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Old House Fair is As Much About Our Future as Our Past: 5 Questions for Co-Chair, Joseph Griffin


Pennsylvania Match Factory Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823



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Most people around here are used to seeing old houses, at least by American standards. Sure, Centre County's oldest buildings or houses don't go back much further than 225 years or so, and that doesn't offer up quite the same deep dive back into the past that many history buffs may get giddy about when they venture into some 800-year-old relic of a village they might wander into over in rural England or someplace, but still. When it comes to America's architectural past… Boalsburg and Millheim and Bellefonte… we've all got the goods. All you need to do is drive through town to see what I'm talking (ahem… bragging) about.

So it makes sense then that an event called Old House Fair is set to happen right here in our midsts. In Bellefonte's glorious and grand old Pennsylvania Match Factory, appropriately enough. Friday and Saturday, June 8th and 9th, will be days loaded with lectures, learning, tours, and fraternizing for anyone who has any interest in what makes the past such a valuable lesson for the future. And I don't bandy that sentence there around loosely either.

At first glance, I was under the impression that Old House Fair, now in its third year, was exactly what anyone might think it us initially. Maybe something like a glorified Saturday morning Home Depot seminar on refinishing old hardwood floors? It seemed interesting, if you were in the market for that kind of thing. But, it turns out (as it often turns out in my life), that I was mistaken. Wrong. Naive. Because it turns out that Old House Fair, a joint project of three nonprofits – a local one, The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA); a county wide organization, the Centre County Historical Society; and a nationally renown one, the American Philatelic Society, is about way more than simply turning a fixer-upper into a thing of beauty or a sound financial investment.

Old House Fair 2018 is as much about understanding why and how resurrecting old houses is a beautiful investment in any town's future as it is about the nooks and cranny's of window replacement. This year the fair is shining a spotlight on Creative Placemaking, which according to Artscape DIY, is "an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community's interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place."

That's a pretty heavy theme for an old house fair, huh? But that is also EXACTY why this fair is something special, you see. There is something here for anyone who had any kind of interest whatsoever in helping the older neighborhoods or towns they live in- and raise kids in- to rise again and flourish at a time when blight or neglect often take control.

In an effort to lay it all out clearly, I reached out to Joesph Griffin, co-chairman of Old House Fair, to help explain just how unique Old House Fair truly is.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– Bellefonte seems such an appropriate town to host an Old House Fair. I often think that we're somewhat spoiled here living in the shadow of so much magic architecture, so many historic and beautiful homes. Why are old houses and old buildings so important to communities?

Joseph Griffin: First of all, they are handsome and interesting. They look good – just like a soaring mountain or a bright blue sky. Second, they are anchors in a sea of flux. They show that a place has been around for a while, that it has history, that it’s not just a flash in the pan. If you want to understand this idea, drive to a declining mall and observe your feelings. As Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” Finally, old buildings help us to remember that we are part of the “innumerable caravan” described to great effect by William Cullen Bryant in Thanatopsis. There were living, breathing, vital people here before us and there will be many others to come when we are gone. We are but a small and temporary part of a great human continuum and realizing this makes us better people. Old buildings make a great school for souls.

BFT.COM: Let's say someone doesn't have the money or means to purchase and restore an old home. How… or why… might the art of preservation still be of interest to them?

JG: The mechanics of preservation are about as interesting as the mechanics of tonsillectomies or transmission repairs – certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. However, the Old House Fair has more to offer than restoration techniques. On Friday, we will examine creative placemaking and discuss the role art and culture can play in transforming communities. On Saturday, the Fair will offer discussions about victorian garden splendor, Arts & Crafts homes, harnessing technology and social media to make life easier in any building and the challenges of living in a HARB district. Of course, if you don’t care about arts, culture, flowers, technology and community regulations there are probably better ways to spend your time.

BFT.COM: Can you tell us a little but about the increasingly popular practice of Creative Placemaking, and why it's such an integral part of the Old House Fair this year?

JG: First the why, then the what. We ended up with the theme of creative placemaking by accident. Our original keynote speaker for our Friday evening banquet celebrating Bellefonte architecture was an amazing fellow who had accomplished a near miracle in Iowa by creating an organization from scratch that supercharged his Des Moines neighborhood and served over a million people in just a few years. His secret? Creative placemaking. We made that the theme of our Friday program, but then he had to withdraw, and we had a theme and no speaker. Researching people who practiced creative placemaking, we found a new keynote speaker – the woman who invented the term – and other experts. So that’s the story of why we are talking about creative placemaking.

Now, what is it? First, it was happening before Anne Gadwa Nicodemus gave it a name. Creative placemaking is about transforming communities using art and culture as tools as opposed to, for example, using new factories, big housing developments or major road projects. It took years before people began to realize the transformational power of “spiritual” forces.

After Richard Florida wrote The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, things began to heat up. Florida argued that “creatives” were economic engines that could make neighborhoods or cities thrive. His ideas got traction, and soon cities were coming up with ideas to attract millennial artists, musicians, writers and other creative types for the purpose of accelerating economic development. In 2010, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus coauthored an NEA publication that coined the term “creative placemaking” and the concept is still capturing the minds of people trying to improve their communities.

It takes some serious explaining to grasp the core idea and that is what our Friday program sets out to do. We have two nationally recognized experts and a battle-scarred practitioner to explain what creative placemaking is and how it works. We’ve also lined up a panel of four local change makers to tell their personal stories of using art and culture as a tool for changing people’s lives for the better.

BFT.COM: Internationally renowned scholars and speakers and restoration experts converge on Bellefonte for this fair. Do you ever get the sense that they are impressed by our old homes and buildings?

JG: Frankly, the people we bring in have been around and seen a lot. They appreciate our fine old buildings but have seen thousands of them elsewhere. What they are impressed by is the relative degree of historic preservation we have maintained. Much of our downtown is still intact and our residential areas are well preserved. More than one has commented on the tremendous financial potential of our historic downtown, so close to Penn State. Some have wondered aloud why we have not experienced more historically sensitive redevelopment and repurposing of our building stock.

BFT.COM: I read a charmng quote from someone on the Old House Fair's website. In talking about attending the fair they said, "I liked being in the company of fellow old-house owners.” Why do you think old house owners like being around one another?

JG: Why do people who enter their hot rod in the Bellefonte Cruise like to go to car shows? It’s really the same kind of question. Old house enthusiasts love to trade stories. If your pipes froze, your boiler exploded, you accidentally removed a bearing wall or there was a deceased racoon in your attic, you have something interesting to say. People who love old houses spend years working on them and need to find kindred spirits to appreciate their obsession. Fundamentally, old house people really care about their homes. They don’t think of them as real estate, but as venerable objects whose care has been entrusted to them. An investment in an old house improvement project doesn’t have to show a positive return on investment to grab the heart of a true enthusiast.


Old House Fair is Friday, June 8, and Saturday, June 9, 2018 at Pennsylvania Match Factory, Bellefonte.
You can view and sign-up for sessions here.

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