The bookcase that started it all.
It all began with a tiny bookcase my father bought for me on a trip he took to Florida when I was seven-years-old. It came with several little books that could really open and close and as he gave it to me, he said it was for a doll house he was planning to build me.
I was elated. I’d been wanting a dollhouse for as long as my mother told me I should have one and now that Dad was going to build it, I was over the moon. Mom and I often oohed and ahhhed over the dollhouses and tiny accessories we saw in the craft stores and hobby shops and while I had my eye fixed firmly on some three story Victorian model that cost nearly $100 in a pre made kit, Mom assured me if Dad built it from scratch, it would be even more special.
The book my father used to help him get started.
I was skeptical at best. Now, don’t get the wrong idea or think I was ungrateful because I wasn’t, but when Dad showed me the book on dollhouse construction that he’d also picked up in the Sunshine State, I was unimpressed. Aside from the cover, there weren’t a lot of photographs in the volume. How was he supposed to create my Victorian dream home complete with wrap around porch and rounded turrets if the whole book was comprised of nothing but theory and schematics? There wasn’t even a blueprint to get him started!
The doll house not long after its completion.
Now, before we go any further, you need to know a few things about my father. My dad was the kind of guy who did not jump into any project without a plan. However, that plan always had to be flexible and must have room for modifications that would occur over time. He was the kind of guy who would read a book in order to learn the basics and get the general meaning, then proceed to do his own thing. Stability and function was ALWAYS more important than style and fashion and if there was a way to do something on the cheap while achieving a reasonable result, by all means do it! He felt being thrifty was better than investing one’s life savings into a project that was, at the end of the day, a child’s TOY. (Just typing that made me realize how much I take after him! LOL)
So this explains how I ended up with a dollhouse that measured 3’x 9″, 2’x 4″, and 2’x 5″ and looked as though it could withstand a tornado. It looked nothing like the dollhouses I had seen in the stores or at my friends’ houses. Dollhouses were big in the 80s and several of my friends had Victorian mansions constructed from kits or made by their own beloved fathers and grandfathers. However, none of them looked like mine and none of them had outer walls fashioned from 3/4″ plywood.
“I wanted to build you a dollhouse that could be played with,” Dad told me. “Not one that was so delicate and flimsy you had to be careful. I wanted something that could withstand the shenanigans of a rambunctious and often clumsy kid.”
From the size of it, he also wanted something that would dominate any room that it was in. As I watched the monolith take shape in the basement workshop I couldn’t help wondering if it would ever get finished. Though I knew he couldn’t build it overnight, the days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months and months turned into…you guessed it…years! To determine it’s depth, Dad measured the doorway of his basement workshop and the width of the staircase leading to the upstairs. It wouldn’t be able to corner the landing and be carried into the kitchen, but he reasoned they could take it straight out the back door, around the sidewalk and in through the front of the house in order to get it into my room. He decided the pitch of the roof would be based on the pitch of our own garage, which had a loft and would provide permanent storage for the house when I grew too old to play with it anymore. As to how he determined the length….I’ll never know.
Of course all of these plans hinged on whether or not the darn thing would ever be completed. The way he went about it, I surmised it might be done roughly around my high school graduation. Of course to play fair, he could only work on it for a couple of hours at night (provided he didn’t have a lodge meeting), on the weekend and at times when other projects did not take precedence.
To make matters worse, every Christmas, birthday and other gift-giving occasion meant that some well-meaning relative would buy me yet another piece of furniture for a structure I couldn’t play with and that technically didn’t exist. There was the yellow canopied bed from my grandmother, the kitchen hutch from my aunt, the bathroom set from Santa and assorted other mismatched items that set in my closet collecting dust. Heck, I wasn’t even allowed to take them out and look at them for fear I would break something before I ever had the chance to really play with it. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate my relative’s generosity because I did, but when you are a kid, is there anything worse than getting a present you can’t play with? I don’t think so, though waiting around for a doll house to be completed may be a close second!
My mother inspecting Dad’s work during the doll house construction. Note the front panel isn’t attached yet…I would later discover that he wallpapered that panel before installing it making renovations to that wall a NIGHTMARE!
As the odd shapes of lumber eventually became something recognizable, the real fun began. After learning how much pre-made shingles would cost for the removable roof panels, Dad decided to make his own from the slats of the 1970’s style closet doors we once had. I swear there is not a material on this earth as versatile as this stuff and my father had a limitless supply of it. When my father replaced our closet doors with vinyl retractable ones in the early 1980’s, he saved the old ones to use on an untold number of projects. In the dollhouse alone, it can be found on the roof, on the steps, as trim around the windows, as window pane dividers , window framing, etc…I’m telling you he used it everywhere!
I can remember watching him cut the slats into shingle pieces, creating little grooves to match the store-bought variety and then gluing them one by one to the roof panel. Every night, I would take my bath towel down to the washer and beg him to let me glue a few on. I was so eager to contribute something to speed this project along and every once in a while he would let me. (Though he insisted on staying in charge of glue distribution.)
“Now, put it exactly where I tell you and don’t mess around,” he cautioned.
“I know, I know,” I would say.
Dollhouses are not inexpensive things to build. every item costs a bundle. Windows were a fortune so dad opted to create his own version using plastic sheeting and the afore mentioned “wonder slats.” (These would always be a pain in the butt, but they were cheaper and if they broke it wasn’t a huge deal to replace them.) Wallpaper with teeny tiny prints might as well costs as much as a whole role at Wallpapers To Go and Dad was quick to curtail the budget by purchasing only 4 rolls of dollhouse wall paper and using leftovers from our own house and my grandmother’s house to finish out the interior. When I look back on the blinding assortment of patterns we had in the house at the time it strikes me as an amazing tribute to bad taste.
“The Victorians were known for having tons of patterns in their houses,” my mother assured me when I questioned her about it. “It looks very authentic.” Her explanation satisfied me. After all, my parents knew what they were doing and when in doubt, I blame everything else on the ’80s mentality that too much was never too much.
Then there was the wiring. There were only two jobs around the house my father avoided like the plague: plumbing and electrical. Now he was having to run wire through a miniature house using white tape, tiny light bulbs to a small switch box that contained a ridiculous amount of D-cell batteries and gave off as much illumination as a lightening bug’s butt. (The man actually warned me not to use the lights very often as it would be a nightmare to replace everything and the first time the bulbs went dead, he never replaced them.)
After two years of hard work and determination, the house my dad built was ready. His careful plan was about to come to fruition…kind of. Due to a request I made for a front balcony somewhere around the halfway mark of this production, my father learned that the house could no longer fit through the basement doorway and would have to be played with in the basement. As he put the finishing touches on the house, he asked me if I was OK with this and I said sure. Our basement was kind of our playroom anyway so I didn’t mind. With one last turn of the screwdriver on the front door, he announced I could finally move in. I remember it well. It was the night before my ninth birthday.
Me and the doll house at age 9.
For all of my misgivings and second thoughts about the house, there was never a more special present on the planet. It was truly a labor of love for him and aside from a few “I love yous” and extra hugs and kisses, he got nothing out of the deal. He did it all for me. I didn’t have the amount of furniture it would take to fill the place and I used a lot of makeshift pieces here and there, but so what? I had hours of fun in there and when I turned 13, it was time to put it away for good. With my permission, Dad removed the balcony in order to carry the house to the garage and up to its storage place, the exact spot he always intended for it to go. A few years later, he installed a garage door opener which essentially prevented the house from ever coming out of there without the door opener being dismantled. (You gotta love the guy!) I shook my head at his haphazard brilliance never imagining a time I would be without him.
Showing off the inside of the structure. Circa 1981.
But that time came…far too soon, in fact and 11 years later Mom was gone too and I was alone. Not long after her death, my brother and I were at their house sorting through some things and deciding what each of us would keep when I made the off-handed comment, “We need to take apart the garage door opener.”
He looked at me like I was crazy for a half-second then a big grin broke out across his face. “Yes ma’am,” he told me. “I know what’s up there. Don’t worry Sis, we’ll get your house out of there for you.”
The house was in amazing shape for the number of years it had been neglected. The windows were gone, there were some mouse droppings in the corner, but the wallpaper still clung to the plywood as if its life depended on it. I moved it to my new abode and slowly but surely I began to tackle the father-daughter project of my life. A renovation was long overdue and I was a determined to get it right. There were so many things Dad told me he would have done differently if given half a chance so I decided to take up his mantle and turn the dollhouse into the showplace I knew it could be. I had to be careful in order to stay true to what he built, while still putting my own stamp on it.
Same girl, same house…but 33 years later, it’s a very different picture.
There were times I didn’t know what I was doing. I would stare at his construction and wonder “How did he do that?” I noted the shortcuts and the places where he must have gotten tired, but I couldn’t help being in awe of what he had accomplished. It took me years…probably as long if not longer than he took to build the thing in the first place. Because I had no “wonder slats,” I bought enough balsa wood trim I probably own stock in the company. I sewed curtains, I made my own curtain rods, I installed real windows (they have not gotten any less expensive, by the way) and painted some of the furniture. I removed all of the wallpaper save for a small floral print in one of the bedrooms because it had been in my grandmother’s house and I wanted to keep it for sentimental reasons. I recovered the canopied bed with a cross stitch piece of my own making and bought new accessories to complement what I already had.
Recreating the photo from when I was 9….The house has come a long way, but I think Dad would be proud of the job I did. Don’t you?
There were times when I got stuck, worked too far ahead of myself and had to redo things. There were times in which I waited for a small voice inside of me whispered the solution to my problem. There were times I had to accept it would never be “perfect” but as long as I could hold my head up and be proud of it like my dad was, that’s all that mattered.
Now, 33 years to the day after he finished it the first time, the doll house is completed again. Once more, it is the best birthday present I could have hoped for and something I will cherish for my lifetime. Hopefully he is somewhere watching me and happy with the end result and perhaps somewhere he is saying what he said to me so long ago: “Happy birthday, Baby.”
Dollhouse Renovation photos:
The great room. I took down the wall paper, painted, added trim pieces, made curtains and purchased the fireplace, piano and artwork. All other furniture is original
The dining room originally had a yellow, spongelike wallpaper that came from my grandma’s house, but it was in bad shape so I removed it. The walls are salmon now and I sewed the curtains, added trim, as well as a pie safe (not very visible but it is on the left hand side. The dishes are new as well, however the dining table is original, but I re-covered the chairs to match the curtains.
The bed, mirror and hat rack are the only original pieces in this room. I made a new cover for the bed, purchased the night stands and armoire and added trim. I have also made a piece of art that hangs above the bed and reads 8/11 Johnson 1981 Young 2015.
The nursery was the first room I finished. I made the curtains, added trim, painted the table and chairs, and made the Peter Rabbit cross stitch piece. I also removed the old toy soldier wall paper and painted it a sea foam blue. (Note the not-to-subtle tribute to my father’s initials on the wall.)
This is one of my favorite rooms of the house. This was the only room that I was able to keep the original wallpaper. Considering it came from my grandmother’s spare bedroom (the one I used when I spent the night) that was VERY important to me. Also, my grandmother purchased this bed for me, however the canopy and spread was pretty old so I made a new one and cross stitched the designs on them. The sewing machine and accessories are the only new items in the room save for the trim and curtains. Everything else is original.
The kitchen has a mix of old and new. The hutch was a gift from my aunt and my father made the center table. Other original items include the pots and pans, fake food, ironing board and butcher block but I did get a new stove, added trim, repainted the room and made curtains to complement the dining room set.