LEE HALL HAS "dream house" written all over it: Lit chandeliers shimmer with dangling crystals. Ornate molding glitters from gold-leaf accents. Rich mahogany tabletops reflect the gilded objets d'art placed upon them, and glistening sterling silver pieces await important guests.
Alas, touring this unique mansion proves impossible, but folks can get a good look at its elegantly appointed 12 rooms and grand exterior -- by peering through the clear walls of the display case in which the house sits. Like the 13 other homes and rooms sharing space in the gallery at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Va., Lee Hall is a painstakingly realistic miniature; every element corresponds to a ratio of one inch to one foot.
"Really, I think it's the detail, and there's such a wide variety," says Julie B. Armel, the museum's public relations coordinator, of the appeal of furnished miniatures to both children and adults.
Lee Hall, a unique fantasy dwelling, is the centerpiece of the gallery of miniatures from the collection of R. Lee Taylor, who was curator of the neighboring Glen Burnie Historic House's gardens. Taylor, who died in 2000, spent his winters furnishing the small structures with more than 4,000 objects, many crafted by the world's most acclaimed miniatures artists.
Miniatures enthusiasts who reeled in disappointment when the Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum closed last year can take heart: Several area museums display dollhouses, shadow boxes and authentically designed miniature dwellings, some designed to be playthings and others, like Lee Hall, designated as works of art.
"I think they really stand out for kids because they're just this little world you can peer into," says Amy Pelsinsky, public relations manager at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where a dozen Cheney Miniature Rooms designed by renowned miniaturist Eugene Kupjack have enchanted visitors since 1987. The lighted 17th- through 19th-century scenes -- including a 1600s hall in an English mansion and a rococo revival New Orleans parlor -- are set into walls, "almost like an aquarium."
"It's just tucked back in the gallery -- it feels like a really special discovery when you come upon it," Pelsinsky says. Step stools enable youngsters to peek into the settings and take in the lifelike details, such as an itty-bitty piece of embroidery in progress, teeny-tiny playing cards and glowing fireplaces.
"They zero in on everything -- kids don't miss much," says Anne Smith, who displays her 35-year-old collection of dollhouses and other miniatures at the Antique Toy Museum in Baltimore. "I heard one little girl say, 'Oh, my grandmother has a stove like that.' "
Smith sometimes sends young visitors on quests to find certain objects, such as Noah's ark, cats or the five castles tucked among other items in the exhibits. She recently suggested that a youngster try to locate a whistle decorated with birds, and a 5-year-old spotted it in three minutes.
"I could ask that question of many an adult that comes here and they'd never find it!" she says.
At the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, visitors can push buttons to hear accompanying narration for 12 shadow boxes showcasing highlights from the first president's life. Another miniature scene holds even greater appeal to children: a 20-foot-long Shriners' parade featuring more than 1,000 figurines.
"That's the only one in the world -- it was built for the room," says Director George Seghers of the intricate parade, completed in 1945 and recently repainted, covered with a clear plastic dome and lowered about two feet so youngsters can view it better. Visitors press a button, and the pageant springs to life, with camels, elephants, clowns, Lilliputian cars, motorcycles, buggies and other units rotating around a track for half a minute.
The National Museum of American History thinks small, too. "I think it's just the wonder of looking at something that's your scale, that you can be larger than life in," that appeals to children viewing miniatures such as the Bradford Dolls' House at the Smithsonian museum, says curator Larry Bird. Donated by Faith Bradford, who spent more than 50 years creating and collecting furnishing for the 23 rooms, the house stands about 71/2 feet wide and 41/2 feet tall and represents a large middle- to upper-class family from the early 1900s. Kids can look for and make up stories about the bustling household, including Peter Doll and his wife, Rose Washington Doll; their 10 children; several servants; and a plethora of pets, including Peter Jr.'s white rats, Henri, Sun, Marco and Dorato.
"Teddy, the bulldog, does not share Peter Jr.'s enthusiasm for the rats," Bird observes, "but he accepts them."
Where to find dollhouses, dioramas and other mini stuff in Washington, Baltimore and Virginia:
THE INTERIOR MUSEUM -- Department of the Interior Building, 1849 C St. NW. Metro: Farragut West. 202-208-4743. www.doi.gov/interiormuseum. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 4:30; closed federal holidays. Also open the third Saturday of the month from 1 to 4. Free. Adults must show photo IDs. The museum's collection includes several detailed dioramas showcasing events in the development of the western United States.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY -- 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Metro: Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. 202-633-1000. americanhistory.si.edu. Daily except Dec. 25, 10 to 6:30 through Sept. 4, 10 to 5:30 the rest of the year. The museum closes at 5:30 on Tuesday and Aug. 30. Free. The Bradford Dolls' House is in the west wing of the second floor. Other dollhouses in the collection include the one owned by Amy Carter, daughter of president Jimmy Center, and the dollhouse that belonged to president Grover Cleveland's children. Both are on exhibit in the "American Presidency" exhibit on the third floor.
ANTIQUE TOY MUSEUM -- 222 W. Read St., Baltimore, two blocks north of the Washington Monument. 410-230-0580. No Web site. Open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 11 to 4; groups by appointment. $5 ages 12 to 65, $4 ages 11 and younger. Recommended for ages 5 and older. The one-room museum, adjacent to Anne Smith Antiques, also houses a variety of games and toys.
BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART -- 10 Art Museum Dr. at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410-396-7100, 410-396-6321 (education department). artbma.org. Open Wednesday through Friday 11 to 5, the first Thursday of each month 5 to 8; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $7 for adults ages 19 and older, $5 for seniors ages 65 and older and college students with IDs, free for museum members and ages 18 and younger. Admission is free for all visitors the first Thursday of each month. The 12 Cheney Miniature Rooms are adjacent to the decorative arts exhibition on the first floor.
GEORGE WASHINGTON MASONIC NATIONAL MEMORIAL -- 101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria. Metro: King Street. 703-683-2007. gwmemorial.org. Open daily 9 to 4 for free self-guided tours of the first two floors. Guided tours of the seven-story tower begin at 9:30, 11, 1, 2:15 and 3:30. A dozen dioramas depicting milestones in George Washington's life are in the Assembly Hall on the first level, along with a life-size animatronic George Washington. The miniature Shriners' parade is in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Room on the mezzanine.
MUSEUM OF THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY -- 901 Amherst St., Winchester, Va. 540-662-1473. shenandoahmuseum.org. The museum and neighboring Glen Burnie Historic House and Gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 4. The historic house and gardens, which operate seasonally, close Nov. 30 and reopen March 1. Adult admission is $12 for museum, house and gardens; $10 for museum and gardens; $8 for museum or for house and gardens. Youths ages 7 to 18, seniors and groups of 10 or more, $10 for combination ticket, $8 for museum and gardens, $6 for museum or for house and gardens. Children ages 6 and younger free. The miniatures gallery showcases 14 houses and shadow boxes. A brief orientation film about collector R. Lee Taylor plays continuously. The Glen Burnie Historic House visitor center includes a miniature reproduction of the house, including rooms that the public doesn't see on the tour.