If He Builds It, Will They Come?
This is the story of a man who would cast his house in concrete.
It begins in a typical way: Benjamin Fehl moved from Philadelphia to Central Pennsylvania to pursue a graduate degree at Penn State and needed a place to live. He bought a modest fixer-upper on Market Street in Milesburg at auction and began the work to restore the house. “I started that summer doing deconstruction, peeling away the layers,” he says. “And by the end of the summer, I realized there was no good structure in there. The layers that I peeled away were holding the house up.”
An architect by training, Fehl was enrolled in two master’s degree programs at once: one for architecture, the other for fine arts. “I was just coming out of corporate America and I was just fed up,” he says. “I was an artist, a creative person, and it was just too much for me at the time, so I came out here and I just started painting polka dots. I called it ‘Interoffice Memo.’ I was having the time of my life.”
He was living and working out of the structure he had built behind the 1857 house as a workshop for the restoration project, which was easily converted into a living space and art studio. But the two degree programs became too much. He dropped the fine arts degree and finished his master’s of architecture in 2008, then started teaching at Penn State’s School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs. But this is a man who is always in process. The artist side of him was ready to reemerge.
“After a year I decided let’s go back and finish out the art degree,” he says. “I went back and I started up with the paintings and I just couldn’t do it. I was just not there anymore. As an artist, a year later, my life had changed.” His focus was on the property in Milesburg, and since it was clear the house was unsavable, Fehl changed tacks. “I was kind of joking about it, like, let’s cast it in concrete.”
The Crooked House (thecrookedhouse.net), as the sculpture of the house’s facade in Milesburg is called, became his master’s thesis project, though it took some convincing. “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?’”
“It was just a two-room house, a humble family. Why not do a historic monument to a settlement home, to the everyday person? I think that’s very valuable.”
The Milesburg Borough was asking similar questions, so Fehl built a model to explain the project — or at least what it would look like. “I had pulled demo permits to pull down that house twice, and I just couldn’t do it. The house was in bad shape and so Rick Hampton, the building inspector, comes down here with three or four guys, and he’s like, ‘Benjamin, what are you going to do? They want it gone, you gotta do something.’ Coincidentally, that day, I had this model in pieces loaded into my truck. Out of nowhere, I’m unpacking the model, explaining the project, and he’s like, ‘Wow, OK, this is a good idea.’
He was an advocate of the project.” Fehl showed the model around, and it helped. “They saw the craft and the passion that was in the model, and that was enough to really pull them in and they thought the idea was cool.”
Fehl has worked hard to convince the community of the purpose of the project. “‘Why?’ is the first question. ‘Why would you do this?’ It’s about home, what does home mean to you. It was just a two-room house, a humble family. Why not do a historic monument to a settlement home, to the everyday person? I think that’s very valuable. This is not a wonderful, incredible house in the eyes of the public, but it was, because it was somebody’s home.”
And now, Fehl wants The Crooked House to be a boon for the community. “I see it as it’ll be a stopping point,” he says. “‘Let’s go see The Crooked House,’ and then from there visit the historic museum across the street, or come down here to canoe or kayak. I don’t know anything like it around here. You don’t even have to go inside to see it, you can just drive by. How do you get contemporary art into an environment like this, that’s understandable?”
Winning hearts and minds is one thing, but raising enough money to remove the front facade of the house, spray it with two-part rubber to create a mold, and then pour concrete into that mold is another.
“Whatever disposable income I have goes into this,” Fehl says. “I’ve gotten grants, we did a big fundraiser, my friends and family have been a huge part of this, neighbors come in, the tractor out there doesn’t even belong to me, I’m borrowing it from a neighbor who’s a landscape contractor. It’s been growing that way slow and steady, but it’s not like, ‘boom’ yet. I see it at that tipping point.”
The project is so close to completion, but some big steps remain. The façade has been removed and is resting in the nearby firehall. Now, Fehl needs to raise about $25,000 to create the mold and pour the concrete for the four-part sculpture that will stand 23 feet tall. He estimates that he’s already spent $100,000 — that figure includes his time spent working on the project, which is certainly no small part.
In fact, it’s maybe one of the biggest parts of the 13-year endeavor. Fehl grew up in Allentown, Puerto Rico and New Jersey. He has lived in Lancaster, Miami, Charlotte and Philadelphia.
“Believe it or not, this is where I’ve been for the longest in my life. As an artist, this project is partly my own personal quest of what home is, and I don’t even know that. It’s so far along, but it’s a path of discovery. It’s not like I went into this understanding fully what I was getting after. Maybe I could have sat through psychotherapy for 10 years to figure out what the hell it was about, but this is what I felt passionate about. This is what I was good at. It’s a vision that is coming to be.” • SCM