Words Laura Silverman Images Michael Mundy
Mildred’s Lane is a home. It is also an artists’ retreat and an experiment in ethical living situated on 94 acres deep in the woods of rural northeastern Pennsylvania. But in the 1830s, it was a homestead with a tiny farmhouse, where Mildred Steffens was born around the turn of the last century. Out of nine siblings, she was the only one who remained on the land, farming it until she died at the age of 86. When artists J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion and friends discovered the property in the late 90s, they gave it a name that would honor her work there but set about recreating the homestead and its purpose. In the ensuing years, it has served as a place of artistic learning and experimentation, and been host to a wide range of events, projects and collaborations.
The original farmhouse where Mildred lived is now The Mildred’s Lane Historical Society and Museum, where a history of the site and its archives are kept. A new house, designed by Puett and built by local artisans, has replaced it as the primary residence. It is based on an existing structure, which has been entirely remade with elemental materials to function as what she describes variously as “an event platform,” “a living, morphing organism,” and “a common space with a reference library and communal kitchen.” A generous porch extension, inspired by local grange halls, has an additional sleeping area that is like a magical cloister.
Puett’s vision for the house is powerful and pervasive. No paint or drywall was used and one downstairs wall is covered with a series of large steel plates, all with their own unique patina. A floating staircase leads up, each steel platform a slightly different size modeled on a collection of vintage French flour sacks.
The house itself—and the systems of living it requires—becomes fodder for experimentation, education and collaborative art projects.
The furnishings, too, have been amassed over the past decades, many adaptively reused from art installations or the highly curated stores Puett owned in New York City in the late 80s and 90s. “I’m a junker,” she says with typical humility, though the dozens of weathered wooden mallets piled in an upstairs hallway, the stacks of antique linen ticking and the extensive collection of chemical glass seem more worthy of a museum.
The five-bedroom house and small outbuildings that litter the property can sleep up to 30 people. During the summer season, Mildred’s Lane is frequently full-up with students and visiting artists who come together to explore “questions of our relation to the environment, systems of labor, forms of dwelling, clothing apparatuses and inventive domesticating.” The house itself—and the systems of living it requires—becomes fodder for experimentation, education and collaborative art projects.
Puett is compiling The Mildred’s Lane Comportment Manual, what she calls a “universal guide to new modes of being.” It touches on topics from garbage disposal to dishwashing, all of which are viewed as practices with social and political meaning. The household is thus transformed into an opportunity to create meaningful change both at home and in the world at large. By its very existence, Mildred’s Lane dismantles and reframes the notion of “domestic arts.”