Published: May 22, 2007
As dealers for the past several decades, Melinda and Laszlo Zongor dedicated themselves to their specialty, antique American woven coverlets. They organized exhibitions, wrote catalogs and engaged in ongoing research.
The Zongors recently renounced the for-profit world to devote themselves to a longtime dream, establishing the first independent, year-round institution exclusively devoted to the collection, display and study of American woven coverlets.
Supporters of the project include Edward Maeder, director of exhibitions and curator of textiles at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts. Maeder is president of the National Museum of The American Coverlet’s board of directors.
“The discussion began three years ago when I met the Zongors at the ADA-Historic Deerfield Antiques Show,” Maeder recalls. “I’ve never known anyone more dedicated, passionate and committed to the goal of having a place where coverlets will be available for people to study and enjoy. At so many institutions, coverlets are behind locked doors in inaccessible storage.”
Other directors include Eva Burnham, a Montreal-based costume and textile conservator and restorer; architect Stephen A. George; Jes Horwath, who is also active in the Colonial Coverlet Guild of America; dealers Frank J. Miele and Sumpter Priddy III; and C. Douglas Schmidt, president of the Cumberland Cultural Foundation, which oversees the C. William Gilchrist Museum of The Arts. Collector Jude Fera is an ex-officio director of the National Museum of the American Coverlet (NMAC). Martha Jack, a pioneer in coverlet stewardship, is an honorary director.
Melinda Zongor is the museum’s director and curator. In 1988, she organized “Warm & Wonderful: The Jacquard Coverlet,” the first commercial gallery display to present woven coverlets as art, at Hirschl & Adler Folk in Manhattan. In 2005, she compiled Coverlets at the Gilchrist: American Coverlets 1771‱889, available through the museum.
In time, the National Museum of the American Coverlet plans to hire a professional conservator and registrar. Most other tasks will be performed by volunteers.
Visitors got their first glimpse of the National Museum of The American Coverlet last spring, when an interim gallery opened in the 1859 Common School, a 30,000-square-foot, two-story red-brick building with an attached one-story annex in Bedford. The museum, which now encompasses the building’s first floor, will formally open on Memorial Day weekend, May 26 and 27.
Planned to coincide with the opening is the 83rd annual meeting of the Colonial Coverlet Guild of America, an organization of collectors, researchers, students, weavers, spinners, dyers and dealers founded in 1924.
In addition to spinning and weaving demonstrations, the weekend will include talks by Priddy, whose book, American Fancy , was initially inspired by a coverlet marked “FANCY WEAVER”; Craufurd Goodwin, a North Carolina expert in Piedmont coverlets; and Kathie Mellinger Plack, who will discuss western Pennsylvania coverlets of the 1850s.
The Zongors looked in six states for a facility. By sheer coincidence, a local real estate broker suggested the Bedford Common School. With a pledge for half the building’s purchase price, the museum must raise the remaining sum to acquire the building outright.
“The first time we saw the school we knew it was the right place,” says Zongor. “The architecture dates to the period of the coverlets. We needed a huge amount of wall space and high ceilings to display pieces properly. There is plenty of parking. Renting out the second floor will significantly defray the cost of maintaining the building.”
When complete, the facility will boast, in addition to exhibition galleries, a museum shop, a library, space for programs and events, storage, conservation facilities, photography and exhibition production studios, and food service.
“A number of people have expressed an interest in learning to weave on old equipment,” says Zongor, who anticipates offering classes in different topics at the museum.
While the school retains many of its original architectural features, heating and electrical systems have been updated and an elevator has been added. The museum received a grant for gallery lighting and is currently seeking funding for interior storm windows.
The collection focuses on the two major types of American woven coverlets, geometric examples and figured ones. Within those categories, coverlets can also be classified by weave structure. The most common weaves are overshot, double-weave, summer-and-winter, tied-Biederwand and jacquard.
“Immigrants brought weave structures and colors with them, but the coverlets themselves seem to be a uniquely American art form. How that happened bears more research,” says Zongor, who believes that the public has been slow to appreciate coverlets because they do not realize that most of them are hand loomed.
Some of the earliest American coverlets were woven by women. By the early Nineteenth Century, an industry developed, dominated by professional male weavers from England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Germany. Usually made of wool and cotton in bold designs and vivid colors, many coverlets date from the middle decades of the Nineteenth Century. Some commemorate a marriage or birth and include specific references to places as well as dates and names of weavers and clients. Beginning in the 1820s, American looms were fitted with jacquard heads, allowing professional weavers to make figured coverlets more efficiently and in more elaborate patterns.
“We think of coverlets as having been woven in Pennsylvania, New York and the Midwest, but overshot coverlets were made in great numbers in New England and the South,” says Zongor, who sought a central location for the museum. Bedford is roughly four hours west of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington and two and half hours from Ohio. The museum is in the town’s historic district, not far from such attractions as Fort Bedford, Old Bedford Village and historic Bedford Springs Hotel.
The Zongors have given their private collection of geometric, figured and fancy coverlets to the fledgling institution. The oldest coverlet in the collection is an overshot example dated 1771. The latest, dated 1889, is a figured coverlet decorated with small buildings hidden in a field pattern of red, white and blue.
Other enthusiasts have also offered to give or loan their coverlets to the museum. Still actively buying, Fera, a Connecticut collector who owns more 200 coverlets, many of them from Connecticut or New Hampshire, says the museum can draw on her holdings at any time.
In addition to coverlets, the National Museum of the American Coverlet collects and displays ingrain carpeting, which was woven in strips by the yard, and antique weaving equipment.
Opening in May is “Big News,” arraying dated coverlets in chronological order and associating them with historic events. Included in the display is a rare 1838 coverlet in a pattern called “Eagle and Stars.” Woven in four colors, it pictures horseback soldiers with drawn swords.
“We plan to have at least two exhibits up at all times,” says Zongor. “They will last from three to six months and explore different aspects of the art and craft of coverlet making, as well consider the weavers themselves.”
Eliza Calvert Hall wrote the first guide for collectors, A Book of Hand-Woven Coverlets, in 1912. Heirlooms from Old Looms : A Catalog of Coverlets Owned by The Colonial Coverlet Guild of America and Its Members appeared in 1940 and again in 1955. More recently, collectors have turned to John W. Heisey’s 1978 Checklist of American Coverlet Weavers. The reference was updated by Clarita S. Anderson and republished by Colonial Williamsburg in association with Ohio University Press in 2002 as American Coverlets and Their Weavers: Coverlets From The Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl, Including a Dictionary of More Than 700 Coverlet Weavers .
A gallery in the new Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg is named for Foster and Muriel McCarl, who gave a portion of their collection to the Virginia museum. The McCarl family recently announced a major gift of 300 coverlets, together with funds for their care and display, to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn. Foster McCarl died in January 2007.
Other museums with coverlets include the Art Institute of Chicago, the American Textile History Museum, the Shelburne Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the DuPage County Historical Museum in Illinois. The Alling Coverlet Museum in Palmyra, N.Y., is open from June through mid-September.
“We are very fortunate to have been joined in this project by can-do people who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and excited. If we got intimidated by how much we have to do, we would never have taken the first step,” says Zongor.
She adds, “Coverlets speak for themselves, if they are only given the chance.”
The museum and its shop are open daily, year round. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from noon to 4 pm.
The National Museum of the American Coverlet is at 322 South Juliana Street. For information, 814-623-1588 or www.coverletmuseum.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm