Historical Preservation In Miniature

January 24, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The late Victorian farmhouse is sound, but it needs work -- a lot of work. Built in 1875, it hasn't been renovated since the 1950s.

"It's a long-term project," said homeowner Sharon A. H. May -- even if the house is only 5 feet long and 4 feet high.

While the chief of the Baltimore state's attorney's sex offense unit spends her days in deadly serious work, prosecuting criminals, she spends her evenings and weekends "in another world."

"I come home to play with my toys," she said of the 22 dollhouses that occupy every room of her Baltimore County home "except the laundry, the kitchen and the bathroom."

Ms. May, 45, who grew up in Ashburton as a childhood pal of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, began collecting four years ago, after she learned that the dollhouse her grandfather had built when she was a girl ended up as "splinters" after years in her parents' garage.

"I didn't want it until I couldn't have it," she lamented.

Her first acquisition was a three-story, six-room dollhouse in Georgian style with a mansard roof. Painted dull tan with brown shutters and roof shingles, it was a fixer-upper. "I wanted an inexpensive dollhouse I could rehabilitate," Ms. May said.

So she became a home-improvement contractor in miniature. The dreary "before" pictures contrast starkly with today's cheerful white and charcoal gray doll house with new windows, a colonial-style door frame, a relocated staircase and lamps that light.

It's known as the Susie Reid House, in honor of the best cook and baker at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church during Ms. May's childhood. Mrs. Reid is in her 80s and incapacitated, so in November Ms. May took the dollhouse to her home and told its story.

"She just cried, she was so happy, especially when she saw her own picture on the wall," Ms. May said.

Poking at a stack of books on dollhouses and miniatures over the centuries, Ms. May said collecting is more than child's play.

"This is serious business, aside from the expense," she declared. "There's a lot of history here. I've learned a lot about lifestyles and furnishings of different periods. I try to be historically accurate."

The thrill of collecting is the endless search for new items, and not long ago, it led Ms. May to help recover the loot from a 2-year-old theft of rare Biedermeier dollhouse furniture from a museum.

Prowling through an Albuquerque antiques store, Ms. May came across a trove of the Biedermeier, including an ultra-rare hall stand. "I lost my mind. It was everything I'd been looking for," she said.

The asking price was in "the four figures," so she worked out a lay-away plan with the dealer. When she got home, she sent a deposit and described her find to a long-time dealer friend.

"She didn't say anything, so I thought, 'Oh, gosh, it's junk and I've sent off the deposit,' " Ms. May recalled. "Then she called me the next day and told me. The theft was never publicized, but word was circulated among dealers. Only two hall stands are known to exist."

The museum and its insurance company gave Ms. May the money to pay the balance, and later reimbursed her for the deposit. When the package arrived she turned it over to the rightful owner. Her reward -- a lifetime pass to the museum.

Ms. May's latest acquisition is a Victorian farmhouse. Ms. May said she'll strip the wallpaper and the faux brick kitchen floor, repaint the house and restore it to its original appearance.

Eventually she expects to furnish it with period pieces, a quest that takes her to flea markets, rummage sales, auctions, antique shows and shops and keeps her in touch with her network of suppliers.

The cost of restoration and furnishing put the project in the upscale end of antique dollhouse-collecting.

The favorite piece in her collection is the classic Hill-Gray House of 1880. It appears in "Doll Houses in America," by Flora Gill Jacobs of Chevy Chase, the bible for collectors.

The house was so big it had to be delivered by truck to her house.

Most of the eight rooms and the attic are furnished in Victorian-style pieces that the original owner might have known. More than a century ago the house was first delivered to Helen Gray on the Great Northern Railroad from Minnesota to Connecticut, sent by her grandfather, James J. Hill, the line's president.

Ms. May's collection ranges from the classic 19th-century examples through several houses from the 1920s and '30s to tin dollhouses of the 1950s -- plus an unusual house with plate-glass front and sides.

The rooms are furnished with elegant scale reproduction miniatures which are meant to be displayed, rather than played with. Among them is a tiny blue-and-white Chinese vase, recovered six years ago from the cargo of a Dutch merchantman that sank in 1689 off what is now Vietnam.

That glass-walled house is named "VEW" for her husband, V. Eric W. May Sr., a former state policeman who is gradually becoming his wife's chief spotter of collectibles.

"I'm learning to tolerate it," he said. "I've actually found some of the houses -- and I do the driving."

VEW's house number is 3110, which represents the mileage from their house to Texas and back in the van they rented to pick it up from the dealer, Ms. May said.

Her husband has taken a proprietary interest in it, she said. "He looks for things for the house -- but nothing cheap -- he only wants the good stuff."

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