A Positive Obsession
By Susan Baldrige
Mar 06, 2004 12:37 PM
Lancaster New Era
She's passionate about these quilts of ours.I t's the first thing
Patricia Thompson Herr thinks about when she wakes in the morning
and the last thing in her head at night. That qualifies as
"Obsession is what our children call it," said Herr with a laugh.
"They say we're obsessed.'' That obsession of Herr's has fueled
the creation of Lancaster's first-ever Quilt and Textile Museum,
featuring the Esprit Collection of antique Amish-made quilts.
And that, in turn, has fueled "the start of downtown
revitalization'' in the words this week of Mayor Charlie
Smithgall made the declaration Wednesday after nearly two dozen
downtown businesses announced Sunday hours in anticipation of the
museum's opening March 31 in the Lancaster County Trust Building on
Market Alley, near Central Market.
Museum officials expect at least 55,000 people to visit the
museum every year.
Several tours and groups have already booked it.
Nowadays Herr, 67, of Lancaster, said she is more excited about
what the quilt museum will do for the downtown than she is about
And that's saying something for this avid quilt and textile
collector, who, incidentally, is a retired veterinarian married
to a fellow veterinarian who is an avid collector of antique
"I can't help but be enthusiastic,'' Herr said of the museum in
the heart of downtown. "There's so much opportunity for growth
here. I know it's not everything but it is a very positive
beginning.'' But it almost wasn't.
The historic Amish quilt collection that will be the hallmark of
the museum's opening was secured in a late night and early
morning flurry of phone calls during one tense "hand-wringing''
day last June, recalled Herr.
And she was at the center of it.
The 82 vintage quilts make up the famous Esprit Collection, which
was amassed over the past 20 years by Esprit Clothing Co. owner
Doug Tompkins, who displayed them in his corporate office.
Tompkins was attracted to the colorful artistry of the quilts
made in Lancaster by Amish women. The quilts he collected were
considered some of the finest examples ever made. They date from
the 1890s to the 1940s.
Tompkins decided to sell his collection last year after he became
interested in buying up portions of the Amazon rain forest in
While the curator of Tompkins' exhibit, Julie Silber, was hoping
the quilts would somehow end up back in Lancaster County, the
original $1.3 million price tag for the collection made it seem
out of reach for quilt enthusiasts here.
Besides, the collection had traveled around the globe by then and
several major museums and private collectors were interested in
Then came the late-night call from Silber in California to Herr
in Lancaster, warning her the quilts were about to be sold.
""I want to see these in Lancaster,''' Herr said Silber told her.
""Don't you think you can do anything?' "So I got on the phone at
that late hour,'' said Herr. "I started calling people and
telling them we were about to lose the chance at getting these
"I called people who I felt had the same vision and wanted these
quilts here,'' Herr said.
But she said the idea of the collection and a museum had already
been mulled over.
"We just didn't think there was enough interest,'' she said, even
though the price had dropped to a mere $1 million.
But Herr was wrong.
She said the people she called "captured the spirit of bringing
the quilts back to the place where they were made.
"They wanted to have the quilts here, telling their story,'' Herr
But there was no time to waste.
"It was last call,'' she said.
Interested donors met early the next morning and "wrung their
hands'' until it was late enough in California to call Silber and
say they had come up with the money for the collection.
The quilts were coming back home.
The excitement continues today, both at the Trust Building, where
workers are painting and cleaning in anticipation of the museum's
opening, and also with Herr and her deep passion for these native
works of art.
"After 35 years of serious collecting, I still get up in the
morning and think "what is there we can do with quilts today' or
"is there a sale somewhere?' "The fun of it is never knowing what
you will find when you're looking,'' she said. "It's not like you
need a pair of black shoes and you go out and get them.'' The
paradoxical thing about Herr's interest in quilts is how
attracted she is by their historic value and the story they tell
about their maker.
The mother of three grown children, and grandmother of two, Herr
hated history when she was in high school and college, all
stemming from a dreadfully boring history teacher under whom she
"I tried to avoid ever taking another history class,'' she said.
But after Herr graduated from Penn Veterinary School, she went to
a lecture on antique textiles and just became "fascinated'' with
Even though Herr is not a quilter herself, she became passionate
about them, even finishing four books about certain exhibits
including the latest one on the Espirit collection.
"Now it's more than just a possibility,'' Herr said. "This is
actually happening and people will come to see these quilt
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