By SOPHIE HOTTINGER
Nancye Johnson will go to great lengths to hunt down the perfect dining table or upholstered chair to complete her latest home decorating project. Whether she’s headed to Owensboro, Ky. to visit a specialty store or traveling to Chicago to scour vendor booths at a show, she shops with purpose for furniture and accessories that fit her vision.
But while dedication to the craft is something many home decorators can boast, Johnson’s results are anything but commonplace – mainly because the houses she works so tirelessly to furnish rarely stand more than a couple feet tall!
As president of the Louisville Miniature Club, Johnson meets twice a month with fellow club members to explore new techniques for their shared hobby and spend time working on unfinished miniature projects. The organization, part of the larger National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts, consists of both men and women who enjoy the art of constructing to-scale miniature scenes, rooms and houses, and are dedicated to the preservation of historic miniature collections. “We have a really good-sized club, probably one of the bigger ones in the country. We have about 25 to 30 members, close to 20 really active members. It’s been around since ’72 – the founding member, she’s still living, she still comes occasionally,” Johnson shared.
The club recently hosted a special display of members’ latest projects at Locust Grove, a National Historic Landmark that is also home to its very own to-scale miniature replica of the 223-year-old house. Built in 1979 by an architecture student and then raffled off to a private owner, the Locust Grove dollhouse was reacquired by the historic estate just last year, and has since seen much-needed maintenance as well as a few updates at the hands of Louisville Miniature Club members. But, for the most part, very little has changed about the replica, despite major changes in the life-sized home’s interior in recent years as new information became available about its original décor.
“They found out a few years ago that what they thought (when the dollhouse was built) were the colors of paint in the house (in the early 1800s) were really just the primer colors,” Johnson revealed. “They found out that they did have wallpaper, and so now most of the (actual) house has wallpaper in it. … But we wanted to keep (the dollhouse) just as the house was renovated in the ’60s. Compared to what (Locust Grove) is now, it’s totally different.”
Standing much taller than a typical dollhouse, the impressive Locust Grove replica opens on several sides to allow multiple perspectives into its interior, and is protected from dust – and handsy visitors – by a custom-made glass display case. Inside, viewers can see exact miniature copies of furniture pieces still found in the historic home, placed where they would have been in the actual house – after it had already been preserved as a museum – in 1979. A tiny silver tea service sits on a small, round table surrounded by intricately-carved wooden chairs with real fabric cushions. Portraits of William and Lucy Croghan, the original owners of Locust Grove, hang on walls illuminated by updated LED candlelights. There are even realistic doll inhabitants, including a maid who, in the early 1800s, would have been a slave, as well as a true-to-life one-legged George Rogers Clark, Locust Grove’s most famous resident, resting in an elegant rocking chair beside his desk.
The contents of the dollhouse are quite valuable, explained Johnson, having been carved, molded and sewn with incredibly detailed craftsmanship and historical accuracy. Pointing out a couple of brightly-patterned, plush rugs, she commented, “The two rugs here, back in the ’80s, cost $1,000 apiece. It took an hour for every square inch, and it’s actually punch-needle.” And, while the price tag may sound hefty, she noted, it is not uncommon in the world of miniatures to find pieces priced in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars at specialty shops and shows, because of the level of skill and amount of time required to construct them.
Perhaps because of financial limitations, the hobby as a whole has seen a decline in the Louisville area, Johnson lamented, pointing out that the city was, at one time, home to four miniature shops, but now has none. “People – women – are working all the time now, or maybe the money is not there. When my kids were growing up, I never had the money or the time to do this,” she commented. “I loved it, but I just never had that ability to get into the hobby.”
But she’s hopeful that things will change. Despite the lack of local shops, the internet allows access to materials that hobbyists once had to travel to acquire. There are also several miniature shops just a short drive away, in towns such as Dansville, Owensboro and Maysville, Ky., as well as Morgantown, Ind. And the Louisville Miniature Club will gladly welcome new members, providing resources and tutorials for those interested in learning more about a craft that extends far beyond simply furnishing dollhouses. Members can play out their home-decor fantasies as they create 1-, 1/2- or 1/4-inch scale, stand-alone rooms or scenes, even building their own furniture or accessories if they wish.
Even the demographics have shifted, noted Johnson. Historically, women have made up a majority of the club’s membership, but current members like Greg Claypool, who builds life-sized furniture in addition to miniature pieces, illustrate that the group has much to offer male craftsmen. People of many ages and from all areas of town comprise the enthusiastic, inclusive group that makes up the Louisville Miniature Club. “We just have a lot of fun!” Johnson smiled. “We share ideas and that’s the whole point of this – to keep this hobby going.”
The Louisville Miniature Club plans to host the First Annual Louisville Miniature Club Miniatures & Dollhouse Show later on this year. For more on the organization and their upcoming activities visit www.louisvilleminiatureclub.org.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune