Forty years ago, Judith Lewin created a gift that put stars in a little girl’s eyes and jump-started a career that eventually led her and her business, Mill Creek Miniatures, to 1127 Florence Ave.
The dollhouse Ms. Lewin built in 1976 for her 6-year-old daughter was a bit primitive, she says – just “two boxes hinged together with a roof.” She filled it with a neighbor’s secondhand furniture, “spiffed up” with new upholstery she finished herself.
Her daughter was thrilled. And, Ms. Lewin says, “I fell in love.”
To her delight, she discovered that her new passion for collecting and crafting dollhouse miniatures – the houses themselves as well as their furnishings – constituted a hobby. Furthermore, there were stores that catered to miniature hobbyists by carrying the likes of dollhouse windows and accessories. Adults as well as children, she learned, were dollhouse and miniatures aficionados.
Four decades later she has a small storefront on Florence that is a treasure trove for collectors of miniatures and a showcase for a sampling of dollhouses in various stages of completion. At any given time there may be an ornate Victorian with tiny flowerpots and a snoozing cat, a four-room cottage in dainty pastel pink, or a green-shuttered white clapboard ready to put under the Christmas tree.
If time is not an issue, Ms. Lewin has or can order dollhouse kits clients can build themselves, especially when informed about their relative difficulty. She stocks some furniture, wallpaper, electrical components, and wood molding and flooring, can order others, and is more than willing to dispense helpful advice backed by years in the business. Given enough lead time, she builds houses to order.
Ms. Lewin first jumped into the miniatures milieu by building dollhouse furniture from kits and patterns. She was soon modifying various pieces. “I got an idea from kits and made my own,” she says. Noting how a miniature bed was put together, she would then adapt the pattern by carving posts of her own design.
Though the world of miniatures was new to her, Ms. Lewin was an enthusiastic crafter who had been smitten by detail even while growing up in a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She says her mother recalled her intricate childhood drawings. At one time she planned to apply this aptitude to the meticulous field of medical illustration. Instead, she weathered a cross-country move from California to Miami and found jobs creating window displays for stores and helping customers choose picture frames.
After moving back to California in 1990, Ms. Lewin opened Mill Creek Miniatures, which she ran until coming to Evanston in 2009. As she does now, she sold, assembled, finished, rewired, and refurbished dollhouses.
In the nearly 20 years she operated the business in the Golden State, Ms. Lewin says she saw the popularity of the hobby wax and wane, from a peak in the 1970s through the 1990s to a slight decline before and after the 2008 recession.
It seems to be back. A March 2016 Voice of America article reports on the increasing popularity of dollhouse miniatures with baby boomers and seniors who, having time but lacking space, enjoy the challenge of making things smaller and the pleasure of sharing their interest.
Dollhouses, called “dolls’ houses” in Britain and Europe, are no passing fancy. The earliest ones, wooden and filled with models of servants and livestock, date from Egypt 5,000 years ago. Buried with royalty, they are presumed to have had a religious purpose.
In 16th-century England, Holland, and Germany, handmade cabinets with furnished rooms inside could cost as much as a modest full-size house. Reserved for a few wealthy matrons, they were off-limits to children. The 18th century saw realistic, custom-built dollhouses that gave way in the 19th and post-war 20th centuries to mass-produced, more affordable miniatures.
Chicago, of course, has two world-famous dollhouses. At the Art Institute, the Thorne Rooms, their elegant period furniture crafted by artisans in the 1930s and ’40s,
are never more magical than when decorated for Christmas. Farther south on Lake Shore Drive at the Museum of Science and Industry, the 7-foot-tall, 12-room Fairy Castle realized the childhood dream of silent screen star Colleen Moore and has been enchanting visitors since 1949. It boasts the smallest Bible ever written, jewel-encrusted furniture, and a price tag recently estimated at $7 million.
Ms. Lewin is currently in the midst of rehabbing a house built by the grandfather of a woman who plans to give it to her granddaughter for Christmas. “He did a great job,” Ms. Lewin says of the sturdy structure.
Rediscovered after years in storage, the house needed sprucing up. With her skills as carpet-layer, painter, and carpenter, Ms. Lewin peeled off the old wallpaper and put up new, repainted the outside, and is replacing the original, too-fragile windows and worn carpet. The old wood floors she prizes for their “character,” she says.
With December and the countdown to the holidays beginning, she has a couple of timesaving ideas for Christmas giving this year. First, she has Quik-build houses. “The individual pieces are finished, and the client glues and screws” the house together, she says, in a matter of 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
New this year are undecorated Quik-build houses that can be assembled for Christmas and then finished as a winter project for the family. “Kids can shingle, paint, and cut wallpaper and carpet,” she says.
And, she reminds clients, if the wall-paper bubbles or the molding fails to fit into the corner, she is “as close as the phone” – glad tidings, indeed, when a miniature problem looms large.