When I was six, my grandmother visited Chicago and brought me back two things: pajama sets for my American Girl dolls (Molly and Felicity) and a book about Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle. Since then, I have put the pajama sets in storage along with the dolls, but I still have the book.
The Fairy Castle is an enormous dollhouse permanently housed in an exhibit in the Chicago Museum of Industry and Science. Three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting it in person after years of rereading the book from my grandmother, and it was then that I learned about the amazing history behind the dollhouse.
Colleen Moore was a famous silent film actress who was her most successful in the 1920s. At the time, Chicago was a main player in the motion picture industry. Moore had a lifelong fascination with dollhouses, and in 1928 she began commissioning the construction of a beautiful miniature castle. It was about 8 feet square in scale (Moore could fit in the great hall!) and had received (often pro bono) expertise from famous jewelers, interior decorators, and electricians. Many of the items in the castle are priceless, like original Disney miniature drawings, the smallest Bible ever written, ancient miniature statues, and the signatures of many famous authors in tiny books in the castle library.
The castle was mostly completed by 1935, the height of the Great Depression. Moore insisted that it be designed in many small parts that could be broken down and safely packed, meaning that the castle could go on tour. Many children were able to look at the castle, a stunning, whimsical incarnation of fairytales, and proceeds from the tour (about $650,000) were donated to children’s charities. Moore ensured that there were no actual dolls present in the castle even though certain characters were suggested (a prince, princess, and child given the separate master suites and nursery). This meant that children could imagine any character, or perhaps themselves, inside it.
The history behind Moore’s participation in the Chicago film industry and her efforts to help children during the Great Depression have only heightened my interest in the Fairy Castle. In researching it further for this post, I was strongly reminded of the articles we read about the White City. Whether the end result is an enormous neoclassical Court of Honor or a portable miniature castle, it seems that Chicago has a history of fantasy and escapism through its architecture and art.
For more images and history of the Fairy Castle, take a look at the exhibit overview on the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry website.