A tiny castle is brought into the 21st Century at MSI

Staff Writer

Normally tucked above the miniature stove in the Fairy Castle is a set of pewter mugs with little handles made of wood reclaimed from Westminster Abbey after it was damaged during World War II.

That type of connection to global history is scattered all over the nine-foot square dollhouse at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). The castle has more than 1,500 opulent artifacts including 4,000-year-old Egyptian statues, jewel-encrusted furniture and the smallest Bible ever printed, dating back to 1840.

MIS, 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., has taken apart the castle for cleaning and restoration. Visitors can take this opportunity to get an up-close look at the miniature artifacts and the construction of the castle.

This is the first time the house has been fully deconstructed since it arrived at MSI in 1949. The 12 rooms, and 200 pieces that create the façade, will be cleaned and repaired before being reconstructed.

“Structurally it’s in extremely good shape,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and head curator at MSI. “But we had no idea what we were getting into.”

The castle’s own plumbing and electrical wiring damaged the structures over the nearly 65 years it has been on display at MSI. The running water damaged the wood and marble floors in some places and the heat from the original incandescent light bulbs scorched the walls.

Colleen Moore, the castle’s creator, gained her fame during the silent film era. When she was growing up she and her father built dollhouses. She enlisted the help of Hollywood set designers and architects to build the Fairy Castle to raise money for children’s charities.


She spent $500,000 to complete the castle by 1935, about $8.5 million in 2013 dollars. It toured the country and was displayed in department stores and towns to raise $650,000, roughly $11 million today.

To preserve the castle for generations, the incandescent lights, most of which are no longer produced, will be replaced by LED or fiber optic lights, which do not emit heat. The water features will be replaced by molded, clear acrylic and fiber optics to mimic the look of running water without the potential for leaks.

The restoration work will take place in the public eye, something normally tucked away behind closed doors. The miniatures, which are often fully functional, are displayed in glass cases visitors can get close to.

The dollhouse contains tapestries from Austria, marble floors, stained glass, art painted by Walt Disney, a miniature rifle that shoots tiny silver pellets, painted ceilings and even a tiny guide to the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave.

Visitors can browse through the titles in the castle’s library, including a dictionary the size of a thumb and a cookbook hand-printed by Julia Child. (It contains a recipe for chicken.)

The castle’s treasures are legitimate treasures. Moore used her family’s jewelry to decorate the dollhouse. A pair of dress clips were used to make miniature chairs, her grandmother’s pearls were used to hang the rock-a-bye-baby crib from the tree tops, chandeliers have glittering stones on them and floors are covered in jade and mother of pearl.

Moore went to Vienna seeking a glassblower who could make slippers for Cinderella, and was told it was impossible at the time. She ultimately found a glassblower who had traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus who could complete the job.

The work is expected to be completed by spring of next year. McCarthy said the improvements should preserve the Fairy Castle for generations and prevent MSI from having to do any further work for decades.