"There are really two kinds of people who buy dollhouses," said Ann Ruble, editor of Nutshell News, one of the nation's largest miniatures magazines. "There are people who have furnished their own home as they want it and like furnishing a dollhouse as a way of fulfilling a fantasy. And then there are others who can never afford the kind of home they buy as a dollhouse. For them, I guess it's wish-fulfillment."
The makers of those dreams are really architects in miniature. They are people who delight in recreating, on a small scale (usually 1 inch to 1 foot), an entire period home. Exact reduction doesn't always work, though. "I take poetic license if I feel the scale isn't right," said Bob Porter, one tiny-house builder. Porter studies house plans put out by shelter magazines for real houses. He always travels with a camera, just in case he sees something he'd like to recreate in miniature.
To fashion a brick wall on a miniature city structure, Glen Echo lawyer William Clague and his wife Joyce transform a piece of plywood by scoring the wood, drybrushing it and then spray painting it to give it a believable, mottled effect.
"I love architecture, and I love making miniatures, so making miniature buildings just seemed natural," said William Clague, who built his first scale model -- a fire engine -- at age 14 and graduated to building a dollhouse out of an old log for one of his daughters. Today Clague's dollhouses sell for $600 and up and they're designed not for little girls, but grown-up collectors.
Porter has made a business of dollhouse making. He runs a miniatures shop in Occoquan and has written extensively on dollhouse construction. He designs dollhouses and makes them so that the owners can add their own siding, roofing and finishing touches. Porter's semi-finished basic homes range in price from $600 to $1,100.
"If you came into our shop blind and just listened to the conversations between my wife Jean and a customer about drapes and upholstery, you'd swear they were talking about a real house," said Porter with a chuckle. "We're nutty, but it gets that serious."
Ruble explained the fascination this way: "Miniaturists want opportunities to create whole environments -- windows that work, closets, bathrooms, stairs -- one dollhouse maker even puts in secret compartments in his houses that he new owners have to find."
Old-time commercial buildings -- a store downstairs and living quarters upstairs -- are the latest fad, she said, largely because they let the miniaturist create two different environments in the same setting. In order to do that, the dollhouse architect has to design not only a believable building, but one that is accessible for furnishing. The most ingenious plans even call for wiring that powers tiny light fixtures. A turn-of-the-century storefront that Clague designed has glass doors through which one can examine the interior. Porter has designed a series of single and double openers, that is, houses that open on two sides for easy access.
For both the architects and their prospective clients, the art of making a good dollhouse seems to be in creating pleasant, fantasy environments. In a small way, so to speak, they learn about period architecture and furniture, find new ways to build certain kinds of furniture, and happily escape into a Lilliputian world.
"There aren't many things in this world we can control completely," said Ruble. "Dollhouse collecting and furnishing is a way of creating a world you can control and escape to. It's an enjoyable and educational vice." CAPTION: Picture 1, These miniature townhouse fronts were made by William Clague to display in his Glen Echo living room; Picture 2, in this plaque Clague recreated one of Alexandria's Prince Street doorways; Picture 3, this hardware store built by Clague and his wife Joan has working electric lights; Picture 4, Bob Porter's 18th century farmhouse comes ready for collectors to side and roof as they see fit. Scaled 1 inch to 1 foot, this house costs $895 as shown. Porter's customers pay from $3,000 to $6,000 for completely furnished houses.