It was a priceless bequest.
And now it’s going to have a home.
In a few weeks, renovations will begin at the historic barn at Rock Ford Plantation in Lancaster County Central Park.
The upper floor is to open next year as the John J. Snyder Jr. Gallery, housing a one-of-a-kind collection of early Lancaster County decorative arts, assembled by its namesake, a renowned antiquarian and collector who passed away in 2013.
The lower level is a popular venue for weddings, receptions and other events. That’s not changing, Rock Ford Foundation executive director Samuel Slaymaker said.
Snyder was a nationally known expert who specialized in items from the Colonial and Federal periods in central and eastern Pennsylvania.
Over his lifetime, he built up an extensive collection. It eventually overflowed the early 19th century Federal mansion in Washington Boro where he lived, which he dubbed “Toad Hall” after “The Wind in the Willows.”
At the time of his death at age 67, his collection was worth an estimated $9.7 million. Some of it was sold at auction, but many items went to museums.
The largest portion came to Rock Ford, where Snyder had been a board member. The donation from his estate comprised well over 200 Lancaster County artifacts dating roughly from 1760 to 1820, including furniture, paintings, silverware and ceramics.
Among the most remarkable pieces are 32 tall case clocks, each one an elegant masterpiece of mechanical skill and craftsmanship.
“It’s an excellent, tightly focused, collection,” said Tom Ryan, president and CEO of LancasterHistory.
“We were blown away” by the collection’s beauty, quality and historical significance, Slaymaker said.
WATCH: Sam Slaymaker on the Snyder collection
But at first, the foundation wasn’t sure it could accept Snyder’s posthumous generosity. Rock Ford mansion, the stately Georgian residence built for Gen. Edward Hand in the 1790s, was already well furnished.
To be sure, there was space in the barn, which sits just west of the house up a gentle, grassy slope. But a lot of work needed to be done to bring the building up to museum-quality standards.
So the foundation launched a capital campaign, with a goal of raising $2 million. It has gone well, giving the foundation confidence to move forward with the project, Slaymaker said.
Creating the gallery
More than $1 million will go toward renovating the barn, preserving the collection and mounting the exhibits.
Besides interior work and overhaul of the barn’s mechanical systems, a vestibule will be built on the barn’s west side. It will house a guest reception area and restrooms. Outside, landscaping and paving will provide handicapped parking and access.
Construction should wrap up by winter, Slaymaker said. Setting up the exhibits will take a few months after that. Rock Ford envisions opening the gallery in the spring.
Meanwhile, another $500,000 will be used to set up an endowment, to offset future operating costs. Lastly, funding will go toward preliminary work for a second barn that Rock Ford plans to build near the existing one. It will house space for storage, exhibit conservation and research.
Wohlsen Construction president Gary Langmuir and his wife, Deborah, are the capital campaign co-chairs, and the firm is the general contractor on the project. Connie King of Marotta Main is the project architect.
Wohlsen is a “natural fit,” Slaymaker said. It has a long history with Rock Ford; among other things, it did the original preservation work in the late 1950s when Rock Ford was acquired and turned into a historic attraction.
From museum to gallery
This will be the second time the barn has housed a collection of historic artifacts. In 1976 the Kauffman Museum opened there, exhibiting over 1,000 items donated by collector Henry J. Kauffman, who had retired from teaching at what was then Millersville State College.
The museum closed in the early 2000s. A contributing factor, Slaymaker said, was that it was static: The same exhibits remained year after year, and interest waned.
That won’t be the case with the Snyder Gallery, he said. The term “gallery” was chosen deliberately: It will be a flexible, dynamic venue with regularly rotating displays and new things to see.
Items from the Kauffman collection will be part of the gallery, Slaymaker said, notably two dozen Pennsylvania long rifles.
The foundation hasn’t decided yet whether to have separate tickets for the gallery and the house tour, or what admission fees to charge. Slaymaker said the goal is to be “as accessible to as many people as possible.”
Ryan said the gallery promises to be an “important venue” for learning about the material culture and craftsmanship of early Lancaster County. LancasterHistory looks forward to working closely with Rock Ford, he said.
The gallery will be a great addition to one of the county’s premier attractions, said Joel Cliff, spokesman for Discover Lancaster, the county’s tourism marketing bureau.
“We’re really excited for them,” he said.