Requiem for a Dollhouse: Handmade Replica of a 1950s Ranch House Is Too Big to Give, Too Precious to Throw Away | Home & Garden

John Keilman Chicago Tribune

BENSENVIL-LE, Ill. — Many people remember their childhood through photo albums or a cherished toy. Rather, Penny Parrish’s recollection is more substantial – and that has become a problem.

A few years after his family moved into their ranch-style house that his father and a friend built with their own hands, his father made a replica of the house as a dollhouse for Parrish and his younger sister.

It was scrupulously faithful to the real thing – he sculpted the fireplace brick by brick and added imitation shrubs on the artificial lawn – and it was massive, covering most of it with a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood.

Parrish moved a long time ago from Benenvillebut for decades she kept the dollhouse as a keepsake of those happy mid-century days.

“I couldn’t take the big house with me, but I could always take the little one to remind me of our time in Bensenville,” she said.

But now, she’s 75, and she wonders what will happen to the dollhouse that occupies a room in her Fredericksburg, Virginia home. She has no children she can leave it to, her sister has no place for it, and although she thinks it should be preserved as a piece of suburban history postwar, it found no takers among Illinois historical societies.

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Such is the limbo that often awaits “grandfather houses,” as Lori Kagan-Moore of the Great American Dollhouse Museum calls them. These dollhouses, built by family members, tend to lack the artistry or meticulous detail that would make them collectible, she said, although she receives donation requests almost weekly.

“Half an hour ago I replied to one of these letters,” she said. “I try to tell them what’s really good about the house, but we usually can’t take them.”

Parrish was 5 years old when his family moved in the early 1950s from the North Side of Chicago to a new subdivision in farmland near Bensenville.

His father, Jess Parrish, was an Army veteran and IBM service engineer who had learned carpentry and other building skills from his father, and he built the house with a buddy. According to a record in which Jess Parrish and his wife, Jean. recorded every expense, the whole job cost just over $11,000.

The three-bedroom, one-bath home had a fireplace, radiant heat, and a clothesline in the backyard, fitting in nicely with the up-and-coming neighborhood. The streets were teeming with children his age, Parrish said, and the families became so close they vacationed together and stayed in touch even after they left.

This was part of the suburban migration of the Greatest Generation, which saw Bensenville’s population more than double in a decade. Nancy Flannery of the Wheaton Historical Commission said many houses built in suburban DuPage County at this time were similar to one the Parrishes had built, optimized for growing families.

“I think the architecture reflected a certain value system that was very appealing to the men and women who had been in World War II,” she said. “… (He provided) not a fancy place, but a place a man and woman could be proud of, where they could raise their children, have good schools and a nice home.”

When Parrish was 9, her father surprised her and her sister, Deb, at Christmas with a replica of the house. It was faithful down to the decorative screen on the porch, and the roof could be removed so the girls could put their Tiny Tears dolls inside.

“I remember he was very proud of what he had done,” recalls Deb Parrish. “He wasn’t a very talkative guy, but you could tell he admired his work, both in the big house and in the little house.”

Penny Parrish stayed home while in college, then left to work in Florida. The dollhouse remained with her parents even after they left their Bensenville home and moved to Michigan.

“When they sold the house, I told them they couldn’t launch the dollhouse,” Parrish said. “So they moved it to Michigan and it sat in the garage rafters for a long time. When they sold that house in the 1990s, that’s where I took it.

She’s had the dollhouse ever since – she had to strip it off the plywood to move it – but with no heirs to claim it after she left, she tried to interest museums and historical societies.

“What most people have told me is that they think it’s a fascinating story and a piece of history, but either they don’t have a place for it or COVID has reduced their personal to the point that they just can’t deal with it,” she said. .

The house in Bensenville built by his father still exists and its appearance is not far removed from its original state. Parrish said she has not contacted the current owners, but after she leaves she plans to ask the executor of her estate to find out if they might want the dollhouse.

“I won’t be here then,” she said. “At least I wouldn’t know.”

A Tribune reporter stopped by the house this week, but the resident did not respond to a request for an interview.

Kagan-Moore said the scale of the replica makes it particularly difficult to donate. But in a time when kids are rarely given handmade toys — or toys of any kind, given the popularity of video games and other digital devices — she understands its lasting value.

“He (tells) the story of that family and those relationships and those kids who loved him,” she said. “I think it’s sad when this kind of thing is lost.”

For now, however, his presence remains a comfort. Shortly after the pandemic hit, Parrish took a photographic self-portrait with the dollhouse and slipped into a daydream about everything it meant.

“I thought about my past, about my family,” she said. “It was a dollhouse my dad made. It just (brought up) memories, all kinds of memories.

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