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Discover Mid-America— June 2009

A ‘Pink Barn’ bathed in light
Story and photos by Bruce Rodgers

Tell Fred Kottman that his pink barn needs painting and he’ll look at you sort of wearily and say something like, “So you’re going to volunteer aren’t ya when we paint?” Fred figures that if you’re nosey enough speak the obvious about his and his son Charles’ shop, The Pink Barn Antiques & Lamps in Rushville, MO, then you should chip in and help do something about it.

An upstairs room at The Pink Barn Antiques & Lamps shop in Rushville, MO

    Likely, it will get painted, for the fourth time, and it will stay pink. Fred’s mother, Carol, suggested the color to her husband David on a drive to Plattsburg back in 1959 or ’60, said Fred.
    “My mother and dad were heading east on 116 when they popped over a hill and there sat a pink house. My mother turned to my dad and said, ‘You ought to paint the barn pink.’”
    And so it was done, said Fred, and it’s been that way for nearly 50 years.

A gathering of lamps

    David Kottman was “a furniture man,” said Fred. “My dad did not get into lamps and lights. He did upholstery and refinishing, and all that stuff. At one time, dad had nine guys working for him. He had one guy doing lamps when he was in Atchison.”
         Kottman Upholstery operated in downtown Atchison, KS, from 1945 to 1956. Moving to eight acres, with a house and barn, east of town at the intersection of US 59 and US 45, was done of necessity. Working with furniture requires space and the old hay and cattle barn, built in the early 1900s, had it.
         Making it ready as a furniture shop included creative and cost-saving salvaging — cherry paneling and bedroom doors still divide the space upstairs and old rugs cover the wooden floors.

Charles Kottman points to “double-hanging” light fixture with ruby and clear prisms made by the Edward Miller Co., dated 1880-1890.

         “It was put in there because it’s cheaper than buying new,” said Charles.
         At the time, lamps took over only one small part of barn downstairs. But customers who had antique furniture wanted lamps, said Fred. “And the more they wanted lamps, the more we had to try and supply them.”
         So the space for lamps grew, fueled somewhat by David’s attraction to Aladdin lamps. The Aladdin model 1 lamp went on sale in 1908 after Victor Johnson formed the Mantle Lamp Company of America. The success of the lamp was almost immediate. Superior parts made the lamp burn brighter and Johnson was skilled at marketing and setting up a nationwide sales force.
         David became an Aladdin dealer, selling them while adding to his personal collection. They weren’t really antiques, but antique lamps started coming to the shop. Nearby Fort Leavenworth helped that along. Soldiers and their families rotated in and out, sometimes selling their lamps to Kottman before leaving. Acquiring antique lamps from individuals remains the way The Pink Barn supplements its inventory rather than what one might assume would be auctions.
         “No auctions,” said Charles. “People have stuff to get repaired and they bring it to you needing a part to sell it. Or they don’t have enough (items) for an auction and ask if we’re interested in buying it.
         “We end up buying better stuff, stuff that’s not beat up, that’s not been through 50 peoples’ hands and really messed up. You get good quality that way.”
         Charles now calculates that 75 percent of their lamp inventory is antiques — 100 years old or older. “Our dominant line is Victorian lighting, old stuff, from the 1860s to 1900,” he added.
         The Pink Barn does carry other antiques, it’s just that the dominance of lamps, shades and chandeliers captures the eye so splendidly that other, sometimes bigger things fade to background, such things as walnut and oak furniture, cane chairs, clocks, dolls, silver, old tools, cut glass and plates.
         Still, as both Fred and Charles know, it’s the antique lamps that have given them a solid business and sterling reputations.

Second to third generation

     It wasn’t just the lamps that bought stability and growth to the Kottman antique shop. Commitments had to be made, first Fred and then Charles.
         Fred wanted to be an architectural engineer or a pilot. But those careers didn’t come along. “I quit college, fooled around for awhile, got drafted, went into the Army and came back here in 1950,” he said.
         For a couple of years, Fred helped out his father but then it was off to California. In 1959, he came back home again. His father was having it hard and Fred “was going to try and get the barn going for him then go back to California.”
         But it didn’t turn out that way, the temporary turned out to be a lifetime endeavor.
         “Right,” acknowledges Fred, “just like him” he adds, pointing to Charles. “He’s been here temporary three or four times. We get to fighting or something, and he’s gone. Then, whatever, he’s back.”
         But Charles likely isn’t going anywhere again. He’s a family man, has affection for the area he grew up in, and as one of the younger antique shop owners around, loves the work and challenge of repairing and restoring old lamps. But he had to get there.
         “I wanted to be an architect, to design houses,” Charles said. He found drafting to his liking and after graduating from high school he took a job as a drafting clerk in St. Joseph. “But it wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he said.

A variety of cloth fabric and silk lampshades that are suited for more modern styles of lamps.

         Then Charles tried college for a year. “Wasn’t in that frame of mind,” he said. Vo-tech school was next with computer drafting courses. But jobs were scarce and Charles didn’t want to move to Kansas City.
         He found a job at a yarn factory in Atchison getting into the mechanical end of maintaining and fixing the machines. Next it was building patterns for a steel foundry, learning how to fabricate parts. Somewhere along the line Charles must have remembered back when he was 17, walking into the antique shop after mowing the grass and seeing his father sell an Aladdin lamp to a customer. Suddenly, the Aladdin magic hit him.
         “I had been in there a million times and grew up around this stuff my whole life, but I didn’t like it”; yet when Fred put on a shade on the Aladdin and explained how he could electrify the lamp without hurting it, “I’m thinking, ‘That’s kinda neat,’” said Charles.
         Next, Fred showed his son an Aladdin book and Charles is asking, “We got that one? We got that one?” pointing to lamps in the book.
         Maybe Fred was a little surprised at his son’s sudden conversion, telling him to “Go down to the house and see grandpa and tell him you want to see the Aladdin collection.”
         Charles couldn’t run fast enough. “Dad said you had a lot of lamps around here somewhere,” he told his grandfather David.
         “He gets this big grin on his face and took me down where all these lamps were on shelves,” Charles said. “That was it, I was on a string. I was done.”
         Not quite, it took until 1998. “I came over and told dad I’d like to come full time,” said Charles. “He said we’d figure out something.”
         That something is the partnership at work today.

Restoration and repair

A high-end, special order copper and brass Bradley & Hubbard lamp with dragon handles, circa 1880-1890
     Both Fred and Charles believe one learns best by doing. In most of Fred’s day, there weren’t many books on lamps. Now, the supply of books and reprinted lamp catalogs has increased, and there’s the Internet as an ultimate source for knowledge and hard-to-find parts. Still, neither man puts much faith in “so-called experts” who learn more from a book.
          “On those shows on TV, they’re dealing with stuff on the East Coast that’s been in a house or whatever since it came over on the Mayflower and never moved out of that corner,” said Charles.
         “A lot of stuff that comes out here was on steamboats or trains or covered wagons, and it went into a little shack until the they got the house built. And once the house was built, it got beat up.”
         Restoring and repairing old lamps that moved across the continent can be a challenge, particularly since many old lamps were later electrified from gas or kerosene. Though Charles does custom lamp work, restoration is Charles’ “meat” in what he calls a meat and potatoes antique shop.
         “That’s the only thing that really keeps me here,” he said. “(And) the satisfaction of doing something no one else does.”
          Though Charles and Fred have done some reproduction work for the Patee House Museum and Wyeth-Tootle Mansion in St. Joseph, what really gets Charles talking is his work on a Victorian mansion in Atchison, the Evah C. Cray Historical Home Museum. There, Charles said, someone had “made a 1940’s gear of lights out of a 1870s gas chandelier (and) had taken the regular gas shades off and basically made like a candelabra out of it with the drip cup on a gas fixture.”
         It took five months of restoration work and Charles still seems proud of the result.
         “Oh, that was a big job, a fun job, too. They were some of the most magnificent lights that I had ever had a chance to work on. There was one that was silver-plated — a great big crisscross thing with prisms hanging all over it. You just don’t hit that with a buffer. I hand polished that whole thing and clear-coated it. Then you hang it up and they look like they would have looked in 1880.”
         Such jobs reinforce Charles’ view of himself as a purist, someone who will go to great lengths to make it, what he calls, “spot-on correct.” Few things irritate him more that seeing a “five-month old ceiling fan” in a parlor of a historic home filled with antique furniture.
         Antique lighting holds its own in value and does appreciate, said Charles. Though many antique lamps were dismantled during the scrap brass drives of World War I and II, and some lamps were limited runs, he said the supply is enough to “satisfy.”
         As Fred takes it a little more easily these days, Charles has expansion plans in the back of his mind while keeping the focus on Victorian, the Arts and Crafts and Mission period lighting.
         “I’m trying to get us into a position — not necessarily the only game in town — but I want people to come in here and see things they have never seen before.
         One could argue that’s already been achieved.

For more information on Kottman’s The Pink Barn Antiques & Lamps, visit www.pinkbarn.com or call 816-688-7730.


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