Alumnus works to give 'Crooked House' a home

Amy Milgrub Marshall
September 14, 2016

College of Arts and Architecture alumnus Benjamin Fehl is striving to give public art a home in the tiny town of Milesburg, Pennsylvania, just outside State College. Fehl settled in Milesburg 12 years ago, while attending Penn State, and is now working to make a community sculpture out of what has been dubbed “The Crooked House,” a piece of local history that, despite its structural deterioration, provides insight into the lives of those who inhabited the house starting in 1857.

Fehl plans to cast the façade of the house in concrete, creating a unique work that honors the past while serving as a piece of contemporary public art.

Fehl, who holds Penn State graduate degrees in both architecture and visual arts, bought The Crooked House, and a workshop located in the back of the property, in 2004. In 2006, he began converting the workshop into his current studio and home. “When I bought this house, I had no idea what I would discover. As I unwrapped the layers of the house, objects secreted away in the last two centuries began to reveal themselves. Opening a wall in the basement dislodged a baby’s christening cup. Further excavation uncovered handprints left in 1857 by builders pressing the wattle and daub insulation into the walls, and removing the coal stove led to a bricked-up fireplace,” explained Fehl, an instructor of engineering design at the University. “While finding these treasures, I also found that the house had structurally deteriorated beyond repair. Even though I would never live in it, with each discovery I became more determined that a bulldozer would not erase it entirely.  If I couldn’t restore it, I’d keep its memory as a home and make it important again.”

Between 2009 and 2011, The Crooked House was accepted as Fehl’s master of fine arts thesis project, he received two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grants, and the project won first place in the Penn State Graduate Student Visual Arts Exhibition. After receiving several building permit extensions, the final extension was issued this year, and the project must be completed by March 2017.

“The finish line is in sight,” said Fehl. “I started on this journey back in 2004 as an artist with an idea—over the years I’ve had the good fortune of gathering a team of volunteers and supporters, known as Friends of The Crooked House. These friends have joined me in thousands of hours of work—dismantling the house, preserving the façade, repointing a 160-year-old fireplace and excavating the foundation. … Since 2011, the project has been funded with several small grants, donations, and discounts, as well as using my savings to pay for skilled labor and essential materials. Slow and cheap has meant the best use of project resources … up to now.”

The house, located at 204 Market Street, was originally built for Abigail Miles, cousin of the town’s founder. According to Fehl, his project is about more than preserving a house—it’s about examining the “essence of home.”

“The concept of home is so personal and at the same time so universal. We all have places we call home, but our home is more than a roof over our heads and somewhere to shelter from the weather,” explained Fehl. “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. 

Fehl’s ultimate goal is to also create a park, called Homecoming Park, behind the concrete sculpture.

Among Fehl’s supporters are numerous Penn State faculty members, including his thesis adviser, Paul Chidester; School of Visual Arts Director Graeme Sullivan; and faculty members Simone Osthoff and Michaela Amato (now retired), who were on his thesis committee.

Fehl will host an open house on Sept. 24, during the Milesburg Apple Harvest Festival and Classic Car Show, where visitors can see the result of the work so far, as well as drawings and models that show the vision. In addition, visitors can become part of the project by putting handprints or prints of mementoes into clay that will become panels for the back of the façade.

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Last Updated September 14, 2016