Peale offers child's-eye view of Christmas

December 30, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

When Breck Chapman reassembles the Christmas garden of his childhood for the Peale Museum exhibit, he asks to work on it alone.

"It brings up a lot of emotions," he said, the feelings of Christmases past when he was a boy growing up in Lutherville.

When they were young, Chapman and his sister would be led blindfolded on Christmas morning through the living room of their home, where his father had put up the Christmas garden the night before.

They would open their stockings and spruce up in another room before being allowed into the living room to behold the garden and the pile of presents.

When he was 9, Chapman started helping his father wire the trains and lights that transform the 8-by-9-foot elevated display into a bustling village of houses and a church, in what was supposed to represent mid-century Lutherville.

Off to the side is the farm country, with a barn and green sawdust pastures for grazing animals. In between are riders and hounds in pursuit of a fox.

Chapman, now 43 and a photographer on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's staff, needs only to peer through the gate in the iron fence enclosing the garden to recover his child's-eye view of the Christmas setting. And he can still assemble the Christmas garden each year, but at the Peale Museum, to which he donated the tableau in 1987.

The Peale exhibit, "The Make-Believe World of Christmas" will run through Jan. 12. The Christmas garden, along with an

1887 miniature wooden Christmas house and a collection of photographs of children taken during the Christmas season, are meant to evoke childhood memories.

Yesterday, the Peale held an open house for the exhibit, complete with cider and cakes to recall the private open houses that many families have for friends and relatives, usually during the week between Christmas and New Year's.

That's what brought Chapman and his parents to the Peale yesterday. Several descendants of Gustav Thomas Karow, the German immigrant who built the Christmas house, were also on hand.

The Christmas house, which is comparable to an oversize doll house, was once the central decorative feature of 19th-century Christmas gardens in the Baltimore tradition. The one on display at the Peale was made of cigar box wood from the tobacco, confectionary and stationery store that the Karows once operated on Chester Street.

Karow, who came to this country in 1847, lived in the 2100 block of Bank St. His descendants moved to Glenmore Avenue in Overlea in 1915 and took the Christmas house with them. Karow's great-great-granddaughter, who took the house to her home in Delaware in 1983, donated it to the Peale last month.

The display brought several members of the Karow family to Baltimore to see the house they remembered as the centerpiece of childhood Christmas gardens, or as the main attraction for play in grandmother's attic.

"That house used to be in my Christmas garden when I was a little toddler," said Raymond Bauer, 77, of Vienna, Va., great-grandson of the creator of the house.

The Christmas garden he remembers from boyhood filled most of the living room, in a U-shape that allowed for an aisle up the middle. The house was in one corner, and the Christmas tree diagonally across.

His father and grandfather would start building the garden three weeks before Christmas. The living room would remain off-limits to children, concealed behind French doors until Christmas Day.

By the time Raymond Bauer was married and raising a family, the house was too big and too fragile to be carted down from the attic each year to anchor a Christmas garden. His son Ted Bauer, 47, remembers joining his cousins in his grandmother's attic to play with it whenever he visited her in the Overlea house.

It took the strength of Ted and one of his girl cousins to lift the roof off the house to get inside. The second floor was a removable shelf. Inside were electric lights, curtains, potbellied stoves, summer and winter rugs, wall hangings and a group of tiny people that earlier generations had named "the Malone family." Most of the furnishings, the Malone figures and the origin of their name are long lost.

The house is almost 3 feet high, with a broad porch and a cupola, part of the Queen Anne revival style of the 1880s. There were enough tiny dolls in the house for children to imagine that the Malones were entertaining guests, Ted Bauer remembered, though other details of the imaginary Malone family's life are less clear.

"I don't think they [the Malones] ever worked," he said. "Nobody ever works when you're a kid, right? They were just real rich."

Peale officials said more than 500 people crowded in yesterday for the open house. Children took turns at the transformer switches running the train around the former Chapman Christmas garden.

Breck Chapman watched, standing next to a black-and-white photograph of himself as a boy leaning over his Christmas garden in Lutherville. The boy running his old family train yesterday took the corner by the barnyard too fast, and the train flew off the tracks.

Chapman laughed. When he was growing up, "this happened every year" at the same corner, he said.

"Sometimes you'd do it deliberately," he confessed.

About the show

The Chapman Family Christmas Garden is at the Peale Museum, 225 Holliday St., a block north of City Hall, through Jan. 12. Admission is $1.75 with reduced charges available for senior citizens and children.

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