Baker Mansion gets Makeover

Guests touring Baker Mansion today for the historic building’s 2016 opening might notice some decidedly non-19th-century additions: flatscreen TVs, one nestled in a historic frame like a family portrait.

They’re a small part of a sweeping renovation – set to continue through this year – that has gradually changed the 1840s mansion from a stuffy, whitewashed artifact to an interactive history museum with modern exhibits.

“We’re really trying to reach out to a new demographic – young people, especially,” said Jared Frederick, president of the Blair County Historical Society Board of Trustees.

The Historical Society, which operates the mansion, has invited the public to the renovated building’s ribbon-cutting at noon today. After the opening, guests can take guided mansion tours for $8.

Those who’ve toured the Victorian mansion before will likely notice the changes almost immediately. The ground floor, once a collection of family artifacts with drab whitewashed walls, has been painstakingly repainted to match the more colorful appearance iron-company owner Elias Baker sought in the 1800s.

Thanks largely to Hollidaysburg artist Michael Allison, the first floor’s ornate guest room features detailed ceiling work. Allison is gradually covering the cracked, battered main stairwell into a fresh, period-accurate passageway.

“It’s very much (being) brought back to its former glory,” Frederick said.

The most obvious changes, however, might be upstairs and in the basement, where volunteer workers and historical society members are turning each room into an interactive exhibit on a piece of Blair County history. The process, only partially complete but hopefully finished by Christmas, will turn generic collections of old objects into stories, as Frederick described it.

“It had no story, no context. It was just a bunch of old stuff on display,” he said in a room full of old guns and military antiques. “They were nothing more than just old stuff, in the eyes of a common visitor.”

Now, one room – housing an exhibit on World War I – has been turned into a trench, with a high wooden wall and a periscope soldiers would have used to observe the enemy across no-man’s-land. On display are a Blair County doughboy’s uniform, a barber’s chair a soldier somehow lugged from Europe and a collar Kaiser Wilhelm once used for his dachshunds.

In a room covering Blair County’s brewing history and the prohibition era, guests can cock a replica Tommy gun and investigate a barrel of apples concealing an illicit liquor shipment.

More such rooms are set for development, including one covering local industry and another that will tell soldiers’, policemen’s and firefighters’ stories through Blair County’s history. An Iraq War veteran has already donated a uniform to carry the exhibit to the modern day, Frederick said.

“Things have definitely changed here in the past year,” Maurice Adam Lawruk said as he worked on the mansion’s old carriage house. Lawruk spearheaded the physical work, including renovations that turned the carriage house from a utility shed into a modern visitors center and gift shop.

His grandparents, Maurice A. and Mary Lou Lawruk, contributed funds for the renovation, Frederick said.

Work is set to continue through the year, and the historical society might soon seek donations to restore the mansion’s exterior as well, he said.

“I’m excited,” historical society Executive Director and CEO Joe DeFrancesco said, “seeing where we took this place from, where it’s at, to where it’s going to be in the next couple of years.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.