“The Crooked House”: A Memorial to Home

“I’m still waiting to hear about the neighbors talking about the madman who cut off the front of his house,” Benjamin Fehl laughs. We are sitting in his garage-converted studio in Milesburg, door propped open to let in the early spring day and the first blue sky, the kind of day where the bushes decided its time to bloom their yellow wreaths. Benjamin’s neighbors are out doing yard work with their dog sitting on the porch roof, barking at neighbors as they pass.

The garage—Benjamin’s home and studio—sits at the back of the lot where “The Crooked House” is slowly taking shape. The original home was built in 1857 when the manufacturing possibilities for a little creek-side town were taking off just down the road from the Centre County seat

of government. These days, there’s no old house on the lot but an artist’s construction site. There will be no historical restoration but instead, a public sculpture: a recreation of the original home’s façade in concrete.

Home in the “Garage”

Benjamin moved to Milesburg thirteen years ago to attend graduate school at Penn State and bought his h

ouse as a restoration project. Five years ago, Benjamin had the house taken down and the front of the house removed and saved. He had realized, after 10k in renovations, that the building was irreparable. He moved into the garage, made it a little home, and started rethinking his project. He has no plans to leave it and move on anytime soon.

The idea for “The Crooked House” came out of a conversation with a friend over dinner, a way to capture his enduring reflection

on houses and homes in his sketches. What if he turned his renovation into an art piece? He spent a long time figuring out the best way to move forward: how to render the idea, what materials to use, how to get the idea to come life. Ultimately, he decided on something direct and tactile: a cement façade made from a true to size molding of the front of the house. It would be a memorial, a sculpture, a monument to home. It would also preserve history, keeping alive old architecture years into the future.

Facade in process

On the day I visited the Crooked House, Benjamin was about to head into Bellefonte to supervise the next stages of façade mold creation. He’d connected with Polyteck Development Corporation in Easton, PA, a company that specialized in casting resins. Their president, Joe Lawrence rolled up his sleeves and worked with Benjamin and other volunteers on a day-long spray molding of the facade. This process captured the nooks and crannies and splinters of the original material. The cement façade would ultimately reflect the textures of the original structure.

But Benjamin took some time to show me around and tell me his story before he headed into production mode for the day. Benjamin is not the neighborhood madman, even if he tore his own house down. He is just unusual, but with an internal, sound logic to every decision he makes. Instead of a mere home owner, he is an artist and place-maker. We sit in his little home, a work sink in one corner with a toothbrush and toothpaste; his large desk on which is spread sketches and old prints; and a 1/3 size model of the front of the house. This model is seven feet tall and divided the room into two; behind the model is Benjamin’s bed, over which he hung his earliest paintings, the one that first beckoned him into an artist’s life. A breeze filled the room and brushed papers where we sat. He leaned back into his office chair, rocking back and forth, looking for the words to tell me the story.

If one were to pick a starting point, the Crooked House began in Philadelphia, where Benjamin had moved to be an architect. For several years, he worked in big firms making a living but not making a life. “I hated it,” he said. There was more of a creative in him than a cog in an architectural machine. He applied to return to Penn State to get a Masters in Architecture and a second Masters in Fine Arts. “One day, I put all my stuff out on the curb, I got rid of all my suits, everything. I needed to start over.” He had always loved restoring old spaces and had even done so in his historic carriage house in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood that had not yet been revitalized. He was drawn to old homes in need of intensive repairs. Benjamin seems to feel most at home in the world when he is engaged in it physically. It grounds him to a place and helps him grasp reality, make sense of it. After the strain of an ended career, he needed that kind of focus. He bought the house in Milesburg across from the Historical Society and got to work.

When the house became uninhabitable, he adopted The Crooked House as his master’s thesis project. As Benjamin told Maggie Anderson from State College Magazine, “It was a fight all the way through, to first convince somebody to come aboard and be my thesis advisor. The challenge was, how do I truly get people to understand what I’m doing? Formally, what do the shapes look like? There was a lot of fighting and screaming, ‘what the hell are you doing over there?’” But as with all new things, people came around to what was happening. Central Pennsylvania has a deep commitment to its own history, to exploring and preserving its roots. Pennsylvania has the highest rate of those born in the Commonwealth who choose to remain in the Commonwealth. Generations stretch back. Time and place have resonance. There is no mythic quality as in the Old South or in Texas; it feels far more like the Germanic work ethic, of industry and post-industry, of the time when woods stretched across the entire state. It’s earthy and grounded and longstanding.

The Crooked House is, really, about this idea of “Home.” Current home, past home, future home, lost home—whatever that means for the viewer. “I want people to think about what it means for them,” Benjamin says. He isn’t trying to communicate one idea but, rather, is creating a space where people can viscerally connect with an idea.

Benjamin at home in the work

I get the sense from the way Benjamin speaks with me that he doesn’t think in language or linearity—he thinks with images, he thinks with his hands. He knows the power of the senses in grasping ideas, in creating and generating thought. He’s not some out-of-touch dreamer but is out in the community and in the world. That’s why he’s approaching The Crooked House in such a direct way: literally made of concrete and recognizable materials. It’s made into a familiar, identifiable structure. “We all get concrete and what a house looks like,” Benjamin said. He chooses forms and materials that are familiar and can evoke the abstraction home. Art—and by that, I mean the moment of reflection and new understanding—is an experience that should be accessible to everyone. This isn’t to say that Benjamin wants art to be over simplified but that it’s worth presenting without art school vocabulary. Meaning is something inherent to every person; art is merely an expression of deep things, a way to manifest the complexity of our stories. And, as Benjamin noted, the idea of home is universal.

And part of what makes this future space so interesting is that it isn’t a complete structure. It will just be the front of the house, the fireplace and a garden—completely open to the elements. It evokes an idea but not become a reality.

Dream Home

It’s freeing to step outside of the flow of linearity that we live in every day, and see things in an abstraction of shapes and materials and making. On Benjamin’s studio wall, he’s mounted series of sketches that depict dream-space houses that are dismantled and floating. In these dreamy pieces, there are stairs that go up and down, like magical chutes and ladders.He draws out materials, the brick and mortar and wood. The building blocks are fragmented, like the stories of our lives—and how we remember them—are fragmented and unexpected. It’s a journey that isn’t linear just as the process of The Crooked House isn’t linear. There’s suspension, suspense, no railings, and all this waiting to find out what will happen. It’s crafts the idea of Home into a fragile thing.

I, too, knew what it was like to have the façade of a home but no roof or walls, with nothing to keep you safe anymore.

 

I “lost” my home beginning the week I moved to Penn State. It was a slow unraveling that paralleled my parents’ ultimately ending their relationship. The unraveling took five long years. In that time, I began to feel more and more “homeless”, without grounding or a location to set myself down. I no longer had a “place”. I was never without shelter or food or meaningful work, but I instead felt a kind of homelessness without lack. This internal displacement launched me into adulthood.

The Future

Sitting with Benjamin’s Crooked House felt like visiting a memorial for something I had lost. Even his choice of materials—cement—was classically memorial, mirroring the cemeteries we pay homage to. When I told Benjamin my story, he told me he had a similar one. His parents, too, separated and divorced while he was in college, just on the edge of adulthood. It’s a disconcerting earthquake that shakes up what just about to become settled. The Crooked House seemed to be a memorial I didn’t know I needed. Divorce is a difficult story to close; it is never truly over though certainly life has remade itself in important and beautiful ways since those dark days. There has never been a place to go and remember what was, to be grateful for the times I thought we were okay even if we weren’t. Thinking we were okay mattered, and it helped, and it made me. Here was a place where my recurring grief could find shelter. I want to take flowers to The Crooked House in memory of what was lost and place them at the fireplace that no longer keeps anyone warm.

“We see so much what we take in, but how do you tell that to someone else?” Benjamin said. “You break it down into pieces and tell just share the pieces of their stories.” The is just that: breaking down the pieces to help people tell the fragments of their stories. My story of The Crooked House is only that—my own. It isn’t right and doesn’t have to be. It’s simply my story, what a piece of art helped me experience.

 

We eventually moved from his studio-garage into the rest of the lot. The back garden led up to the original foundation, which had been filled in with gravel. The original limestone fireplace stands in the corner, a piece Benjamin is proud to have repaired and restored himself. Orderly piles of wood and construction tools are set around the property—it a place constantly in development.

Benjamin points out to me where he will landscape the space to make a garden area, a little park-scape where people can come spend time whenever they want. His long-term dream is to build a structure for meetings and gatherings—to turn this old home into an unusual and memorable event space. But that won’t be for some time. For now, he’s working hard on getting the cement façade created and installed. That could take another year. The process is slow, twisting, and unexpected. Timelines are hard to predict.

One of the things Benjamin loves about the process is working with other artists in the area. It represents a quiet movement of fine art makers choosing homes and studios in rural places rather than in major urban centers. It’s subtle, but it’s redefining what it means to be an artist in America. Benjamin says that it’s also part of revitalizing local areas. “It’s really part of the revitalization of these areas. It means that people encounter people with different perspectives.”

I wonder what will happen to this place if Benjamin ever leaves. The Crooked House is so distinctly Benjamin’s home, despite his saying that there are no places that he thinks of as home. He stayed here and built here and made his mark on the art world here. He’s got big dreams for a little house behind the sculpture where people can gather and meet and experience life together. The Crooked House is rooted in place, making it something that can last a long time. It will move through generations in this little valley like a story you can’t forget, a memorial to the past and the future, a home for the present.

 

The Crooked House continues to develop and has made big strides this summer. You can support The Crooked House at their website and contact Benjamin directly there. Learn more of the story at SC Mag.

 

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