Donna Carcaci Rhodes has been the curator at the Pearl S. Buck house for seven years, and is still discovering it.
During her tenure, the house has always had some form of damage, been under some form of construction, and some of its contents have always been in storage. For example, she had never seen Buck’s set of pink consomme dishes made of delicately etched glass.
“These were boxed up when I started. The first time I saw them was two weeks ago,” said Rhodes. “So that was a lot of fun — opening them and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at this!'”
Pearl S. Buck lived most of her first 40 years in China, where she wrote “The Good Earth” on a used Royal typewriter she bought there (now prominently on display). Shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the novel and divorcing her first husband, she settled into a renovated 18th century stone farmhouse in Bucks County, about seven miles northwest of Doylestown, with her second husband.
A mixture of themes
She did her best to blend rural Pennsylvania architecture with her love of China. A pair of Windsor chairs share a dining table with a pair of carved Oriental chairs. Heavy blue American linen curtains share a palette with a Peking fetti rug. A Bucks County landscape painting by Edward Redfield hangs directly behind a small statue of Kuan Yin, a Chinese goddess.
“Pearl Buck was very much attached to the Kuan Yin. We have three Kuan Yin statues in the house,” said Rhodes. “Interestingly, she was raised by Presbyterian missionary parents, but you don’t have any representations of that in the house. But you do have these beautiful Kuan Yins in the house.”
The Edward Redfield painting, however, is a copy, as is another Redfield across the room. The originals were sold to fund part of the $2.8 million restoration of the house, which included structural upgrades to the building housing the collection. Pennsylvania also awarded a $700,000 grant toward the renovation.
Buck, who died in 1973, did many things in the Bucks County house: wrote her late novels; raised six mixed-race, adopted children; and created Welcome House, an international adoption agency for mixed-race and disadvantaged children. (One of them would be Allan Pineda, aka apl.de.ap of The Black Eyed Peas.)
Writer extensively edited her home
Buck also changed the house, quite a lot. In addition to many additions and expansions (including a greenhouse for camellias), she widened the dining room beyond the roof support; tore down weight-supporting walls; and installed a stone fireplace and brick balcony in the upstairs bedrooms heavy enough to make the first-level ceiling supports visibly sag.
“She would come in here and say, ‘I’d like this extended by five feet, and turn this outdoor seating area into a dining area, and I’d like the front door to be larger, and I’d like a fireplace added.’ Then she would go on vacation,” said Rhodes. “Which is fine when a family is living there, but when you have a group coming through you have to deal with weight-bearing situations.”
As a designated historical site and tourist attraction, the house receives about 20,000 visitors a year, making structural repairs critical. The three-phase restoration slid new steel inside old wood to fortify walls and ceilings, repaired water damage from copious leaks, and replaced split floorboards.
“The house really hasn’t looked like this since Pearl Buck lived here,” said Rhodes.
The opening of the newly restored house, on Wednesday, is timed to Buck’s 121st birthday. The kitchen table is set with paper party hats and midcentury ice cream dishes.