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History's Headlines: It's not your grandmother's Kemerer Museum

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: May 02 2014 09:20:19 PM CDT
Updated On: May 05 2014 06:39:10 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Kemerer Museum

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

As president of the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, Charlene Donchez Mowers has her work cut out for her.

Along with overseeing this vast, local, historic treasure trove that includes, among other things, 60,000 artifacts and 10,000 photos and was recently named a National Historic Landmark, she also has to be aware of the changes that are taking place in museum world.

It is one reason she has focused on the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, a house museum on New Street that’s full of decorative items mostly from the 19th century. “One of our problems,” Mowers noted in a recent interview, “is with the term decorative arts, people look at you with an expression on their face that says ‘what exactly is that?’”

To explain that topic Mowers and the staff have put together a selection of items from the museum’s collection that shows how people used such things to enhance the beauty of their homes. It also points out the differences in each era’s home items, from handicrafts to machine made.   

As Mowers and her staff know, it is no longer possible simply to establish a museum of wonderful items assuming, “if you build it they will come.” Among the things the Historic Bethlehem Partnership is doing is encouraging events at the Kemerer, like a recent dinner program. “We were so pleased to have these people here,” says Mowers. “Some of them told us they had never had that opportunity before.” 

With so many distractions on their time, the public needs to be sought out. Currently even star status historical sites like Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg are having trouble drawing the kind of crowds they need to keep the lights on and the staff paid.  Fortunately, over the past several years, Mowers has gotten a number of grants that have helped take the Kemerer in new directions.

The museum is based around the household of Anne Kemerer, a member of a prominent upper middle class 19th century Bethlehem family. Beginning in the 1890s, they lived in a large house on Broad Street, (urban renewed out of existence in the late 1950s) and were very active socially. This all came to an end in 1923 when Kemerer’s son, who fought in World War I and came home suffering from severe depression, committed suicide. “Today we would probably call it post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Mowers.

Four years later, Kemerer’s husband died. From that time on the parties ceased and Kemerer lived a reclusive life, dying in the early 1950s. Fortunately most of her furniture and other decorative items were saved to form the basis of the museum’s collection. Among the choice pieces from Kemerer is a beautiful, ornate piano with mother of pearl inlay keys. It sits near the front window of the museum.

The piano was produced by the Smith Atherton Company of New York, whose name is clearly visible. The company had a small factory at 645 Broadway in the city and was in business from the mid to the late 19th century.

Its style is called a square grand piano. The Antique Piano Shop website notes “they are considered some of the most elaborate, well-made pianos” ever produced. “We keep it in tune and play it now and then,” says Mowers.

Also in the room is a large, Victorian sofa that visitors are allowed to sit on. “There are so many furniture museums that have no place for the public to sit, which is understandable,” Mowers said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to give the place at least one place it could sit.”

The most recent items drawing attention at the Kemerer are the Elizabeth Johnston Prime Doll House Collection. The daughter of Archibald Johnston, a late 19th and early 20th century Bethlehem Steel Company executive and the first mayor of the city when it became united after 1917. The items were given to the museum by Prime several years ago. The collection includes over forty miniature buildings from 1830 to 1930.

Each one offers a wonderful basement-to-ceiling view of the life of well-to-do families. Maids are shown in their own small rooms or performing tasks like washing and ironing.

The owners of the 1920s house are shown in the vestibule. Surrounded by miniature boxes, they are clearly back from a shopping trip. The lady of the house is dressed stylishly in a tight fitting, cloche hat and what looks like a raccoon coat.

These dollhouses are valuable not just as showing what toys children might have amused themselves with, but also show the way people decorated their homes from the early 19th to the mid-20th century.

The period rooms in the Kemerer are an added plus to getting to know how some people lived. There is one showing a bedroom in the home of a wealthy Allentown family, circa 1890. It has elaborately done wallpaper and bedroom furniture created by Allentown’s Buhler Furniture Company, a firm that thrived there from the 1880s to the early 1960s.

There are also fancy desks that seemed to have a cubbyhole for everything. On the floor is a globe that offers a view of the various constellations of stars. A duplicate one of the earth is in another room. There is a Pennsylvania German collection that includes dower chests and other items.

One of the major attractions is the collection of glass and textiles. Glass of every color and shape is on display. Recent renovations have enabled the museum to show larger parts of its collection under climate-controlled conditions. The Kemerer has also set aside a space for contemporary artists and is offering a show by glass maker James Harmon. For more information call 610-691-6055 or visit historicbethlehem.org.