for Fehl: Finish The Crooked House project in the next year while the borough is behind you. You never know what the future might bring.

That’s how a final fundraising campaign came about.

With the help of a longtime friend, fellow local artist Will Snyder, Fehl is trying to raise $40,000 — the last third of the $120,000 project — through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Starting Sept. 8, the monthlong campaign aims to provide Fehl with enough for engineering the foundation and footer, building the mold, casting and installing the wall, completing the fireplace and giving thank you gifts to donors.

Fehl turned to Snyder because of his success with crowdfunding campaigns for his public installations such as “800,000. Acknowledge. Remember. Renew,” a memorial to the Rwandan genocide. Snyder readily jumped on board. He considers Fehl a kindred spirit — another contemporary artist with a mission to bring large public artwork to Centre County.

“That’s what was intriguing to me to help make this happen,” Snyder said about assisting with the project and campaign websites.

All donations will go to the project, regardless of whether the campaign meets its goal, and any excess will be used for Homecoming Park features such as fencing, brick pavers, trees, plants and benches.

If all goes well, “The Crooked House at Homecoming Park” one day will become a unique addition to Milesburg and an artistic commentary on the nature of a “home.”

According to Fehl, the structure originally belonged to Abigail Miles, a relative of the town’s founder, Col. Samuel Miles. However, its heritage interested Fehl for another reason: It raised the question of what makes a house historic. Yes, The Crooked House had a local pedigree, but to Fehl, it represented an ordinary shelter from the time, fulfilling a basic need.

“It’s important that it was Abigail Miles’ house, but it’s not as important as the fact that it was a starter home,” Fehl said. “It’s like everybody’s house. And that’s what it was. It was a simple, little house.”

Home also can be an embracing community, as Fehl found out after moving to Milesburg from Philadelphia to earn architecture and fine arts degrees from Penn State. His neighbors and other friends around town and in the area — the Friends of The Crooked House brigade — have chipped in money, tools, vehicles and sweat over the years, pulling the project along.

There have been key supporters — Snyder; Hampton; Christine Robinson, who wrote grant applications; musician Stacy Tibbits; local companies such as Marathon Landscaping Inc. and Spicer Welding and Fabrication, Inc., that made in-kind donations — but Fehl’s gratitude extends to many more who lent a hand.

“People have come together just from the hard work,” he said.

Among them has been Fehl’s father. He’s one of the most ardent assistants, driving up from Lancaster to work all day even in his mid-70s.

“I would have never had the relationship I have with my father today if it weren’t for The Crooked House,” Fehl said.

In the end, though, home truly may be wherever you hang the proverbial hat. Fehl had never lived in one place for long before settling down next to the park site — a “quest for home” that partly inspired his idea for inviting visitors to feel “the essence” of a 19th-century home from his art without being in an actual house.

“We all have homes, but our home is more than a roof over our heads and somewhere to shelter from the weather,” he wrote on his Indiegogo site. “Homes contain our history, our memories and give meaning to our days. We sell and buy houses — we move our home with us wherever we go.”

During the campaign, Fehl hopes to explain his vision more at 7 p.m. fundraising events at Webster’s Bookstore Café on Sept. 30 and at Appalachian Outdoors on Oct. 7. He’s a long way from his initial sketches, on the cusp of giving his adopted town a new landmark to go with its World War I soldier statue.

You might say he’s in the home stretch.

“Now,” he said, “it’s really getting exciting.”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

How to help:

www.thecrookedhouse.net

info@thecrookedhouse.net

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