For Bob Porter and his wife Jean, all the world is a miniature.
As owners of the Mountain Valley Miniature Shop in Occoquan, they have found that people are becoming more interested in their tiny world as the realities of modern life crowd in around them.
The loss of the old-fashioned Christmas in Grandma's country home, mortgage rates soaring higher than a young couple's incomes can reach -- these things bring customers of all ages and income levels into the shop of miniature houses and accessories.
"People come in here to re-create times gone by in one room or in a whole house," Porter says. "Other people, young couples usually, who may never be able to afford their dream homes, create them right here."
Porter's fascination with the Lilliputian world began 11 years ago. He is a big man, 5 feet 10 inches and "needing to lose 75 pounds at least," he says. But he moves among the tiny houses, dolls, furniture and accessories like a gentle Gulliver, careful not to disturb a Victorian family posing for a portrait, a kitten snoozing by a fireplace, a grandmother rocking and knitting near a paned window.
When the Porters arrived in Occoquan in 1973, they sold regulation-sized handcrafted items. Then one day a friend who built doll houses asked them to put one in their shop. It sold the first weekend, Porter says. Later, another friend was selling his antique shop and the Porters bought his stock of period miniatures. "From then on," he said, "we knew we had an incurable disease."
Although the hobby of collecting and crafting miniatures has been around for a long time, it has subtly changed over the years. Now it enjoys a status as a "most sophisticated thing to do," Porter notes. Today's miniature hobbyist has a wider array of items to build or buy than ever in the hobby's history.
From a handcrafted canopy bed, carved painstakingly from oak and "dressed" in lace and satin coverlets and pillows, to a half-inch television set that works -- and sells for $2,500 -- nearly anything can be found in miniature that can be found in real life, says Porter.
Although he has crafted seven houses of "special interest," Porter is most excited about his current project, a copy of Rockledge, the privately owned 226-year-old home that looms above the town of Occoquan and architecturally dominates it. It is Porter's first re-creation of an existing building.
The Handcrafters of Miniatures, who are planning a show related to George Washington at Valley Forge, Pa., Oct. 21, asked Porter to build a copy of Washington's office in Alexandria. But Paul Ballendine, who built Rockledge, was a business associate of Washington's. "Certainly, when Washington visited Occoquan, which we have documented proof that he did, he stayed with his friend and business associate Ballendine at Rockledge," says Porter. "So I suggested Rockledge to the group and they loved the idea."
One advantage of copying the house, which is being restored and has been named to Virginia's landmark list of historic places, is that Porter knows the owners, Town Councilman Ronald Houghton and his wife, and he was able to obtain blueprints and floor plans. The Houghtons also provided the artisan with rock, pine flooring and roof shingles from the house, which he is patiently cutting and shaping to scale.
"There was a fire at Rockledge a few years ago and the Houghtons gave me parts of the house that were slightly damaged," he says. Although the little house won't be finished in time for the show, Porter says he plans to take it anyway. "Because of its history, it will still be interesting."
An adobe Indian trading post and living quarters, one of Porter's most recent works, was inspired on a trip to visit two daughters who are University of Arizona students in Tucson. The building is landscaped with rocks and gravel taken from the Arizona desert and cactus plants he bought at a nursery there. The "trading post" boasts tiny artifacts ranging from a turquoise and silver necklace to pottery, sand paintings, Indian dolls and woven baskets copied from the work of more than a half-dozen tribes.
Some miniature houses cost as much as a real house did 25 years ago. One is an electrified Cape Cod captain's house in Porter's window that sells for $12,500 complete with seven fireplaces, a crystal chandelier and a tiny hole carved in the cherrywood staircase "for the cat to slip in to catch mice."
But it is possible, Porter says, to buy kits, take lessons, or use instruction booklets to build a doll house for much less. A winter session instructor at the Smithsonian Institution since 1981, Porter teaches adults and children to build a variety of houses and rooms.
"This year they called and asked me to do a mouse house. But I told them that bears are in this year." Building a bear house will be fun, he says. "Everything will be just slightly askew." Inexpensive accessory kits are also available. The oak canopy bed that sells for almost $300 can be replicated with a $10 kit. "Of course," says Porter, "you have to dress it yourself."
The serious hobbyist will want to see Porter's collection of oil paintings copied from famous works by Renoir, Monet and Cassatt that are no bigger than four postage stamps stuck together, a baby grand piano with 88 working keys, a computer that lights up and has changeable screens, food dishes that include oysters on the half shell, shrimp cocktail and a pewter pot filled with peas and carrots no bigger than the head of a pin. For the newspaper enthusiast, a two-inch, six-page Washington Post, dated Monday, Sept. 16, 1979, tells the reader with a magnifying glass that the Redskins "blew a big lead" and the Israeli Cabinet is divided over West Bank settlement.
In short, as it says in one ad in Nutshell Magazine, for which Porter writes occasionally, the Porters will be happy to "bother you with the details." It's a small world, after all.