The Schwenkfelder expansion project incorporates 10,000 sf of renovations and 17,000 sf of building addition to an existing private library and museum established in 1884...

Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center c. 1951

The Schwenkfelder expansion project incorporates 10,000 sf of renovations and 17,000 sf of building addition to an existing private library and museum established in 1884. The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets books, manuscripts, and artifacts related to Central European settlers of southeastern Pennsylvania. The building program includes a reading room, open and closed stacks, archives and vault, microfilm room, educational activity and orientation rooms, meeting space (seats 175), conservation accessioning rooms, and gallery and exhibit spaces. The library is a primary resource for serious genealogical research. The collection of Fraktur, one of the largest in the country (more than 1000 examples), are presented in a special gallery dedicated to rotating exhibitions of the very valuable illuminated manuscripts and documents. Other galleries exhibit regional paintings, American Indian artifacts, farm tools, and crafts.

Excerpts from the New York Times – Art Section, May 20, 2001, “Art of the Schwenkfelder: Emblems of the Joy So Long Denied Them” by Rita Reif:
The watercolor documents and drawings of the Schwenkfelders, a little known Pennsylvania-German sect that came to America in the 1730’s, vividly expresses the worldly and spiritual joys that were often denied them in their homeland of Silesia, a region then in Austria-Hungary and now in southern Poland. After two centuries of enduring intolerance and persecution, 200 Schwenkfelders left Silesia to seek refuge and a place to worship openly, traveling first to Saxony and then to the Netherlands, where they boarded ships to America.

On their arrival, these farmers and craftsmen settled within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia. They quickly dropped the original name of their Protestant sect, Confessors of the Glory of Christ, and began calling themselves Schwenkfelders, a name derived from that of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, the Silesian nobleman who founded the sect in the 1520’s.

Typically, such immigrants stressed the positive in their drawings and documents, omitting references to the harsh times they had suffered in Silesia, where all were barred from selling property, many had their children taken from them and some were imprisoned.

But the Schwenkfelders’ art reflected other aspects of their distinctive culture: it exhibited a mastery of riotous colors and exotic imagery, which was characteristic of their Eastern European heritage but new to Pennsylvania-German Fraktur, a name given the lavishly decorated, hand-lettered documents that used Gothic type and watercolors. The works also demonstrated how equality among the sexes functioned in their community: men and women were encouraged to produce Frakturs of the highest proficiency in lettering and drawing, skills elsewhere reserved for men.

The art also reflects the sect’s strong focus on personal discipline and tolerance. After experiencing what Schwenckfeld called “a visitation from God,” he taught that spiritual renewal took place inside each person, unaided by rituals and sacraments, which they played down. The Schwenkfelders prayed in their homes, not in churches (until the late 19th century) and rejected infant baptism. Such practices diverged from those of the Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Calvinists. These differences spurred the reprisals against the Schwenkfelders in Silesia.

Now, for the first time, the sect’s collection of illuminated manuscripts – marriage certificates, birth announcements, book plates and gift drawings – is on view to the public in “Fraktur Treasures From the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center Collection,” and exhibition at the group’s newly expanded center in Pennsburg, 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The show, opening this weekend, and remaining through September, was previewed three weeks ago at an art warehouse in the city.

“This Fraktur is very exciting stuff and terribly rare,” said Ralph Esmerian, chairman of the Museum of American Folk Art, whose collection includes some of the finest Fraktur in private hands. “It’s much more colorful, almost Byzantine in feeling and gutsier than the German-Swiss Fraktur we’ve been seeing.”…

Like their Mennonite neighbors, the Schwenkfelders framed the texts of their documents, written in German or English, with a profusion of angels, birds, leaves and flowers. The drawings are often pure fantasy, limited only by an artist’s imagination or the published prints that they copied…

David W. Luz, the executive director of the library and a Schwenkfelder minister, said the Schwenkfelder began to collect “their heritage” in the 1880’s. They built the red brick library to house it in the 1950’s and recently enlarged it, nearly doubling in size. The Schwenkfelders, who now number 2,500 members in six congregations, half of whom are descendants of the 12 or so families who settled here 270 years ago want to share that history with others, he said.

“The Schwenkfelders are touching us spiritually in this collection,” he said. “And we are receiving a gift from them that may help us to enjoy the world around us as richly as they did.”


Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center
105 Seminary Street
Pennsburg, PA 18073

Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center c. 1951
Location: Pennsburg, PA | Year Completed: 2001
Construction Cost: $3.1M | FF&E: $800,000 | Project Size: 27,000 sf
Services: Predesign/Architectural Basic Services/Interior Design/Cost estimating

LEED certification not pursued at Owner’s request – significant sustainable design initiatives incorporated into project

Professional Recognition:
Photo Credit: Tom Bernard