How I Came to Spend Fifteen Years Building a Model Inn


Leslie Evans

While we still lived in Mar Vista in the late 1980s I became interested in dollhouse miniatures. There was a small museum of old dollhouses in a Victorian house called Angel's Attic in Santa Monica , near the ocean. I went there, and then to a few miniature shows, where scores of exhibitors presented their crafts. These ranged from silly, frilly concoctions meant for a young girl's bedroom to some serious scale modelers who did amazingly precise tiny furniture and room boxes.

I subscribed to a magazine called Nutshell News, and began to study the various techniques needed to do this work: scale carpentry, faux finishes and artificial ageing, dollhouse electrification. Looking at dozens of actual dollhouses and hundreds of photos of others, I began to plan what I wanted to do. Dollhouse scale is 1/12 or one inch to the foot. That's pretty large but has the advantage that there are many hundreds of craftspeople in Europe and America who make period furniture, clothing, working light fixtures, dishes, and uncountable other objects in that scale. I decided I didn't like open backed dollhouses, which are pretty much the standard. You took one quick look and you had seen it all. My dollhouse would be closed, with little hinged panels in the outer walls to make the viewer have to look separately into each room.

The top miniaturists did things like Versailles ballrooms in the time of Louis XVI, or replicas of ornate gold-leafed escritoires with mother of pearl inlays, a level of craftsmanship I couldn't aspire to. I wasn't interested in modern. Victorian was popular, but my outsider sensibility took that as a reason to stay away from it. A few people were doing English Tudor. That was promising; the houses had a certain crude character that I felt I was up to. But perhaps there was something even more rare, that almost no one was doing. I spent a lot of time in the historic architecture section of the UCLA research library, finally selecting German Renaissance as my place and period. I found several books of old black and white photos of surviving structures from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries ‰ÛÓ at least they had survived up to when the books were published in the early 1920s. I finally chose one: it was the Altes Haus (Old House) in Bacharach, on the Rhine River . Built in 1368, it was timber framed with plaster fill, cross gabled, four stories high, with a tower something like a Queen Anne Victorian, and an odd extra gable sitting atop the main gable in the front. It was a fascinating structure. I made a xerox copy of the page, and that became my template, a blurry view of a single side. For several years while we moved and were absorbed with the renovation of the house on Van Buren Place I limited my miniature work to making a few pieces of furniture and experimenting with ageing finishes on a tiny plastic suit of medieval German armor. In 1990 with the big house completed I began to think more seriously about the small one.

I had my xerox photo to go on for the exterior, but what should I do about the inside? I combed the German architecture section of the UCLA library and made some photocopies of a few ideas, such as the big interior wheels mounted in the highest attics and used to hoist a storage platform up and down into lower rooms. Finally on a trip to Berkeley , at Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue I found exactly what I needed. It was titled Alte Deutsche Bauern Stuben, published in 1924 in Elberfeld , Germany , a book of forty-eight pages of black and white photographs of museum replicas of German Renaissance interiors. I studied these for a while. There were certain distinctive features: box beds, murals on most ceilings, large, highly decorated, ceramic room-heating stoves.

American and British Arts and Crafts architecture was itself something of a Gothic late medieval revival movement, which is why Craftsman houses look so much older than East Coast Colonial Georgian homes that predate them by two hundred years. But there were noticeable differences from these actual German rooms. The wood paneling in our dining and breakfast rooms came only to my chin, topped with an easily accessible plate rail. Above the plate rail we had wall paper or paint. In the German photos, plate rails, when they were used, were almost to the ceiling. You would have to stand on something to put the china up there. About half the rooms were wood paneled, with the wood, dull and without apparent finish, covering the whole of the rooms' surfaces, like the inside of a box.

I decided my loose replica of the Altes Haus would be an inn. For the main room I built a Gothic fireplace, a mezzanine balcony on which tiny oil paintings were lit with little electric lights, and a beam ceiling from which an elegant working chandelier was suspended. Between the ceiling beams I pasted strips from a book of fourteenth century French illuminated manuscripts. And so it went, each room designed as I came to it. I set my imagined time period somewhere between 1580 and 1600, and collected furnishings from catalogs and craftspeople, mostly in England . On assignment to the World Health Organization for some weeks in Geneva in 1995 I visited the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, where they had on display a magnificent seven-foot-high ceramic stove built in 1688 by the pottery artist David II Pfau (1644-1702). I bought a pamphlet and some postcards with color photographs of the stove and its many picture tiles and made a miniature replica for a warming room on the third floor of my little house.

Months turned into years of long pleasant afternoons; as I worked I listened to audiobooks, which over time migrated from tape cassettes to CDs to an iPod. For the last three months of the project, in the spring of 2004, fourteen years after I had begun, I cut, stained, and applied some 3,000 individual cedar shingles to the broad roofs. I ordered two dolls in authentic circa 1600 German costumes from a London doll maker, one for the main room and one for an ornate guest bedroom, filling in elsewhere with some Polish folk dolls bought on eBay. The finished model was just over four feet high, contained fifteen rooms as well as numerous hallways and staircases, thirty-two working electric lights, five fireplaces and three stoves that lit up, and a hidden speaker that played recordings of Baroque, Gypsy, and Klezmer music. When everything was done, Jennifer and I had a party to display the model. We invited a hundred of our friends and workmates. The most gratifying praise came from the late Martin Eli Weil, one of the city's most respected restoration architects, who spent twenty minutes looking at each room in turn, then told me, "It's a marvelous piece of architecture." My Altes Haus model was the subject of an article in the March 2007 issue of Miniature Collector magazine. Shortly before I completed my model I learned for the first time that the real Altes Haus is still standing in Bacharach and, like my miniature, is still in use as a restaurant and inn.

--from Outsider's Reverie