Gee Whiz Bang. I hadn’t seen the Zinn Dollhouse for decades and here I am standing in front of it at the Old Courthouse Museum on the majestic hill directly across from where I last saw the house when it glittered and gleamed in the cozy confines of the former Museum of Wisconsin Art. They gifted it to the Courthouse Museum when MOWA was built on Veterans Drive. It’s a home that seems fully “at home.” Though it is a work of art, the real beauty of it, is its historical value.
What’s not to love about a dollhouse? Most of the girls I grew up with in Smalltown USA had one in their childhood. Back then carpentry skills were diverse and making a dollhouse was no sweat for most guys, be they dads, brothers, uncles, granddads, etc.
Fifty years after leaving my Smalltown USA, I was startled to hear a friend say at a class reunion. “I have your old dollhouse still stored in my attic, Judy.”
I guess we left it behind for safe keeping when we moved. I don’t recall missing it, as by then, no doubt I’d moved on to the movies and the Rialto south of the town square. My granddaughter had a dollhouse, one I had built for her, but when her family moved, it didn’t move with them. Just like real homes left behind in our society which is ever on the move from here to there.
Of course there are dollhouses, and then there are DOLLHOUSES. The regular ones come unfurnished, but the uber-houses are wired for electricity, have windows and doors that open, and if your gramps is a plumber, perhaps they have toilets that flush. Just kidding. If you are in Milwaukee, check out the glamorous dollhouses at the Pabst Mansion. One does not, if one has big bucks, dilly around with just any old shack of a dollhouse. No, the dollhouses of the rich and famous surely reflect the very homes their owners occupy.
It’s my dim recollection that my daughters’ dollhouse had some padded furniture (wow), but mostly they decorated with chocolate hued plastic furnishings that came in a box. Then there was the era when Barbie reigned in a plastic house, wearing her plastic shoes which were forever being lost in our home’s shag carpeting. Barbie was a hottie, one who would never live in a Victorian mansion, Zinn style. Other than Ken, Barbie had no one to celebrate with did she?
As I stood studying The Zinn Dollhouse, decorated to the Victorian nines with Christmas items, I read from a wall panel that the house grew like topsy over the years. Originally, modestly proportioned, it gained grandeur. Like so many of our homes, homes built for Homo-sapiens, it grew and grew as the family grew and grew.
What’s the fascination with “a dollhouse?” Certainly as little kids we didn’t have much control over the real home-front where our parents reigned like GIANTS.
A dollhouse was a fantasy place where we could pick and choose where and how to place the furnishings. It provided we wee ones with the illusion of control. A demure volunteer at the museum, a retired geriatric nurse/teacher, remarked (her face lit up when she spoke), that she had a dollhouse as a child, but it was her mother who did the “decorating,” i.e. picked out the wallpaper, etc. I asked her if she still had the little house. She didn’t. They moved and it didn’t move with them. Perhaps her mother decorated her daughter’s dollhouse because it brought back memories of a childhood that maybe didn’t have a dollhouse. But I’m guessing here.
During the 80s, I was on the Board of an art venue (Walkers Point Center for the Arts) on Milwaukee’s National Avenue. At one point I was privileged to participate in an art exhibition (Sweeping & Cleaning) loosely themed around houses and shelters. My contribution was a big dollhouse that I purchased from an artist friend of mine. I furnished it not with luxe things, but with a kind of helter-skelter hodgepodge suggesting that well; it wasn’t the Brady Bunch home of your dreams. Eventually I donated the house and most of my Wisconsin art collection to Carroll University. When I visited the collection to see how my contributions were displayed, I discovered, much to my despair, that the dollhouse had been thrown out by persons who mistook it for trash. My friend never really forgave me. Childhood dollhouses do not die easily…
Think about dollhouses and their connection to our early concepts of Alice in Wonderland. Alice fell down a rabbit hole and into a land of wonder where things aren’t always what they seem. She could grow bigger or smaller at whim. In many ways, her land of wonder was akin to gazing in the windows at the world inside of our world, a world where anything can happen. Gulliver had much the same experiences in his travels, and to the Lilliputians Gulliver was a giant. You are indeed a voyeur when you peek in the windows of a dollhouse. It’s perfectly legal, unlike being a peeping Tom.
Before I left The museum and The Zinn experience, before I stepped out into the blinding sunshine (the sun, the sun!), I thought about the thin sheets of Styrofoam “snow,” draped over the dormers and eaves of the elegant dollhouse. We’ve had a crazy December with no snow in these parts thanks to El Nino. But inside the museum, one can almost see a big family anticipating Christmas. The table is set, decorations abound around the tiny folks gathered, and oh by gosh by golly, it’s starting to snow big time!
It’s Christmas in Zinn Land. Let yourself go.