In Pursuit of History through a life in Chester Springs

In Pursuit of History through a life in Chester Springs


In Pursuit of History: A Lifetime Collecting Colonial American Art and Artifacts
By Editors H. Richard Dietrich III, Deborah M. Rebuck
Contributors: David L. Barquist, Edward S. Cooke Jr, Michael P Dyer, Kathleen A. Foster, Morrison H. Heckscher, Philip C. Mead, Lisa Minardi, William S. Reese
Publisher: Philadelphia Museum Distribution (January 28, 2020)


In Pursuit of HistoryRarely do book reviewers devote much time to that genre referred to as “cocktail table books.” Those books are usually physically imposing, exquisitely photographed and containing text, which is often judged as inferior. In an age of digital photography and stunning print reproduction, the story line can seem neglected.

Not so in the case of Yale University’s recent 300-page opus documenting the life and hobbies of our Chester Springs neighbors, the Dietrich Family. The book is the work of H. Richard Dietrich III and Deborah Rebuck and it weaves together a series of disparate stories culminating in the formation of America’s most impressive “non-museum.” More on the concept of a non-museum in a moment.

Our story begins in Chester Springs in the mid 1960s. Brothers Richard and Dan Dietrich decide they want to live with their families in proximity to each other in Philadelphia’s western suburbs. They find two contiguous farms, one owned by former Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts and another on Art School Road dubbed “Arkadia.” Richard is a budding collector of decorative arts working closely with the empress of porcelain, Eleanor Gordon. His brother Dan is a fine arts guy with modern tastes. Together, they are the heirs of a Reading food processing family which became famous in 1928 for acquiring William Luden’s cough drop company. The Brothers Dietrich are groomed to run the family businesses in Reading, but they are raised and educated in suburban Philadelphia. Thus Chester Springs is the perfect halfway point between the vocations of Reading and the avocations for art found in an around Philly.

The book focuses on the collecting instincts of H. Richard Jr. In 1963 he forms a foundation which will collect great antiques, historic fine art and ephemera. Early on he decides that rather than create another eponymous museum (think, Getty, Norton Simon) he will lend his collection to existing museums to fill voids or simply add sparkle to their permanent collections. Like other great collectors such as Henry DuPont, he befriends experts like Eleanor Gordon and Leigh Keno who help him select and then acquire things that had significant importance either in a decorative or historical sense. The authors adeptly walk the read through the subject’s work as a mid 20th century industrialist and as a voracious collector who discovers an ever growing array of new collecting “interests”.

The results are on display throughout American museums both large and small. But a big piece of it can be seen at Philadelphia’s Museum of Art including “the chair” that Richard bought in 1987 for $2.75 million. That story is told in fascinating detail by the Keno Brothers in their book. It was “discovered” while lurking in a dark corner of the library at the Upland Country Day School.

The furniture, the china, the sterling and the fraktur are all beautifully photographed, but the book also chronicles life in the ‘hood we call Chester Springs in the 1970s and beyond to Richard’s death in 2007 and Dan’s in 2015. Among the neighborhood projects was the preservation of an art school and colonial spa located about a mile west of Arkadia. The reader of this blog may be familiar with that enterprise. He or she may also know of the most recent chapter of Dietrich history which was the sale of large swaths of the Bryn Coed Farms to the Natural Lands Trust.

There are many stories here. One is the business enterprise that afforded the Dietrichs the ability to collect. Another is the formation of the collection. But, dominating the stories is the collection itself. It embodies the history of a nation approaching its quarter millennium and takes in objects as great as Paul Revere’s sterling tankard from the 1750s and as small as the humble fraktur bookplate made in Montgomery County almost a century later. In Pursuit of History is a tale from the ‘hood’ worthy of any coffee table, but especially those in our small hamlet in Chester County.

Book review by
Mark Ashton, HYS Board Member