Baker Mansion made over: There’s a whole lot of new at the old house in Altoona

If you haven’t visited the Baker Mansion lately, you haven’t seen the new, blue ceiling, reconfigured exhibits and a real 1850s office. The mansion’s owner and occupant, the Blair County Historical Society, has a new look and a new executive director with new ideas, among them a plan to make history relevant to young people today.

The public is invited to an unveiling of the changes at the Century of Progress Gala, sponsored by the historical society and the WISE Women of Blair County, from 3 to 7 p.m. Sept. 13 at the mansion, tucked on a slight rise among old oaks at 3419 Oak Lane in Altoona. Reservations must be made no later than Friday, Sept. 4.

The gala will celebrate the 100 years since the public was first invited inside the Baker Mansion on Sept. 9, 1915, for a reception to benefit the Women’s Suffrage Party of Blair County – this week, the country celebrated the 95th anniversary of women’s right to vote.

“We’re keeping some secrets so that gala attendees get the first peek,” said executive director Joe DeFrancesco, who came on board in February. “The mansion has been undergoing some restoration in several areas.”

The most notable and neediest area was the double parlor on the first floor. DeFrancesco brought back historic preservationist Mike Allison, who had done some restoration at the mansion previously.

“The double parlor was No. 1 on the list,” DeFrancesco said. “It had cracked walls, peeling paint and the wear and tear of the public visiting for years. The room had been painted white, and it had lost its luster.”

Allison scratched around and found evidence of blue paint in the room. He also read letters of Elias Baker, the wealthy ironmaster who had the mansion built in 1849, which suggested the room’s ceiling was to be painted blue despite protests from his architect. Then, he researched colors of the period and arrived at a shade of blue that was historically accurate to the era for a Greek Revival-style mansion. The original blue paint most likely was manufactured at Mount Vernon, he said.

“We put together a paint scheme that was aesthetic and true to the period,” Allison said. “All the colors are authentic Early American colors.”

The furniture in the double parlor is original to the Baker Mansion; earlier this week, a volunteer was tediously cleaning a Victorian chair that is in remarkable condition for its age.

The room, where Baker would have received visiting gentlemen, also holds two secrets. One has to do with the brown-marble mantels over fireplaces that today are “glorified vents,” DeFrancesco said. The other has to do with the columns in the room that look and feel like marble. (Spoiler alert: They’re made of plaster).

Across the grand hallway is the single parlor, the room for the ladies. Its centerpiece is an ornate Knabe & Gaehle piano that Baker acquired from a Baltimore company and that his daughter, Anna, played. Fred Fornwalt, a registered piano technician from Altoona, cleaned and tuned it this week.

“It was used at the party that night in 1915” that was hosted by Baker’s great-grandson’s wife, said DeFrancesco. “And, it will be played at the gala.”

A settee in the room also is original to the mansion, while most of the other furniture is from the period.

Down the hallway to the front of the home is an office that up until a month ago was DeFrancesco’s. It has been returned to its original purpose as Elias Baker’s office, complete with his original desk and safe. A large case holds Baker’s ledgers.

A second-floor bedroom was refurbished last year with new plaster work and paint and today houses a tribute to the Bell Family that founded Bellwood. It also houses one of several new flat-screen televisions that serve as digital story boards for various exhibits. Those were paid for this summer by a grant from the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation.

Another second-story bedroom houses an exhibit to Altoona and Blair County’s alcoholic past, including an 1896 beer bottle and a 1920s crate from a brewing company. The digital display explains how Prohibition hit Central Pennsylvania.

The hallway houses several new exhibits, although some items had been displayed elsewhere. One contains dozens of bottles and other paraphernalia from the early and “very important” Blair County dairy history that is on loan from Altoona collector Terry Adams.

Another pays tribute to Blair County’s World War I history, while still another commemorates the now-razed Logan House, a hotel adjacent to the original Altoona Railroad Station that hosted the 1862 Loyal War Governors Conference that bolstered President Lincoln’s standing.

“We are looking to rotate things every year to keep people coming back, reinvent new exhibits,” DeFrancesco said. “We’re still developing it. It’s not going to happen overnight. We are taking our time so it’s done first-class.”

The public will be able to view the outside balcony but not enter it. Although the Baker House has a lot of code exemptions due to its historical nature, there is the matter of safety – the handrail on the balcony is short, DeFrancesco explained.

The third floor originally was the servants’ quarters and today houses the new offices for the historical society, as well as a research room that a month ago was haphazardly full of boxed items. Historical photos are on the walls, and historical documents are in the cases. The public can use the room by appointment.

The beautiful gardens outside are maintained by Mary Cramer and the Blair County Garden Club, including contoured tiers where wagons once pulled up from around back and circled the front of the house made from Pennsylvania limestone.

DeFrancesco just received his bachelor’s degree in history from Penn State Altoona last year with a focus on museum operations and management. He grew up in the Spruce Creek area of Huntingdon County, loving history, specifically railroads, thanks to the grandparents who raised him. His father’s family immigrated from Italy to build and work on the Pennsylvania Railroad, while his mother’s family came from Germany in 1700 for the farmland.

He started volunteering at the Altoona Railroaders Museum at the age of 15, rising to curator and archives manager.

At 25, DeFrancesco acknowledges that he is a rarity among his peers, but he can use that to the historical society’s advantage.

“I am really able to see the challenges of the younger generation and their short attention spans,” he said. “It is very important to keep history relevant. We will change the way it’s presented, so it becomes less, well, boring and more engaging.”

He already is working on an internship program for area college students to gain real-world museum and nonprofit experience that, in turn, will provide the society and mansion with operational assistance in areas ranging from archiving to touring.

“The overall goal is to have the historical society serve as a hub of education and excellence,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.