At Angels Attic, It's a Doll's World : Santa Monica Museum Benefits School for the Disabled

The Victorian house was once an eyesore, sooty and sagging. Today, it stands crisply upright, painted light blue with fresh white gingerbread trim. Shoppers from nearby Santa Monica Place sip tea on the breezy veranda, and masses of heliotrope and Icelandic roses are ablaze in the front yard.

The house is so meticulously detailed that it looks like a dollhouse--not an inappropriate comparison since inside is the only museum of dollhouses, miniatures and toys on the West Coast.

In the two years Angels Attic has been open, collectors and miniature enthusiasts from all over the world have made their way to the cozy museum to see its frequently changing displays of rare dollhouses, old and new.

"Dolls' houses, miniatures and toys are an art form, not just a hobby for children," said Eleanor LaVove, co-director of the museum with Jackie McMahan.

"They tell us the history of the world as it's lived in," LaVove said. "We learn about social history, architectural history and interior design. We can see how things have progressed and changed."

An Expensive Hobby

Likewise, collecting dollhouses is hardly child's play; a single piece of tiny antique furniture can cost hundreds of dollars while rare old houses range from $10,000 to $25,000.

The earliest known dollhouse was commissioned by a Bavarian duke in 1558. It was so exquisite that he never gave it to his daughter as planned, placing it in his private art collection instead, according to Flora Gill Jacobs, director of the Washington (D.C.) Dolls' House and Toy Museum and an expert on dollhouses and miniatures.

Angels Attic was born when McMahan, a lifelong collector of dollhouses, began searching for a way to raise money for the Brentwood Center for Educational Therapy in Inglewood, where her granddaughter, Carlee McLaughlin, attends school. After organizing several successful weekend exhibitions, McMahan and LaVove, also a collector, decided to found a museum to bring in funds year-round for the school, which is attended by 103 developmentally disabled children and young adults.

Finding a suitable location for the museum took more than two years. "I'm sure we looked at every Victorian house in Los Angeles," McMahan said. The Queen Anne-style house they eventually found was built in 1895 at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard (then called Nevada Street) and 4th Street, Santa Monica. It was moved to its present location at 516 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, in 1924, and was soon converted into four apartments that had deteriorated badly by the time Angels Attic bought the house in 1981.

Woeful Condition

"When they moved the house, they just plunked it down on the dirt--there was no foundation," LaVove recalled. "When we bought it, it was sinking and there was a tremendous gas leak underneath. Luckily, one of the owners had put asphalt over the outside, so that saved the original redwood siding."

11-Month Restoration

The building was stripped down to its studs and restored to its original condition--including plinths, moldings and period wallpaper--in 11 months of intense work.

The ground floor is filled to overflowing with a variety of dollhouses, most with period furnishings, some inhabited by tiny dolls. Some were mass-produced, like the "red-roofed German house" from the end of the 19th Century, while others are one-of-a-kind models, such as a large replica of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco by Bay Area craftsman Jim Marcus and a London-style town house carved from wooden crates by a sailor during the Boer War.

Glass cases display sets of tiny furniture in ivory, brass, porcelain, sterling silver and gilded metal. To walk through the museum is to tour the world, from the Cheyenne Indian tepee dating from 1864 to houses from Tahiti, Switzerland, Mexico, Holland and the United States.

In another room, a model train puffs along tracks overhead and an automated carrousel whirls in the center, complete with little riders on painted horses. The German model kitchens on exhibit were early educational toys, designed to teach girls the place for every plate and implement.

Elsewhere in the museum a model of a millinery shop includes hats, lace and flower trim, and a small schoolroom contains long beaches, students of different ages and a stern schoolmaster with a threatening pointer. One house, built in Chicago in 1930, came complete with a Ford in the garage.

McMahan's extensive collection forms the nucleus of the permanent collection at Angels Attic. Other Southern California collectors, including LaVove, have put their treasures on long-term loan to the museum.

True enthusiasts, McMahan and LaVove are constantly on the lookout for new finds in Europe and the United States--and sometimes they stumble on them unexpectedly. "I was in a stationery store in Santa Monica, telling the shopkeeper about the museum," McMahan said, "when I heard a quiet little voice behind me saying, 'I think I have something you might like.' It was a sweet lady who said she had a dolls' house, and she gave me her number. Well, the whole summer went by before I made time to see her, but when I did, I found a marvelous Dutch dolls' house."

Now proudly exhibited, the house is complex and ingenious, complete with a revolving door and running water supplied by a tank on the roof.

Visitors to Angels Attic can wander through on their own, or arrange in advance for group tours by docents who are members of Angels for Autistic Children, a support group for the Brentwood Center for Educational Therapy. The museum has only one paid staff member, coordinator Morgan Miller; the "Angels," as they are called, including full-time directors McMahan and LaVove, are all volunteers.

Tea and Cakes

Besides conducting tours, volunteers serve afternoon tea and make the home-baked cakes that are also available. They also run the museum shop, which sells handcrafted modern miniatures, children's books and toys.

The grassy rear garden of the house may be rented for weddings, luncheons and other events. Planned later this year are a "de-acquisition" sale (Sept. 13) to sell items in the collection that are no longer needed, and a doll-appraisal clinic (Sept. 4) conducted by the auction firm of Theriault's.

Now that Angels Attic's second birthday is past, McMahan's next task is to ease the storage crisis that has the house crammed to the rafters. "We're looking for an angel to buy the house next door," she said. "It's a dream, but if we hadn't dreamed a little, we wouldn't be here at all."

Angels Attic, 516 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, is open Thursday through Sunday, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and $1 for children under 14. Handicapped parking and access is at the rear of the house. Afternoon tea is $2.50. For more information call (213) 394-8331.

Yorkshire lives in Los Angeles.

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