The magic of miniatures: Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle makeover becomes an exhibit within an exhibit

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

In an 80-year-old home, scorched ceilings and walls and water leaks from outdated electrical and plumbing systems are a problem. They’re an especially big problem in a miniature home.

That miniature home is Colleen Moore’s iconic Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry. The castle has been taken apart—and shifted one room over—this winter as it undergoes a meticulous makeover.

In a first, though, the work is being done in full public view.

Through February, the castle conservation will exist as an exhibit within an exhibit—giving visitors a chance to engage specialists who are painstakingly working to stabilize and safeguard the dated castle infrastructure, as well as admire the castle’s storied artifacts in 360-degree view.

One thing’s clear: This ain’t your typical dollhouse.

The meticulous magnificence of Moore’s nearly nine-foot doll castle ensures there’s something for everyone to see.

Tucked into a dim museum corner, the exhibit’s 1,500 tiny artifacts glimmer and shine invitingly, providing just the light visitors need.

Most of the artifacts are so small that just talking in front of them could blow them over, so even during conservation they are kept encased in glass.

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from glass case to case.

“It’s pretty neat,” Riley said. “I really like Cinderella’s shoes.”

If the castle restoration goes according to plan, Riley will be able to show those same Cinderella slippers to grandchildren of her own.

fairy books 2

A Castle Comes to Town

Colleen Moore had strong Chicago connections.

In 1936 she married Chicago stockbroker Homer Hargrave, who worked at what was then Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane.

In the late 1920s, Moore enlisted nearly 100 friends to build the larger-than-life dollhouse, which was partially modeled off of her own mansion and cost a half-million dollars when it was finished in 1935, which amounts to more than $8.5 million in today’s currency, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lenox Lohr, who headed the museum at the time, convinced Moore the castle’s final stop should be Chicago. The deal was proposed and sealed over dinner on a train in 1949.

A Chicago Daily Tribune article from the same year captured the conversation:

“When I was seated next to Maj. Lohr at a dinner recently in the directors’ coach at the Chicago Railroad fair, he mentioned the dollhouse while we were having soup,” Moore said.

“And by the time dessert was served, he had the dollhouse!”

The dollhouse can be broken down into 200 individual pieces. Before its final stop in Chicago, the miniature castle toured the United States for almost 15 years, raising roughly $650,000 for children’s charities.

The Conservation Process

Four conservation specialists with extensive knowledge in chemistry and material science are making structural repairs to the castle.

The castle contains running water as well as electricity, which is part of the reason it’s in need of repairs.

Soon, the castle will again come to life with modern lighting, and its water features will be replaced with fiber optic machinery, replicating flowing water but preventing future leaks. The new lighting will maintain an old look, however, and even its original plumbing will be left in place after treatment in an attempt to uphold the castle’s historic integrity.

“Everything they do is reversible,” museum curator Margaret Schlesinger said of the specialists’ work.

For example, some of the paint on the castle’s exterior is flaking. To fix it, experts apply special glue underneath the flakes before pressing them back down and using another concoction to make the surface adhere once again.

Finally, they’ll apply a matching acrylic paint for a seamless repair, one that can be completely undone layer-by-layer if future specialists think it’s necessary.

This way the castle’s integrity remains intact, ensuring that the exhibit’s lasting impressions last.

“This type of work typically goes unseen by guests, but it’s critical work that is of highest importance to us,” museum director of collections Kathleen McCarthy said.

“This is a great opportunity for kids and adults alike to learn more about the science and technology involved in preserving artifacts.”

fairy conservation

Conservation: A Misnomer?

Conservation is not an exact science. Even motivations for conserving vary widely, given an individual’s specific angle.

In art historian Salvador Munoz-Vinas’ book “Contemporary Theory of Conservation,” for example, readers are forced to take apart the term “original integrity.”

Specialists often work to return an artifact to its true from, but Munoz-Vinas cites Dr. Chris Caple, director of artifact conservation at Durham University in England, who wrote:

“Every object has evolved through its creation and use; any and every point within an object’s working life could be described as its ‘true nature’—making it impossible to define one point as the true nature of the object as opposed to any other.”

One reason for conservation, Munoz-Vinas wrote, is to preserve the “sentimental symbolic meanings that an object has” for large groups, small groups or even individuals—which squarely encapsulates a fairy castle exhibit that was conceived by one, brought to life by a few and has enchanted millions.

Versions of truth and symbolic meanings aside, the museum’s exhibit within an exhibit represents further corroboration at a museum already known for its interactivity.

“What better way of promoting science—and promoting housekeeping, in a way—than by doing it in front of people,” Schlesinger said.

fairy mugs

So, What’s the Intrigue?

If the conservation work isn’t enough to sell you on a trip to a giant dollhouse, some of what’s inside just might.

Usually, the castle’s 1,500 miniatures are difficult to see, neatly set, each in its ornate place. But now, each room can be viewed from all sides. Guests can press their noses just inches from the world’s smallest Bible; a Syrian vase from 740 A.D.; an authentic Roman Bronze head; a painting donated by Walt Disney himself; or pewter mugs with wooden handles—the wood coming
from a damaged Westminster Abbey.

“It has something for everyone,” Schlesinger said. “It’s a tradition for folks to come back generation after generation.”

“They get caught in the fantasy—in wanting to be six inches tall.”

Schlesinger said the exhibit speaks to all ages—from 6-year-olds to 60-year-olds, from hipsters to middle-aged men.

“I’ve heard every single age group remark on how cool it is.”

There’s a sense of wonder, or magic, these homes and items evoke.

To many, something is worthy of conservation because “it’s a type of material that can cross cultures,” said Rachel Sabino, special projects conservation specialist at the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s a common link for society.”

And it’s a strong link between generations, which Hildegard Popoff has seen first hand.

She has owned All Small Miniatures in Frankfort for 38 years. The store doesn’t build dollhouses, but can restore, conserve and equip them with just about anything you can imagine. “It’s a labor or love,” she said.

Time and again, this labor of love brings in someone who nostalgically asks, “Do you remember me?”

Popoff said it’s men and women who visited her shop as children and are now back with daughters or sons of their own.

“Well no,” she answers with a smile, “that was 20 years ago.”

Either way, “It’s very important to me that the customer leaves here and has joy and is happy,” Popoff said. “There is nothing that leaves this shop that I don’t approve of.”

Joy—she said—is crucial no matter what you’re doing, and “a little bit of that is missing in today’s world.”

It could be that that joy and Sabino’s common link mix to create the immense sense of wonder that saturates the miniature world of Colleen Moore and Hildegard Popoff.

It was more than shiny shoes, after all, that drew Riley Baden from case to case, grandmother in hand.

“It’s the imagination of it all,” museum spokeswoman Beth Boston said, “Of making fantasy a reality, of making what seems impossible—possible.”

No matter your age, height or style, the miniature world makes room for you to escape.

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