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Museum Pieces: the houses of Pat Lohenry's dreams

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"Everybody's interested, young or old, male or female," Pat Lohenry says. "You can imagine you're little. So many people will say, 'Oh, I wish I was this big so I could live in that house.' It's a fantasy world. I always loved houses. Big houses. I'd say, 'I want that pretty house.' Now, I can build that. Maybe I can't buy that house, but I can make a small one like it. You can have a gorgeous room or bedroom, but maybe you can't have it big. Maybe you don't have the space or the money. But you can have it little."

Lohenry is an interior decorator for houses. And if ever there were a Lilliputian edition of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, it would probably be filmed at her Holidays Dollhouse Museum and shop.

It features 12 dollhouses, one for each month of the year. The houses have from 4 to 20 rooms--some of the most ornately, intricately designed rooms, of any size, you're likely to see. There are sunken bathtubs, cabinets, dressers, couches, tables, chairs, and little containers of Crisco.

The March house's interior is done up in green for Saint Patrick's Day. The June house is decked out for a wedding, with model cars parked out in front. A miniature blue fountain spits out water from the center of the circular driveway, and a small tram is built into a mountain. The TVs in the houses are lit up with little lights. The lights in the houses work. The July house is red, white, and blue; the October, black and orange. If you look closely enough at each room, you continue to see new, subtle details, the result of Lohenry's ingenuity.

For Lohenry, opening the dollhouse museum represents the realization of a lifelong dream and the climax of 18 years' labor. Until a couple of months ago, the houses were sitting in her basement. She says she'd never really thought of displaying them. They were just projects she worked on to escape the drudgery of being a housewife.

"It's a change of life for me," says Lohenry, a fiery woman whose eyes burn with enthusiasm. "I've been home for 28 years raising four children. It was just a hobby. I never dreamt of putting them on display. I never thought they were good enough. I figured if it was supposed to be, it would fall into place, and it's fallen into place."

Not long ago, Lohenry rented a big storefront and opened up her museum and shop (it sells miniature items, most of them not made by Lohenry). She also teaches classes here on how to make miniature upholstered furniture, drapes, and the like.

"Until now, I'd spend my time sewing costumes, going to school conferences, doing the groceries and cooking. If I had a few hours during the day and the kids were at school and the wash load was done, I would work on the dollhouses. It's taken 18 years--that's how long I worked on them--but I'm also very determined. If I want to do something, it's going to get done. I don't like to sit around. I like to do this."

Lohenry didn't work from pictures or kits to build the houses. Each house has its own floor plan, and she comes up with all the designs. She cuts down her own mirrors, upholsters her own miniature couches, and hangs her own wallpaper and drapes. She has no background in art, but she was influenced by her father, an oil painter who built her a crude dollhouse that she treasured as a child.

"Oh, maybe I'll see a picture in Better Homes and Gardens of something I like, but I'll scale it down and use all my own ideas," says Lohenry. "I'll lay in bed at night and say 'Oh, yeah! This is what I'll do.' I do it in my imagination. Then maybe I'll sketch it. Sometimes I'll lay in bed at night, not be able to sleep, and then I'll get up and sketch something that's in my mind. The next day I'll go do it."

Lugging the 12 houses--which can be as big as seven feet long and nearly four feet high--out of the basement and to the storefront was a royal hassle. Lohenry packed each of the 108 rooms separately, making a blueprint of each so she wouldn't forget what went where. Each dollhouse weighs about 300 pounds, she estimates, and they barely fit through her door.

As we sit in the shop, an older woman with sandy blond hair and a pink purse gleefully eyes the details of Lohenry's houses. "Look at that little tiny jar of Vaseline," she says. "It makes me feel like a child again. As a child, you always dream of having a house like this. It's just something you really enjoy. It's fascinating, the minute detail."

And when Lohenry talks about her houses, she shows the same bright-eyed fascination, just like a child who's seeing them for the first time. She excitedly points out small details, a jar of baby food, a design on the drapes.

"I like it myself," says Lohenry. "This is mine and I put everything in it, but still I can go over to it and say, 'Oh my God! That's cute!'"

The Holidays Dollhouse Museum, 7644 W. Touhy Ave., is open from 1 to 9 Monday and Thursday, 10 to 6 Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 to 5 Wednesday, and 1 to 5 Sunday. Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for senior citizens and children. Phone 774-6666 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Art Wise.

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