Complicated Comfort: Finding Unlikely Escape in the Restoration of a Childhood Dollhouse

Kate Guadagnino on the Solace of Neglected Objects

One thing I’ve noticed this last year is that when people cannot spend their leisure time in ways to which they’re accustomed, and when the concept of forward motion grows hazy, they may look to their pasts for once-familiar alternatives. At some point, a friend of mine started watching episodes of the MTV show The Challenge that she’d first seen in high school; another went to visit her parents and, while there, reread all seven of the Harry Potter books. In January, in the midst of my own stay at my parents’ home and seemingly determined, as Elizabeth Bishop might have put it, to regress farther and regress faster, I embarked on a restoration of a dollhouse. I am 32 years old.

The dollhouse in question was designed by Playmobil, the German maker of plastic toy miniatures, and is a combination of set 5300, also known as the Victorian mansion, which was first released in 1989, and set 7411, the expansion floor that followed in 1993. Together, they comprise four shining stories, with a three-sided, just under three-foot-tall façade that includes a columned entryway, a flat-topped hip roof with five dormers, and 18 casement windows with curved pediments and flower boxes, each filled with three six-stemmed bouquets of individually attached pink and white blooms.

The backside, naturally, is open to a grid of rooms, from a ground-floor conservatory to an attic playroom. And inside them are plenty of the things you’d expect—a kitchen table in the kitchen, beds in the bedrooms—but also, thanks to a level of detail that feels remarkably generous, especially considering the intended audience, many you might not. There are forks and spoons in the kitchen drawers and a pot and pan on the stove, above which are, among other tools, a rolling pin, a meat tenderizer, and a masher. Nearby is a stand holding two types of brooms, a dustpan, and a carpet beater and, on good days, a red-orange umbrella stays obediently propped up against the doorframe. Another particularly intricate space is the third-floor study, which is covered in a red and gold floral-printed wallpaper. There, a pair of green armchairs with foot stools face a lit fireplace (complete with a bellows, pokers, and spare logs) and plenty of books, as well as the day’s newspaper, are available to read.

I know these rooms—their layout and contents and moods—like I know those of my actual childhood home, which is to say intimately, and without having to look at or occupy them. Before writing this, I asked my younger sister if she remembered exactly when we and our other siblings received the dollhouse, a gift given and no doubt assembled by our parents one Christmas morning in the mid-to-late-90s, and she replied, “I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there.”

What is certain is that, whether together or with only the toy itself for company, we spent many, many hours playing with it, arranging and rearranging the rooms (sets for which were sold separately), selecting and accessorizing our dolls, and, finally, concocting rather soapy narratives that often hinged on forbidden love, trench warfare, and death. (One day, upset that one of his steely soldiers from a different corner of the wider Playmobil world, which also contained pirates, Vikings, cowboys, farmers, and all manner of municipal workers, had been co-opted as a romantic lead, my brother took “Eric” outside and attached him to a bottle rocket, making a young widow of his beloved, “Erica.”) Perhaps we were so fond of the dollhouse because it allowed for versions of adult problems at a more palatable scale.

After my youngest sibling reached middle school, the dollhouse and its accoutrements lived for many years across several plastic bins in our parents’ basement. It was brought up and reconstructed last fall for the benefit of our neighbors’ children, but they were largely unmoved while for me its renewed presence effected a disorienting thrill, akin to that of running into an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch.

In the back of my mind, no doubt, was the book I was reading: Maria Stepanova’s newly translated work of autofiction, In Memory of Memory, an elliptical account of the narrator’s search, conducted both doggedly and ambivalently, sometimes within the confines of her mind and sometimes beyond them, for evidence of the lives her ancestors lived, in which she describes growing up among decades-old photos and postcards, shrunken kid gloves, ivory mah-jongg tiles, and other “silent witnesses” to the past that, she hopes, might carry her toward it. Later, she writes that the point of this sort of dream “is surely to be someone completely different for a short while, to escape ourselves” (or at least, it follows, our present selves). Similarly, when cleaning out her late aunt’s apartment, she feels as though she “could disappear, becoming a thousand ancient, neglected, blackening objects.”

Perhaps we were so fond of the dollhouse because it allowed for versions of adult problems at a more palatable scale.

Over time, the dollhouse had indeed grown shabby, its windowpanes cracked and its crevices laced with cobwebs. I lamented these markers of disrepair and, with little else to entertain, figured I might as well address them. There can be something unsettling about adults who are into toys—a presumed stuntedness and reluctance to face facts—but one way to believe you are different is to become so obsessive and uncompromising that the endeavor comes to feel more like work than play. Here, at last, was a quarantine-era home project, its attendant problems appealingly small and solvable, that I had the know-how, the means and apparently the enthusiasm to take on.

My mother kindly helped contend with the general grime, brushing the dollhouse’s exterior with a soapy toothbrush and taking a razor blade to remnants of Scotch tape signaling a previous attempt at maintenance. I swabbed grooves and corners with the help of a trussing needle and then set about compiling an inventory, using online photos of old Playmobil boxes for reference and noting what was broken, missing, or had clearly been chewed on by a child or dog. The felt curtains, meanwhile, were sun-faded and moth-eaten. The brand replaced set 5300 with a new version in 2004 and has since retired the Victorian theme altogether. After scouring eBay for let’s say several hours, however, I was able to replace the curtains and much else: a planter, a post for a balcony railing, a buggy for a kid doll’s baby doll, a bar cart for tea service, a mug, a stool, a holder for a quill pen, a chamber pot, a sconce, a blanket, a basin, a rocking horse. The high or low point may have been when I blithely ordered a single palm frond from Dos Hermanas, Spain.

Along the way, there were discoveries—an upside-down wall panel had gone unnoticed for however many years, and a curious errant drawer turned out to be a broiler. I also connected with fellow enthusiasts. Since 2004, Heather Patey, who lives on St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and is by day a computer systems specialist, has maintained PlaymoDB, an unofficial online database that lets you search Playmobil’s wares by theme, release date, or set or part number. Her mind seems to work in similar ways, and, when we spoke on the phone, she advised that a matte ladle I couldn’t place might once have had a since-worn metallic sheen, revealing it to be the likely mate of a punch bowl. I also got the sense, though, that her impulse to sort was that of a mother lovingly cleaning up after her kids. These days, she usually has some combination of Playmobil sets and figures exhibited on the desk and display shelves in her home office but keeps the rest packed away for much of the year lest they take over additional rooms, the exception being holidays, when the house is full again.

There can be something unsettling about adults who are into toys, but one way to believe you are different is to become so obsessive and uncompromising that the endeavor comes to feel more like work than play.

Whereas Patey is a meticulous generalist, others specialize. She told me of the website Animobil, where over 1,600 Playmobil animals are grouped according to approximate taxonomy, and of Mundobil, one section of which takes color as its organizing principle, showcasing a magenta crown piece, say, alongside a cloak and a feather in the same shade. Many of the people presently interested in the Victorian house, though, are simply trying to put one back together. When I told Patey that the neighbor kids didn’t take to it, she said, “Childhood is different now,” adding, “What does it do? Nothing.” My thinking was still basically the opposite, and I often made a point of passing the dollhouse on my way to lunch to see how it was coming along, as if I were not the agent of change.

Among the likeminded eBay sellers I was in touch with were a married couple who go by childlikewonder, and a woman named Paula who’s “never met a dollhouse [she] didn’t like.” She bought her Playmobil mansion for $20 at an estate sale outside of Dallas about 20 years ago (today, an intact model sans room sets can fetch $800). The original owners warned her that the box’s contents might not be complete, and it was only after she’d sold a few pieces off that she realized they had been.

Corresponding with these individuals made me feel less alone in my imagined world. Even so, one can only stay in that sort of place for so long. Sitting on the hardwood floor rifling through the bins made my back so sore I started a course of anti-inflammatories, and at least twice I had to stop and inform my bank that no, that was not a fraudulent purchase.

There was also the matter of the real world and an ever-pressing question: Given its current state, how much escapism is permissible? This is something I’ve asked myself often these past few years, and at moments spent far less eccentrically, but this time the thought came with a particular mental image. The oldest dollhouses, built to telegraph wealth or to teach children (girls) about the rules of the domestic sphere, date to the 17th century, but arguably the most famous dollhouse belonged to Queen Mary, consort of George V—it was a gift from Princess Marie Louise, who commissioned it from the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1921.

Over 1,500 artists and craftspeople contributed to the project, and, after three years, their labors amounted to something far grander and more seductive than any Playmobil offering. With a marble staircase, silk damask-covered walls, nude-adorned murals, glass chandeliers, lacquer cabinets, horsehair mattresses, a windable gramophone, running water, and diamond- and ruby-studded replicas of the Crown Jewels, it is a stunning design feat and a useful historical record. At the same time, it’s pretty cringey to imagine a grown royal playing with the pretend palace inside her real one while, outside, the interwar years raged on.

In the servant’s room of Queen Mary’s dollhouse sits a silver-framed photograph of Queen Victoria, who presided over her own imperfect era, one that was, like ours is, rife with extreme social stratification. To this reality Playmobil was, in a way, dutiful. The dolls attached to its Victorian sets fall into one of two categories: there are the moneyed residents of the mansion or others like it, and there are those who serve them, the maids and tutors and nannies and drivers and deliverymen and sellers of fish, flowers, and hats. (There is also, or was, I was shocked to find in my research of the more obscure add-ons, a homeless doll meant to linger on a bench outside the mansion who came with a bowler and a bottle and a policeman.) The members of these groups are alike, however, in their perpetual smiles, and in their overwhelming whiteness.

There is the loneliness of the pandemic and the loneliness of childhood, and at times I wondered if I’d simply traded one for the other.

Elsewhere, Playmobil delved, shakily, into the history of Indigenous Americans, indulging in a ridiculously soft-edged fantasy of the American West that cannot be dismissed as merely European, but in reviewing the Victorian-themed sets, I came upon just three dolls of color: two children and a guard. I wish I could tell you there was at least a suffragette doll, which would have been a gimme, though I suppose one could remove the veil from the Victorian bride and send her on her way to a march, just as it is possible to lean toward gender fluidity by swapping the hair pieces between the male and female dolls. Still, I wonder, however haphazardly anachronistic my play, if any of this struck me as anything more than old-fashioned. “What strikes me is the confidence of Victorian architecture,” Richard Rodriguez wrote in a 1990 essay. “Stairs, connecting one story with another, describe the confidence that bound generations together through time—confidence that the family would inherit the earth.”

Happily, my childhood was not as fraught as the whole of any historical epoch, but I am wary of nostalgia there, too. I decamped to my parents’ house in December when, seemingly all at once, self-isolating alone in my Brooklyn apartment became too much to bear. But there is the loneliness of the pandemic and the loneliness of childhood, and at times I wondered if I’d simply traded one for the other. Though this could only have been partly true. Nostalgia, by definition, is not only an idealization of the past, but one shaped by the banal fact that, though rooms may stay more or less the same, time never actually stops. If a house is almost too neat a metaphor for who we once were, a dollhouse contains the stories we told ourselves then. And must those things pose such a threat to our carefully constructed adult selves? More recently, I’ve felt that the worthier challenge may lie not in resisting the occasional backwards glance, but in trying to see that child and her fictions with compassionate eyes.

Perhaps inevitably, then, not all is as it was with the dollhouse. When I finally set everything up as desired, I allowed myself to stray from the record, breaking up room sets and adding several newly acquired items, including a lamppost for the street-front and a piano (along with sheet music for “Für Elise,” that old monument to wistfulness) for the living room, that we’d never owned in the first place. There were also pieces I wasn’t able or ultimately willing to reinstate. The dining room chair seat cushions are seafoam instead of deep red, the patio furniture is without any seat cushions at all, and one gold finial and one roll of toilet paper still elude me. Ah well.

As Stepanova writes, “paradise for the disappearing objects and everyday diversions of the past might simply exist in being remembered and mentioned.” A few days after the height of my spree, I received a message from a seller asking whether I was interested in a trio of bathroom rugs less dingy than my own and found I didn’t much care. The moment had passed. And yet, I get a certain amount of satisfaction knowing that, until it is relegated to the basement once more, the dollhouse is sitting in my childhood living room with nearly everything in its place.

Kate Guadagnino
Kate Guadagnino
Kate Guadagnino is a writer and editor. She lives in Brooklyn.





More Story
The Brief, Joyous Life of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop Years later, Madge Jenison still vividly remembered the moment she decided to open the Sunwise Turn. It was a sunny day in January...