Toy Story

Anne Smith collected so many antique dollhouses and other toys that she decided to open a museum in Mount Vernon.

December 15, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

There once was a girl who wanted a dollhouse but didn't get one as a child.

The girl, Anne Smith, grew up, moved away from her native Iowa and was living in New York, dealing in antiques, when she came upon a grand old dollhouse from 1870 in need of a little love.

It was a beautiful thing to behold: 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, handcrafted from wood, with bay windows on its side and a smoky blue glass transom above its front door. She bought it on the spot and took it home for a retired jeweler she knew to restore.

But she soon found that one dollhouse was not enough.

Smith bought another, and then another, and when a shopper at her Manhattan store and gallery asked if she was interested in a dollhouse built in 1939, she drove into the New Jersey suburbs, took one look at what was stored in the garage and bought one more.

For 33 years, starting in 1970, Smith has looked, primarily in upstate New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The most she ever paid for a dollhouse was $2,500, the least a few hundred dollars.

Along the way, she picked up antique furniture to fill her miniature houses - a teeny cuckoo clock here, a tiny polar bear rug there - and she always bought the best: tables with real marble tops, hand-carved German chifforobes no bigger than your thumb, real brass birdcages, real copper kettles, real velvet-covered settees, little paintings to hang in the parlors, little tin pots to set on the stoves, little fishbowls and ashtrays and knickknacks to arrange in the rooms.

And while she was at it, she came across old toys too wonderful to resist. Spinning tops from the early 1900s caught her eye. So did playing cards from the late 1800s. She bought circus figures from the 1920s, board games from the 1930s, oil-cloth stuffed animals from the 1940s. She turned up her nose at anything made since then and purchased instead an 1880s train made of iron and a 1930s car towing a rounded silver trailer. She gathered papier mache puppets and Victorian-era paper dolls; she found a rare wooden farm set of hand-painted chickens and an even rarer fire engine being pulled by a team of iron horses. She collected Noah's arks of all shapes and sizes, game after game, and blocks upon blocks upon blocks, all because their artwork is so exquisite she thought someone should save them.

Until one day, when Smith had amassed more vintage toys than she ever dreamed (eight storage units full to be precise), and decided the time had come to make good on her daydream and open an antique toy museum.

New York Realtors wanted to charge her $15,000 a month in rent, but she needed a place she could own. Her husband, Joseph Lehn, who deals in antique picture frames, suggested they consider moving to Baltimore, a city he had traveled to for work.

They looked in Fells Point first but saw nothing big enough for all the cases Smith, who is also an artist, planned to design and build and light. She needed room for her kitchens and castles, room for her monkeys and giraffes, room for a miniature millinery where a doll could peruse the latest hats while her porcelain-faced chauffeur waited by the door.

Smith and her husband were staying at a bed and breakfast in Mount Vernon and took a walk through the neighborhood. Their real estate agents showed them an old carriage shop at 222 W. Read three years ago. It would need a few months of work, but it had a high beaded ceiling, a great glass front and a wooden floor that made you feel like you were standing in an old-fashioned general store.

It was not too big.

It was not too little.

It was just right for a girl and her toys.

The Antique Toy Museum, which opened in May 2002, is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and "other times by chance or appointment." Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors and children. Call 410-230-0580 for more information.

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