This is my dollhouse. I built it myself, and it took over a decade.
My dollhouse is a memory palace for every story I’ve ever cherished, a way to hold close every character I love and the things they taught me about being human.
It’s a safe house for my dreams. It holds my recollections of the times those characters gave me strength when nothing else did, and this week it is finally, truly finished.
I’d wanted a big fancy dollhouse my whole adult life, but I had always resisted. In ’96, when I was working at Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown and living in Arlington, there was a dollhouse store nearby.
It shared a parking lot with the building where my recovery meetings were, and I carefully arranged to be there only when it was closed. I used to peer in the windows, and say to myself, “Not yet.”
I had never lived anywhere I could imagine staying for the rest of my life. I knew my decorator crab shell couldn’t support the financial and psychic overhead of a huge, heavy, utterly fragile dollhouse.
It was starting a collection of 6″ (1/12th scale) superhero action figures in my mid 30’s that led me to begin building my dollhouse.
I didn’t start collecting 6″ figures on purpose. I had some female superhero action figures in the 90’s 5″ scale around, X-Men women and an Invisible Woman I got when I was driving the truck of my belongings from DC to Berkeley in ’97. In ’98 a co-worker San Francisco start-up who had a crush on me gave me the DC Direct Death figure, and I took her out of the package and saw that she was exactly the right size for a dollhouse.
I’d heard they were going to make more dollhouse scale figures of DC and Marvel characters. I knew then I was done holding out against the completely silly business of miniatures.
So I started collecting figures, and planning a dollhouse for them. They needed a place to live! Little did I know how long they would wait.
I made sketches of scenes I imagined the dollhouse including, like this one. The entire ten-year labor of my dollhouse was for this one joke. It’s still hilarious to me! I am an idiot. But a happy idiot.
The Edward Scissorhands figure is a customized mashup of the McFarlane one, for the likeness, and a Japanese figure with a generic face that was closer to the correct scale.
In 2001 or so I bought a die-cut 1/8” plywood dollhouse kit, the cheapest and most labor-intensive kind of kit. I had fallen in love with its style, a ridiculous Addams Family mansard-roofed Victorian, and none of the easy-build kits appealed to me.
A die-cut kit is a box of plywood sheets with hundreds of pieces you have to punch out, sand, prime and paint.
I had never built any kind of kit before, so it seemed reasonable to me to start with a huge Victorian. Being as I’m not very reasonable.
Halfway through building I learned that if I wanted to use the fancy, detailed pre-made doors and windows from HouseWorks instead of the flimsy ones that came with the kit, i would need 3/8″-1/2″ thick walls.
So I painstakingly, insanely, cut pieces of heavier wood to fit every wall of the partially assembled dollhouse. I didn’t have any power tools, so I used a hacksaw and exacto knife to cut everything.
Cutting the shingles for the roof to fit perfectly took months, because half the time they split and were useless.
Then I decided it wasn’t big enough, so I scratch-built the extension you see on the right side. This is called kitbashing in the dollhouse world.
This is my other favorite joke. What’s even better is what my Beloved Ex-Boyfriend Clear said about it: “I bet Constantine paid Harry to take a dive.”
I read that soldered wiring was less likely to fail than brad wiring, so I took the mostly finished house to Jim Cooper’s Dollhouse Studio in Benicia and he taught me how to solder wiring, and I wired the whole house.
Then I started wallpapering and staining trim and painting windows and installing moldings. After a couple of years I just couldn’t stand it anymore; I absolutely hated cutting the little beveled moldings so they lined up right.
So I took the house back to Cooper’s and wonderful June Gailey, a lovely senior lady who spent her days working on dollhouse projects at Cooper’s, finished the interior detailing. It took about a year.
June & Jim with my dollhouse when I first brought it to June.
Meanwhile, for like 7 years I’d been collecting stuff to go in it.
The weirdest stuff I could find.
Babies and tiny jars to put them in, spellbooks, poison bottles, skulls, canopic jars, squid, rayguns, test tube sets and labware, sinister medical tools, urine and blood samples, gimp hoods, whips, handcuffs, stockings, and course fancy food, especially lots and lots of cake, and as many coffee makers as i could secure.
The stuff came from four main sources:
-action figure accessories, mainly Todd Mcfarlane
-handmade by miniature artisans
-commercially made miniatures
-and Re-Ment and MegaHouse blind box miniatures from Japan.
Friends gave me some of the most special things, like the handmade Doubtful Guest.
I made all of Bettie’s vibrators and sex toys myself- there are some mini sex toys available but they’re in 1/18 scale. That was how I began to sculpt for the first time.
And I collected a LOT of action figures. Like, a really frightening lot. They kept coming out with more figures, of characters I adored!
Who would ever have guessed they’d make an X-Men movie, and toys to go with it? Who could have imagined they’d make Lord of the Rings movies?
Who could have imagined that the comic/SF/Fantasy culture I’d grown up on would become popular in the mainstream, and then hugely, commercially viable? Or that adults collecting toys would go from ironic and clever to simply ordinary?
I sure as hell wouldn’t have.
My dollhouse in 2008.
The house itself was finally finished in the Fall of 2008, when I had lost my (human-size) house in a double-whammy divorce/real estate collapse and was living in a small apartment in Albany.
I had already boxed up some of my figures and put them in storage, so I couldn’t access the Wolverine I wanted to use for the shrubbery joke or my custom Edward.
I put an assortment of the figures I had around in the house, and realized it looked ridiculous without landscaping. I started on the flowers for the landscaping, and then the Great Recession hit.
My art business collapsed, and I moved to a smaller apartment, and then to a friend’s basement.
The dollhouse went into storage for almost three years. But life is made of second chances, and in 2011 I moved in with my now-husband, to a beautiful little Craftsmen fourplex in Oakland.
One of my beloved friend-muse-patrons and her husband carried my dollhouse up our narrow, twisting stairs.
I will never forget that moment, watching a small circus-athlete woman and her tall geek husband dancing around each other as they moved the single creative object I’ve spent the most time on in my life.
It was such a testament to marriage, to friendship, to love and to trust. It was goddam amazing, and they got it upstairs in perfect safety.
So I built the landscaping at last, using balsa wood for the brick walls, and finally found the perfect greenhouse on eBay.
I painted the greenhouse, cut paths out of faux brick tiles, and painted and poured the resin pond I had been planning for a decade.
I put all the furnishings and accessories back in, and restored the figures that had been in it in Albany. My Swamp Thing was still somewhere in storage.
Our little jewel-box apartment was only 800 square feet, and I didn’t dare open any of the ten boxes of figures in my storage locker.
I decided the shrubbery joke would have to wait a while longer, until I lived somewhere I could put down roots.
Packing the dollhouse and its contents for Berlin was deranged.
I shaped tin foil shields over the furnishings attached to the walls, carefully stuffed the entire house with acid-free tissue, and built cardboard structures that precisely covered every part of the outside.
Then I bubble-wrapped it, and then I shrink-wrapped it, and then I had it professionally crated.
I sold tons of my vintage clothing collection to pay for the crating; it was the only thing we had crated.
Lifting the crate into the shipping container took three guys, including the abnormal wiry strength of SFSlim; unloading it here took four healthy young Australians.
I waited almost three months to unwrap it here, because I wanted to get most of the art hung up and stuff put away, and I needed to rebuild the enormous chambered rolling base it sits on.
But I did it, and then I screwed the dollhouse to its base for the first time.
Because we hope to live here the rest of our lives, and it was time for all my heroes to have a home.
I knelt and said prayers of gratitude as I unpacked my figures and tiny things, to everyone who’d helped me bring something so huge and yet so tiny, so silly and yet so serious, so old-fashioned and so full of plastic, to such a distant land. I have never felt so safe and so whole.
Next, I’m going to start building the underground Danger Room, superhero powers testing facilities, laboratories and stables.
I’ve got fourteen X-Men figures who’ve been waiting for a place to train for a long time.
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