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Craftsmen Use Their Skills to Restore City’s Past

By Jeffrey Allen Federowicz

Cross the threshold at any of the grand mansions that line Millionaire’s Row, and you enter a world where opulence and grandeur were married with finely crafted stained glass windows, ornate ceilings and wide expanses of detailed woodwork.

For the lumber barons and the wealthy of yesteryear, their homes were more than a place to hang their top hat at the end of the day, their mansions symbolized the homeowner’s wealth and standing in the community, and for that reason, no expense was spared.

Unlike the McMansions of today, the homes of yesteryear were designed as works of art, similar to a Renoir, or in Williamsport’s case, a Rosen, that were meant to provide beauty for generations to come.

Today, some of the homes stand as sentinels along the city’s Historic District, reminders of the way life use to be for a select few. Many have grown old gracefully and with dignity.

Others, unfortunately need the equivalent of a facelift to restore their striking features, both inside and out.

In a world of linoleum flooring and vinyl siding, how does one tackle the challenge of restoring a 125 year-old stained glass window crafted from a thousand pieces of colored glass, or bring back the luster to a hundred year old parquet floor?

The solution can be found right in our own backyard with a wealth of skilled craftsmen who specialize in everything from woodworking and glass repair to refinishing floors to masonry work.

For these craftsmen, their work requires the skills of a builder, historian and artist to make historic homes around the area and Millionaire’s Row look like a million bucks.

"I enjoy what I do for many reasons, but most of all, it’s the challenge I encounter when I am restoring a piece of stained glass," said Rick Wolfe, stained glass artist and owner of Watsontown Glass Company. "Sometimes it can be like I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle that is missing some pieces."

When it comes to missing pieces of glass, luckily Wolfe has a vast and varied stockpile of antique stained glass pieces, in every shade and hue imaginable. And on those rare occasions when he does not have the exact shade of cobalt or amber, Wolfe has learned to manipulate pieces of glass to yield the desired color.

Restoring a piece of glass requires a lot of different steps, including photographing and documenting the current design of the window before its disassembled and each separate piece is soaked in a special cleaning solution that can remove built up grim from the textured glass.

The frame of the window is strengthened and the pieces are securely put back into place. If a piece is missing or broken, Wolfe will try and find a match from his stockpile of glass, or in some cases, will have to create a new piece.

“This area, from Danville to Lewisburg and of course, Williamsport, has some amazing piece of glass in homes and churches,” Wolfe said. “The golden era of stained glass was when Millionaire’s Row was at its peak and had two important things, growth and money. These two things is what lead there to be such amazing pieces of work in the area.”

Although Wolfe, like many craftsmen, works in both new and restoration work, repairing and restoring vintage stained glass is what enlightens him the most.

“Some of these windows are true works of art,” he said. “The area is very lucky to have people that see these homes as what they are, parts of history and they are getting them back to the shape they once were. I’m glad I can be part of it in some small way.”

While the lumber barons spent a towering sum to design and furnish their opulent homes with ornate parlors, regal dining rooms and ballrooms, extra detail was given to the foyers and entrance halls. Making a grand first impression was not an easy task when most mansions had millionaires living on each side of them. So, homeowners made sure the entrance area featured only the finest of materials.

The Rowley House at the corner of West Fourth and Walnut streets, is the perfect example of making a grand first impression since it features a double entryway illuminated with several stained glass windows and fine wood work.

The same holds true for the home at 711 Millionaire’s Row, where first impressions started at the massive front door and continued inside with finely detailed woodwork, some of which is being restored by one of the area’s most gifted craftsmen, James Vanderlin, owner of The James Vanderlin Company.

“Working on a home or piece of wood that has some history to it is very rewarding,” Vanderlin said. “This area is very fortunate to have residents who value the history of their homes and belongings and take pride in preserving these treasures for the future. My task is usually a piece of the puzzle. For example, how do I make a missing piece of molding on a door look like the one that was made in 1860, and then stain and finish it to look like it was always there. The less awareness that I was there, the better.”

It has taken Vanderlin’s 30 years experience and hard work to achieve the fine level of craftsmanship he has become known for in the area, no matter if its working on a new home or one built in 1865. He begins a project by first assessing the materials, no matter if it’s a piece of furniture or parts of a home.

“I always consider the overall existing picture, the wood, the color of stain (which is different than the color of the wood) the living use of the space (or furniture), the walls, sunlight,” Vanderlin’s said. “All these factors must be considered in my approach to restoring their wood.”

For the past 30 years, Vanderlin has worked on grand staircases, ornate doors, windows, and fine furniture in about a dozen homes on Millionaires Row. One of his most complicated projects occurred last year as he undertook the challenge of restoring an original oak table from the Park Home.

“The original extension mechanism was gone and I did research on what it looked like and how it worked and then had my craftsmen at the shop reproduce the wooden sliding mechanism to accommodate the nine table leaves,” Vanderlin said. “We repaired all the leaves, stripped off the finish and re-finished it with an appropriate color and durable finish. It turned out very nice and people in our area can appreciate the beauty of this locally made table for another 100 years. The table is currently on display in the Lycoming County Museum.”

When working with pieces of woodwork that can be 150 years old, Vanderlin has to incorporate the technology of today with the hand tools of yesteryear.

At times during the restoration process, a powered pin router and shaper with knives that are made to match the architectural detail of a wooden piece may be used, or he might need to have custom made carving knives crafted for use on a door from a mansion on Millionaires Row.

When it comes to finishing a piece to give it a lustrous, glossy finish, Vanderlin’s often uses old fashioned glazes and alcohol stains.

“Sometimes a re-finished piece of furniture turns out so nice that the customer doesn't recognize it,” he said. “I recently restored a hope chest for a woman who had it stored in her basement for many decades. We rebuilt the legs, made repairs and refinished it and it looked so good that when the woman came to pick it up she didn't recognize it.

“She wanted to know, ‘Is that really mine? It's so beautiful.’ It's been fun over the years to see the tears of customers who get back a treasured piece of furniture that has great sentimental value. I have restored several homes full of furniture that had water or fire damage and it is very rewarding to be able to give these people back their history. You can replace your refrigerator but you can not replace Grandma's rocker.”