Small space, big imagination: Dollhouse, play area dedicated to Beatrix Potter era
By Linda Braden Albert | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Visitors to the Blount County Public Library have a new attraction waiting to greet them in the children’s library: Beatrix Potter’s Country Manor, a large dollhouse dedicated to the author best known for the timeless children’s book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”
The dollhouse, a permanent exhibit, gives a delightful glimpse into the British way of life during the Victorian era of the mid- to late-1800s.
Children’s Librarian Jean Closz said Potter, an English author, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist best known for her imaginative children’s books featuring animals such as those in “The Tale of Peter,” had several country homes. The one depicted at the library is not a strict representation of any of these homes, however.
“But this one is sort of like a bed and breakfast,” she said while giving a “tour” of the dollhouse. “There’s a family that’s visiting and staying up here, you’ve got a children’s room. The red one over here is Beatrix’s room. This is another guest room, and the nanny and the baby are in here.”
A parlor, a dining room with tiny china dishes set on the table and a kitchen are on the lower level.
The animals Potter so enjoyed are displayed in front of the dollhouse.
“We’ve got all the critters out here that she wrote stories about,” Closz said. “Beatrix is out here on her deck, painting Peter Rabbit’s picture. That comes out of her hobby room.” The balcony overlooks the patio area which is accessed from the French doors into the living room and piano room, Closz added.
Work of heart
Most of the miniatures were purchased online and were surprisingly inexpensive, Closz said. She purchased the majority of the miniatures herself.
The dollhouse’s basic frame was mounted to the platform and table. It was purchased from a local antique store, who obtained it from an estate sale in Knoxville.
“It’s 80 to 100 years old,” Closz said. “It had (wall)paper from then, just shreds of it left, and little shattered pieces of old windows. And about 100 years of dirt! So Mr. Clean and I got it down to the walls as best I could. They had wired it by having grooves in the ceiling and then one Christmas bulb in the middle. The wiring was the ancient kind with cloth outside and the round plugs. It was all destroyed and broken, so I ripped all that out and covered all of the cracks. ... It must have been in a basement or attic. It had some water damage. Basically everything you see, I put on there. I had to cover the ceilings, the floors, the walls, everything.”
The wallpapers are scrapbooking papers. “I looked for stripes and things that looked like that time period,” Closz said.
With the help of several others at the library, the work was done through November and December.
“It was quite an undertaking,” Closz said.
Serving its purpose
Closz originally intended for the Potter dollhouse to be open for children’s play but found this idea was not practical.
“We have some other things related to it that they can play with,” she said. Children are invited to look into the small world as they play with stuffed toys conveniently located near the dollhouse depicting the characters from Potter’s books. The books are shelved nearby, as well.
Adults and children alike enjoy the area. Whitley Piercy, 4½, when asked about her favorite part of the house, pointed to the tea set displayed on the dining room table. She and her little sister Peyton, 13 months, and grandmother, Amy Howe, also liked the toy basket.
Closz said the best moment for her was when she saw a family doing exactly as she had envisioned in designing the Potter area.
“The mother was sitting with the kids right in front of the bookshelf and they were reading one of the stories,” she said. “The kids were playing with the toys. I thought, ‘Somebody got the reference!”
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit” follows mischievous and disobedient young Peter Rabbit as he is chased about the garden of farmer, Mr. McGregor. Peter escapes and returns home to his mother who puts him to bed after dosing him with camomile tea. The tale was written in 1893, revised and privately printed by Potter in 1901 after several publishers’ rejections. In 1902, it was printed in a trade edition by Frederick Warne & Company.
More to see
Closz said, “We’ve got all these other dollhouses here in the library. We had made two of them. About five of us here at the library met with Bev Johnson, and he tutored us in building the farmhouse,” which is also displayed in the children’s library. “And then we built the Tara mansion, which is on the other side of the library. The others were donated by other people.”
In 2006, Blanche Vandergriff donated a nine-room, three-story dollhouse originally built by her husband, Dr. Trent Vandergriff, nearly 50 years ago for their daughter, Kay, which is visible from the children’s library. Closz said Blanch made the curtains and rugs, hung the wallpaper, even created miniature needlework for the home. A photograph of Kay was placed above the fireplace mantle.
Another of the donated dollhouses is in a staff member’s office and not displayed for the public. This one was given to the library by a Knox County teacher, who had originally made it for a class project to illustrate how items normally considered trash could be put to use as miniature art.
A medieval cottage created by Vera Blair is visible in the reference area. It is in Reference Librarian Kathleen Christy’s office.
Beatrix Potter’s Country Manor is dedicated to Bev Johnson.
“He’s the one that got us all started on dollhouses,” Closz said.