Carmel’s Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections features tiny delights
By Glenda Winders
Most neighborhoods can’t boast a mid-century modern house, an A-frame, a Victorian mansion, a lake house, a barber shop, a church, a fabric store, a French chateau, an artist’s conservatory, a doctor’s office, a cocktail lounge and — oh, yes! — a castle, all on one block. But the city of Carmel can. The only catch is that these places and many more are a fraction of their normal size.
Welcome to the Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections.
The museum looks at first like a wonderland for children, but Executive Director Elaine Mancini says there are significant differences between dollhouses and the museum pieces they display here.
“You use your imagination to play with a dollhouse, so it doesn’t matter what you put in,” Mancini says. “But miniature houses were never meant to be played with.”
The museum’s pieces are fine art and craft, in miniature. Housed in an 1890s farmhouse with a 1990s addition, the museum collection shines in its cozy setting. The office is in a former pantry, and the kitchen was recently converted to a shop for selling miniature pieces that it also offers on eBay. The exhibits are divided among the house’s original seven rooms, each equipped with chairs, magnifying glasses and a notebook that describes them; other than that, there’s very little signage. An audio tour, currently being upgraded, is available for anyone who wants to learn more.
“That’s a decision the co-founders made at the very beginning,” says Mancini. “We want people to look at the displays and not look to the side to read information about them.”
The museum, which opened in 1993, was the tiny brainchild of three miniaturists Nancy Lesh, Suzie Moffett and Suzanne Landshof, who wanted to ensure that quality miniature room settings and houses would not be lost to future generations. The museum opened with a collection of 34 objects. It now contains 6,400.
“There’s a story behind almost everything we have in the museum, either how we got it or the artist or within the thing itself,” Mancini says.
The stories begin with how each founder came to be interested in creating miniature homes. While most of the buildings in the museum sprang from their creators’ imaginations, Lesh made only houses that were important to her family. A model of the Ohio house where she grew up in the 1940s sits beneath a photo of the actual one, its details precise, right down to the picture of her high school boyfriend on the bedside table. When her husband took issue, she countered by telling him it was all in the interest of accuracy. A model of her family’s Lake Michigan cottage sits nearby.
Moffett came to miniatures through her love of needlework, adding rugs and curtains to the houses she built. And her homes often tell a story, such as the one in which a family gets ready for a wedding. While the bride gets dressed in one room, the flower girl abandons her basket of petals in favor of playing with a cat in another, and in the kitchen the grandfather raids the refrigerator. In a different house, Mrs. Peterson, who shares her home with her college-student daughter, works in her garden. “To Suzie these are real people, real characters,” Mancini says.
Moffett’s fairy tale piece, “12 Dancing Princesses,” is set outdoors and includes 150 electric lights; the lighting wires are disguised as tree branches.
Landshof loves chairs and has a collection of around 500, some of which she includes in her scenes. She also fashioned a kitchen from an antique bread box she found at a garage sale.
Some miniaturists opt to focus on one craft medium. “Just like in real life, you can’t be a maker of musical instruments, a maker of model ships plus a furniture maker and so on,” Mancini says. Dorothy Stickles, for example, stitches rugs to complete her vignettes, which include pieces that she purchased. In one of her rooms, the model ship on the mantelpiece is exactly like the painted ship in the frame behind it.
Vivian Barnes came to miniatures by way of the dolls for which she wanted to create an environment. While some of the other houses have dolls in the settings, most do not.
“Most miniaturists do not want dolls in their houses or their room boxes because we are human and self-absorbed, so we’re going to look at the doll because it is an image of us and not look at the creativity and craftsmanship behind the house,” Mancini says. “You’d look at the dolls and not at the incredible electrical fan on a ceiling that’s going around.”
Laverne Sullivan hides a signature mouse in each of her creations; it’s up to the viewers to find it. Marilyn Schaefer set out to create a natural history museum diorama and ended up creating the entire museum. In these pieces, minuscule tubes of paint wait in the conservatory for the artist to arrive; a birdhouse is made from an acorn, clothespins become bedposts and satin buttons top newel posts.
The museum’s oldest house was created in 1861 by Thomas Russell for his niece. It includes a letter he tucked inside for her saying he hoped the house would be well cared for and that its eventual owners might think of him from time to time.
Whether it is an entire house or a single-room display known as a “room box,” each miniature room is built on a scale selected by the miniaturist, typically 1 inch to 1 foot; at scale, a 6-foot-tall grandfather clock would be 6 inches tall. Sizes can go down to half-inch and quarter-inch, at which point creators must work with bright lights and magnifying glasses. Once its designer decides on a size and a historical period, everything in the house must adhere to those guidelines. And the materials are authentic. Silver pieces are made of real silver, and porcelain dishes are also the real deal. A chess set made of ebony and ivory sits on a tiny table.
Although these collectors’ items aren’t toys, about 20 percent of the visitors are children whose parents or grandparents bring them.
“The museum is so charming and delightful,” says Laura Givens Ferazzi of Noblesville, who visited the museum with her young daughters, Lily and Charlotte, now edging into teenage and tweenage years, respectively. “It was a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon.”
Treasure hunts for “older explorers,” “younger explorers” and “tots” help children find specific items, and they can actually play in one area that has a dollhouse and fairy door. Stools in each room help them see what they might otherwise not be able to reach, and along the way they can learn a bit about architecture and design.
Some of the houses are created from scratch, others begin with kits. One exhibit shows how designers can start from the same kit and create different homes, depending on whether they use brick or wood facing, add a chimney or bathroom, and all the other details. Or not.
The museum operates with a 10-member board, has two full-time and one part-time employee and 17 docents. One of those docents, Bree Pyle, says she loves the days she spends cleaning, getting ready for special events and interacting with visitors.
“It’s a happy place,” she says. “People love it. You don’t hear anyone complaining because there’s nothing to complain about.” Pyle, a miniaturist whose period is mid-century modern, says it doesn’t surprise her that a third of the museum’s 5,000 annual visitors are men; after all, her husband helps to create the homes she designs.
“I think husbands get jealous,” she says, laughing. “They see their wives spending all this time on a house, and they think, ‘I want to play, too.’”
The museum’s creators realized that not every visitor would be interested in miniature houses, so they decided to include another component: collections. The exhibits change frequently to give visitors a reason to return, and at any given moment you might find anything from antique crystal decanters, evening bags from the 1920s and dolls to model ships, Toby mugs, slide rules and padlocks.
Each January, the museum closes for two weeks to clean and update the exhibits, but when it’s open, it is abuzz with activities and special events. Because the museum has no acquisitions budget, everything you’ll see here has been donated. Donations that won’t become part of the collection are sold at what they call the Attic Sale, typically held in April. Here you’ll find high-end items that are perhaps slightly damaged or duplicates of current collection pieces. “Miniatures by Candlelight” is held the first Saturday in December, and this is the only night of the year that the museum opens. The displays are illuminated by soft lighting and candles, and carolers from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale perform.
“Create Your Own Mini Art,” offered when school is not in session, provides stencils of kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms along with paper, beads and other art supplies so that young visitors can create their own rooms.
Perhaps most popular are the “Celebrations of Creativity and Craftsmanship” held at noon on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. This is when local performers and artisans ¾ ranging from painters, sculptors, jewelry-makers and glass-makers to poets, short-story writers, novelists, woodworkers and musicians ¾ demonstrate their various crafts while members of the audience eat their lunches. One of those is actor MaryAnne Mathews.
“It’s such a unique museum; I see something different every time I go there,” Mathews says. “When I perform there, I really feel an intimate connection with the audience. The museum is infused with the spirit of a love of learning.”
Mancini says the events were devised to get people to come in who wouldn’t ordinarily have been interested in miniature houses.
“Whether it’s cars or computer chips, we appreciate good craftsmanship,” she says. “And everyone’s interested in creativity.”
To learn more about The Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections, visit museumofminiatures.org.