The photo with the Retirement Journal column in Sunday's Business section should have been credited to Tom Allen of The Washington Post. (Published 01/28/2000)
I do not know how 1999 will be remembered at your house, but at ours it will be remembered as the year that my wife, Sara, got her doll house. It was the fulfillment of a dream that Sara has cherished since she was 7 years old.
Although Sara never owned a doll house, she collected doll-house furnishings and miniatures for 30 years. Her collection of tiny objects fills five display boxes that hang on the wall of our den. But she never had a doll house in which to put her miniatures.
Finally, when Sara turned 70 last year, I told her I would buy her a doll house as a birthday present. I did so because I've come to believe that retirement is a time to make your dreams come true--if you possibly can. It was time for Sara's dream to come true.
As a collector of miniatures, Sara has lots of company. Thousands of people share her hobby. Some are enthusiasts who build and furnish their own doll houses. Others are artisans who create and build miniatures--often in exquisite detail. And there are hundreds of dealers who sell doll houses and related items in stores and at shows.
Over the years, Sara and I have met many artisans and dealers and discovered that the business is heavily populated with retirees. Often, they've told me, they got started by building a doll house for a child. But they got hooked on miniatures and stayed with it long after the child lost interest.
The U.S. doll-house and miniature industry is of significant size. Manufacturers shipped about $60 million worth of doll houses, miniatures and related items in 1997, the last year for which government data is available. Four trade associations represent various segments of the hobby. Three national magazines cover the industry. Travel companies run special tours to doll-house shows, doll-house museums and private collections. And displays of miniatures can be seen at more than 60 museums throughout the country.
Within the industry, however, opinions vary on the current health of the hobby. John K. Purcell, executive director of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts (NAME), said that while his organization has 8,000 members, it had 11,000 members in the mid-1970s, which was the period of peak interest. At present, he said, "the industry is flat."
Looking at the trends, Jim Myers, president of Dura-Craft Inc. of Newberg, Ore., a doll-house manufacturer, said sales were being hurt because some mega-craft stores had stopped selling doll houses and because of competition from computers and video games. "They're sexier and more fun than sitting down with dad and building a doll house," Myers said.
Doll houses come in a range of prices--from $40 to $1,000. Prices of miniatures vary widely, too, depending on quality. But you don't need a lot of money to take part in the hobby, especially if you're good at making things.
While most doll houses are intended for children, there are elaborate doll houses for adults who collect high-quality miniature furnishings. Indeed, the world's greatest doll houses--such as Queen Mary's Dolls' House at Windsor Castle in England and the celebrated Thorne Room boxes in the Art Institute of Chicago--were created by adults for adults.
At first glance, the idea of an adult "playing" in a doll house may seem odd. But it makes a lot of sense to enthusiasts, such as Sara, and to people working in the industry.
I asked Steve Klein, 57, of Encino, Calif., a retired family therapist, why so many people become so fascinated by miniatures. Klein, who is in the business of selling real wine in tiny bottles to doll-house collectors, put it this way: "It's a matter of creating a little fantasy world that you can control. Fantasy and control are in short supply in the real world."
Soon after Sara and I began searching for her "dream" doll house, we found Foxhall Manor--an eclectic three-story mansion, with space for a roof garden on one end and a conservatory on the other. Like most doll houses, it came as a kit. When assembled, it measured 5 1/2 feet long, 2 feet deep and 3 feet high.
Sara's house was made by Walmer Dollhouses, a division of Walmer Enterprises Inc. of Alexandria. After making doll houses for 27 years, Walmer sold its doll-house business last year to Real Good Toys Inc. of Barre, Vt., in yet another sign of consolidation in the doll-house industry. Walmer's main business is making custom cabinets, bookcases and entertainment centers for home builders.
Lorraine Horbaly, president of Walmer Enterprises, said she had a hand in designing Foxhall Manor and she recalled the excitement when the house came on the market in 1993. Foxhall Manor, she said, immediately became "a collector's collectible."
Many people who buy doll houses put them together themselves. That was not something Sara and I could do, so we took the house to Gary and June LaPorta at Miniatures from the Attic, a doll-house shop in Falls Church. They agreed to assemble the house and do the exterior and interior work needed to make the house "livable."
Foxhall Manor was designed to be an 11-room house. But Sara decided to omit several walls to increase the size of the rooms and make them more interesting.
Like many doll houses, the Foxhall is open at the back, making it easy to view the rooms and arrange or rearrange the furniture and accessories. That's the part Sara likes best.
It took time to build Sara's "dream" house. Assembling the wooden structure was only the first step. Putting on the siding, painting the outside and covering the roof with asphalt shingles came next. Gary LaPorta then installed electrical tape so Sara could have light in her house.
After that, the rooms were wallpapered and moldings were installed. Some floors were tiled, others carpeted. LaPorta also built bookcase units for the library and installed a fireplace. Finally, he hung the chandeliers and light fixtures.
The house, you might say, has all the comforts of home.
"It's just like building a real house," LaPorta observed. Indeed, Sara and I drove to Falls Church every few weeks to check on the progress of the construction and to make decisions on wallpaper and carpeting and fixtures and more.
As the work progressed, Sara could barely contain her excitement. With each new addition, Sara would squeal, "I love it! I just love it!" Her excitement was contagious and gratifying to Gary and June LaPorta, who said they had built many houses for people who were all too blase. "Sara kept it fun for us," June LaPorta said.
While all this was going on, Sara was arranging for furnishings for the house.
The kitchen cabinets and appliances were crafted by woodworker Ron Vogler, 62, of Rochester, N.Y. Vogler worked at Eastman Kodak Co. for 30 years until he retired in 1995 at the age of 57. At Kodak, Vogler was in charge of scheduling projects that involved wood construction. That included the work of the wood shop, which built cabinets for Kodak's laboratories.
In 1979, when his daughter Kathleen was 16, Vogler said, he built a doll house for her and began to build furnishings for it. "I did it as a hobby. I'd come home and do my woodworking at night." In time, he and his wife, Mary, became active in miniature groups and started to attend shows throughout the country under the name M&R Miniatures.
Vogler makes and sells about 40 different upper and lower basswood kitchen cabinets, which can be painted, stained or left natural. He also makes miniature appliances, including refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers.
Vogler said he did not plan to spend much time on miniatures when he retired. But when he had the opportunity to retire from Kodak, he decided to take it. He remembers thinking: "This is the right time. We're still young enough to run around and go places."
He said he now spends 30 to 40 hours a week building miniatures. But he adds, "We do it mostly for enjoyment. We use it as a means to travel and do shows and meet people."
While Vogler was building Sara's kitchen cabinets, Sue Sharp of Vienna, proprietor of Sharp Mini Designs, was doing the window treatments. She made lace curtains on brass rods for the windows and doors in the conservatory. In the library, she created pinch-pleated cornices with pinch-pleated drapes. And she also made tie-back curtains for the bedroom, bath and kitchen.
Sharp's curtains and drapes not only look real, they are real. They're just much smaller than the life-size version.
Sharp says she gets many of her design ideas from books and magazines. But getting the idea is only the beginning. "Then I have to figure out how to shrink it," she says.
Working about 20 hours a week on her miniature window treatments, Sharp says she is happy with the way her small business has grown. At 55, she says she has no plans to stop working, although her husband, Bill, also 55, retired from Potomac Electric Power Co. after 31 years. Eventually, she said, she would like to exhibit her work at miniature shows. But that won't be for a while.
One of Sara's favorite pieces is a miniature cello, which stands in her "music room" alongside a miniature piano and harp. The cello was made by Orvin Fjare, 81, of Big Timber, Mont.
Fjare (pronounced fee-AIR-ee) is a widely acclaimed miniaturist who was a one-term Republican congressman from Montana from 1955 to 1957. When he retired two decades ago, Fjare was director of the Montana Federal Housing Administration.
After spending a few years raising orchids, Fjare was persuaded by his daughters to build a doll house for his wife, Sigrid. His wife wanted a contemporary model but it was difficult to find contemporary furniture, Fjare said, so he started to build furniture himself.
Fjare built his first miniatures in 1985, starting with musical instruments and then moved into an array of desks and clocks, all in the popular 1-inch to 1-foot scale.
Fjare's signature pieces are his highly prized Wooton desks, miniature copies of the popular desks produced in the late 1800s by Indiana cabinetmaker William Wooton. The elaborate desk, called a cabinet secretary, has brass handles and hinges and nearly a hundred drawers, compartments and cubbyholes. And everything works. The current wait for a Wooton desk, Fjare said, is about a year.
Fjare said it takes him 150 hours to make a Wooton desk and he does all the work himself. He works on his miniatures every day, he said, except when he is on the road, exhibiting and selling his handiwork at miniature shows. He expects to attend about a dozen shows throughout the country this year.
After Foxhall Manor was transformed from a pile of flat boards into an elegant house--which took about six months--we brought the doll house home. Sara was in a daze. "It leaves me breathless and speechless when I look at it and realize it's mine," she said. "That little 7-year-old girl is still there inside of me and she finally got her doll house."