Baker Mansion opens its 2022 season, debuts a new exhibit and kicks off a yearlong celebration — all on Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of opening (the mansion) to the public as a museum and we encourage residents to come step back in time and embrace Blair County history,” said Director Kate Rimbeck of the Blair County Historical Society. “History is so important, and we want to make it fun and interesting so people can learn from it.”
That is evident in the new exhibit “Two Centuries of Bridal Fashions 1830-2020,” where curator and board member Julia Schokker rediscovered previously donated bridal gowns, investigated the couples’ stories, obtained gowns on loan and then recruited a cadre of volunteers to pull together a retrospective of bridal fashion, traditions and local stories.
“It took a village to pull it off,” said Susan Field of Hollidaysburg, who volunteered her lifetime of expertise as a self-described “mad, crazy creative” with special expertise in altering bridal dresses and as an award-winning visual display manager with Nordstroms when she lived in California.
Field used her talents to pin, tuck and stuff the gowns to give them a fuller, more lifelike silhouette on dress forms.
“Working with these gowns was such a thrill,” Field said. She also loaned the society her unconventional wedding attire from her 1992 marriage on a sailboat in Newport Beach, California. Several other more modern gowns are a mini-dress from the 1970s and a piece by popular 1980s designer Jessica McClintock.
“It’s a great representation of bridal fashions,” Field said.
The gowns are accessorized with period appropriate gloves, shoes, parasols, hats and more, which add visual interest and context. These are supplemented with artifacts, such as dress patterns and a 1941 scrapbook of cards and gifts, which reveal a lot about society.
For instance, Schokker said, among the gifts are several ashtrays.
“No 1940s bride would be without an ashtray in her home,” she said, noting ashtrays aren’t so popular today.
The exhibit also ventures beyond what the brides were wearing and into the mother of the bride ensembles, traveling outfits and more.
Blair Garden Club member Joanie Sweeda of Altoona said she and other members helped “create a more inviting bridal event atmosphere,” by adding floral and decorative touches throughout the mansion and to the gown displays by creating bridal bouquets, hanging curtains, making bows and more.
The exhibit grew in breadth and depth, Schokker said, since she first discovered boxes of dresses in a storage area more than a year ago. She and historian Michael Farrow, chairman of the Blair County Historical Society, painstakingly researched the couples and long ago traditions such as “tinning the groom” where co-workers would playfully kidnap the groom, attach tin kitchen items to him and then take him home.
According to an Aug. 15, 1914, Altoona Times newspaper clipping, William Moore, a carpenter/draughtsman, married Elsie Cramer, a worker at the Schwarzenbach Huber Silk Mill, and thought he’d escaped the tinning ritual. Instead, his Altoona Railroad co-workers exercised patience and waited several weeks after the couple’s marriage before the tinning.
The local researchers discovered the society possessed the original 1892 gown worn by African American bride Sarah Jane Parker — a deep brown two-piece with a fitted bodice and a wide skirt — worn when she married William Nelson Molson, a Civil War veteran who was a lifelong member of the Masonic fraternity and the oldest African American Freemason in this region.
“We not only have the dresses, we have the stories of the real people who lived through history,” Schokker said. “It’s a wonderful fashion display, but it goes beyond pieces of material and fashion trends.”
The display also captures how women have changed physically.
In 1890, Nellie Dean, 23, daughter of H.C. Dern, owner of the Altoona Tribune newspaper, wed Frank Oliver Dern. The ornate, peach-colored gown has a 19-inch waist.
“It’s hard to believe someone this tiny was 23 years old as she had the height and shoulders of a child,” Schokker said.
Women’s small stature was due to childhood diseases such as rheumatic fever and poor nutrition typical for those times and explains why so many women died in childbirth, she said.
Some three dozen gowns are displayed throughout the museum with most in a newly renovated basement accessible via stairs. Some dresses determined to be too fragile to hang on mannequin forms lie on beds and a second floor World War II exhibit includes three gowns, sewn from parachute material available during wartime. The double parlor holds mother of the bride dresses.
Many of the vintage gowns had been packed in boxes awaiting rediscovery and haven’t been seen since 1989, Schokker said. Many needed careful mending and steaming due to their age and fragility. She also asked for and received gowns on loan from area residents to fully represent the time span.
Volunteers Nicole Roefaro and Karen Weigand spent many hours arduously and carefully steaming the fragile fabric.
“There’s something magical about a wrinkle that’s on a dress for 80 years,” Roefaro said. “I almost felt like I was violating it by taking the wrinkles out. But it was part of the dirty work to make everything look shiny and the best it could be. The gowns have really been brought back to life.”
Roefaro donated a 1950s-era black rotary phone and vintage magazines to help accessorize and provide context to the main exhibit.
A self-confessed fan of the 1940s, Roefaro said her favorite gown came from an earlier era, the 1890s.
“The style is so different and I just love it. This bride had style. It’s feminine and whoever wore it looked lovely on her wedding day,” she said. The stylish bride was Alice Ramey, who married William LeRoy Nicholson in 1894, Schokker said.
Field said she is looking forward to opening weekend to see visitors’ reactions. She plans to be appropriately attired in vintage clothing from her personal collection.
“People won’t be disappointed. I expect they will ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’” she said.
Grand opening festivities
Baker Mansion, the former ironmaster’s home at 3419 Oak Lane, opens May 27 for tours with grand opening festivities slated for Sunday, May 29, featuring kids’ games, prizes, food and the first of a summerlong, biweekly series of concerts and events. The first concert begins at 2 p.m. and features The San Tones, a 20-piece orchestra that plays music from the ’40s to the ’80s.
“We picked them to start us off because their music will appeal across the generations to all ages,” Rimbeck said.
The season kickoff will also feature Pappy’s Popcorn and freshly made kettle corn, the Meadows ice cream and other foods for sale. Visitors can tour the mansion, view the remodeled basement area and see the newly renovated museum shop. The shop features new items for sale, such as custom-blended tea by The Skirted Solder, a Portage business, in honor of Hetty Baker, wife of ironmaster Elias Baker. Interest in the Bakers and Baker Mansion have skyrocketed in popularity thanks to the hit CBS series “Ghosts.”
Rimbeck encourages area residents to visit Baker Mansion because exhibits and displays show various aspects of life in Blair County, including a World War II room, a nursery and an Italian heritage display.
In addition, she encourages people to document their own history.
“Each person is just as important,” she said.
If you go
What: Two centuries of bridal fashions at Baker Mansion
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, May 27 through Dec. 18
Where: Baker Mansion, 3419 Oak Lane, Altoona
Cost: Admission to see the bridal exhibit is $5 for adults and $1 for children; may be combined with a museum tour for $15. Tours of the mansion cost $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Group tours with special rates are available by emailing [email protected] to make arrangements.
2 p.m. May 29 — a free concert by the San Tones Orchestra on the Baker Mansion lawn; bring your own seating; refreshments for sale at the museum shop.
7 p.m. June 15 — Bridal fashions and traditions, a free lecture by Julia Schokker at ArtsAltoona in The Sanctuary; no charge but donations are welcome.
More information: Visit www.blairhistory.org/events for full listing of concerts and events.