Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Berwyn's Very Own
The Berwyn Route 66 Museum is not quite what you might be expecting.
Aside from hundreds of Route 66 related artifacts, there’s also a serpentine faux wall covered in local art, a bell from the original LaVergne School that predates Route 66, an electric vehicle charging station in front of the museum and — for good measure — an original window from Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield mansion.
For Jon Fey, the museum’s curator, it all makes sense ... sort of.
“Lincoln’s home in Springfield is about a block and half off the original Route 66,” said Fey. “His home was a stone’s throw from Route 66, but that’s as close as I can get it.”
After nearly 35 years of operating his plaque- and trophy-engraving company SWF Products next door, Fey decided to offer up an extra 625 square feet of his Ogden Avenue storefront to the museum project. It was his hope that the museum would promote Berwyn to tourists passing through on Route 66.
“My whole idea of this space was to build an attraction for this community and to bring people in from outside of Berwyn and have them check it out,” Fey said. “Whatever I can do to make that happen without going bankrupt or having something horrible happen is worthwhile to me.”
When Fey opened the Berwyn Route 66 Museum in January, he intended it to be a tribute to the city’s history as part of the fabled Mother Road and Dealer’s Row. Almost one year into the venture, the museum has turned into a mix of Fey’s interests that also doubles as the office and gallery space for the Berwyn Arts Council.
In truth, the museum’s eclectic nature stems from myriad interests of Fey, who enjoys making art cars, local history and especially aviation.
“If I could figure out a way to hang an airplane in here, I’d probably do it, but we’ll have to put that on hold,” said Fey, making a joke on the cramped quarters.
Fey also sits on the Berwyn Arts Council, and decided in June the space could easily double as a venue for local artists to show off their work.
For the Berwyn Arts Council, the museum-gallery space has been a boon. For the first time in its five-year existence, the council now has a proper mailing address and someone to answer its phone line. Fey has even put its name on the door just below the museum’s.
Now, through Fey, the council has showcased six artists this year and hopes to expand the program to a dozen in 2012, said Paula Swasko, president of the Berwyn Arts Council.
“It feels like it’s our little center of being now,” she said. “We kind of have a place we can call our own.”
For the last three years, the council had acted as a local arts advocate. Its most high-profile event was “Passport to Art,” featuring children artists throughout the Depot District.
Fey has allowed the Berwyn Arts Council to clear out a space in the middle of the store and put up 25 feet worth of standing metal grids to create faux walls to hang paintings.
“We have always wanted some sort of way to support local artists and making their work available to the public, but we've never had a venue in which to do that,” Swasko said. “It’s really been a treat. It’s just the right size for these small events.”
Many local artists lack a place to show off their works and often end up working in obscurity. Fey said some artists featured at the museum hadn’t had public showings in 25 years.
For Wendy Ritchy, a painter from Berwyn and art therapist at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, the gallery’s low-key nature and wide appeal is a major plus.
“I like that I can just show it to my friends and neighbors. It’s not a high-pressure kind of venue to show your work,” Ritchy said. “It’s welcoming, and it can invite all kinds of people in — people that might not ordinarily come and look at art.”
Although an art gallery housed in a room that’s ceiling is bordered by hubcaps may seem dissonant, Fey says it hasn’t taken away from the success of either venture. Fey has taken care to ensure that the Route 66 Museum is well researched and thorough while making sure artists feel at home.
The museum saw visitors this year from as far away as Sicily, Poland and even New Zealand.
“It’s amazing how many people are really into Route 66. They're kind of like groupies,” Fey said. “They’re all great people and we’re having a lot of fun with it.”
Fey was able to create the open space after technological advances cut the size of the machines SWF Products uses in half. The two storefronts, once separate buildings, were connected before Fey bought the building.
Although the art and historical venture has taken some time away from him and his staff, he feels it’s been a net positive for the business.
“It’s kind of like a bowl of candy on the table,” Fey said. “We get to talk to people we wouldn’t normally get to talk to.”
Although the Berwyn Route 66 Museum already has spawned new branches, albeit in the same room, Fey might not be done. He’s talked of making a display for Berwyn’s Depot District and other local historical artifacts.
Whatever the museum ends up being, Fey is still formulating his vision.
“Maybe it’s an eclectic museum. Maybe that’s what this is,” he said. “I just wish we had more space.”
Copyright 2011 Berwyn Life. Some rights reserved