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Conservation nears Completion for Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale Castle

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Conservation work on Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale Castle at the Museum of Science & Industry (M.S.I.) began in November and will continue through mid-February. Built for silent-film star Colleen Moore, MSI stated in a press release, it “is filled with remarkable miniatures and artifacts collected from celebrities, artisans and craftspeople around the world. The Fairy Castle structure, which took seven years and cost $500,000 at the time to create, is in need of conservation to stop ongoing deterioration and ensure its long-term preservation.”

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The conservation project will focus on repairing damage to the structure, some of which was caused by its 80-year-old electrical and plumbing systems, and replacing these systems with more sustainable options. This project will begin on November 12 and run through mid-February 2014 in a public gallery space, providing a unique opportunity for guests to see a beloved MSI icon in a whole new way. This exhibit is included in Museum Entry.

Guests will be able to watch and engage with structure conservators from Litas Liparini Restoration Studio as they work Tuesdays through Saturdays. For the first time, guests will be able to view each room from all sides (the Castle can actually be broken down into 200 individual pieces) and learn how the entire Castle was built and fits together.

On Sundays and Mondays beginning December 8, the public will be able to see book conservator, Bozena Pszczulna-Szymanski of Paper Conservation Studio treat 58 miniature books from the collection of more than 80 books created exclusively for the Fairy Castle library. Some of these rarest books include hand printed excerpts from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel, Willa Cather’s Shadow on the Rock and even a first edition fully illustrated book by Edgar Rice Burrows Tarzan Jr. Each book will be treated to stabilize their condition including vacuuming; repairing the spines and consolidating the aging paper.

In addition, the more than 1,500 precious artifacts that have been collected from around the world and that fill the rooms of the Castle will be on display, providing an unprecedented up-close view of these precious objects. Artifacts include: a Syrian glass vase from 740 AD; a painting donated by Walt Disney; an authentic Roman Bronze head; tiny needlepoint tapestries created by a master needleworker in Vienna; the smallest Bible in the world; and more.

“We are so excited to be able to showcase this Museum icon in an entirely new way,” said Kathleen McCarthy, MSI’s Director of Collections. “This project also provides Museum guests insight into the conservation process. This type of work typically goes unseen by guests, but it’s critical work that is of the highest importance to us at MSI and at other Museums around the world. This is a great opportunity for kids and adults alike to learn more about the science and technology involved in preserving artifacts.”

In the press release, MSI stated, “The conservation work for the Castle requires extensive expertise in chemistry and material science as well as general knowledge of manufacturing and hand-crafting processes.”

While glowing lights and flowing water bring the Castle to life, the condition of the electrical and plumbing systems have damaged the Fairy Castle over many decades. The ceilings and walls of many rooms have been scorched by the lighting over time; and the floors have buckled due to water leakage from the aged plumbing system. The cloth-covered electrical wires are old and brittle, and the miniature light bulbs used throughout the Castle are no longer manufactured.

The lights will be refurbished using contemporary lighting technology that will preserve the historic look of the Castle without causing further damage to the artifact. The five water features in the Castle will be restored and replaced with cast acrylic and fiber optic technology to replicate flowing water and prevent future damage from leaks. The original plumbing system will be treated for corrosion and left in place to preserve the historical integrity of the artifact.

After the public conservation concludes in February, the Castle will be reassembled and the exhibit will re-open to the public in mid-March 2014.

The project is being overseen by Curator Margaret Schlesinger. Preparator Mike Cowan is being assisted by outside conservators.

When the conservation project began last November, the Chicago Tribune posted a large picture gallery.
Andrew A. Nelles took the photos.

The Chicago Sun-Times also posted a gallery of pictures, these taken by Michael Jarecki. Both galleries included pictures included Inez Litas (also known as Inez Litasova) owner of Liparini Restoration Studio at work.

Colleen Moore was the screen name of Kathleen Morrison (1900-1988), a silent film star who made a second fortune for herself investing in the stock market. Between 1928 and 1935, approximately 100 people worked on Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle.

Her father, Charles Morrison, was chief engineer and superintendent of the project, and was assisted by technician Jerry Rouleau. Architect Horace Jackson, who was a set designer for First National Studios, drew the blueprints.

Harold Grieve, who had re-designed Colleen Moore’s mansion, designed the castle’s interiors, in particular, the library. Henry Freulich, Colleen Moore’s personal cameraman, planned the lighting.

Craftsmen in Beijing fashioned the quartz and jade Drawing Room floor. Beverly Hills jeweler H.B. Crouch made the chandelier for the Drawing Room.

The nine-square-foot Fairy Castle was built on a scale of one inch to the foot, with its high tower standing seven feet high. Designed to be taken apart, crated, and shipped, the Fairy Castle is made of 200 interlocking parts.

The rooms were constructed in wood, cast in aluminum, polished by a jeweler, and then assembled according to Jackson’s plans. Although made of the light metal aluminum, the Fairy Castle weighs roughly one ton.

Sara Delano Roosevelt (1854-1941), mother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), laid the solid gold cornerstone on April 5, 1935, at the gala opening of the Fairy Castle as an exhibit in New York City, benefiting children’s charities. In 1935, Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. published two books relating to the dollhouse-castle.

One was Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle: The Most Exquisite Toy in the World. The other was a children’s story-book set in the castle written by Colleen Moore herself, The Enchanted Castle.

Colleen Moore lent her famous dollhouse to MSI in 1949 at the request of Major Lenox Lohr (1891-1968), a former president of NBC who was then simultaneously president of MSI and the Chicago Railroad Fair, Inc., as well as being involved in the establishment of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He had a private train car as an office on the fairgrounds in which he would sometimes entertain people doing business with the Chicago Railroad Fair (1948-49), MSI, or the Citizens Committee of the University of Illinois in Chicago.

As recounted by Herman Kogan in A Continuing Marvel: The Story of the Museum of Science & Industry, at a dinner reception for the Chicago Railroad Fair in its second year, 1949, Maj. Lohr was seated next to the wealthy Chicago stockbroker Homer Hargrave, one of the founders of Merrill Lynch, and his wife, Colleen Moore. Seizing the opportunity, Maj. Lohr broached the subject of her placing her famous castle dollhouse on display at MSI.

Mrs. Hargrave was originally dubious about the prospect of placing her dollhouse, which had toured the country on a fundraising campaign to care for crippled children, raising $650,000, at a science museum, but Maj. Lohr assured her it was appropriate as a diversion for people uninterested in science. Then, as he explained to the MSI’s Board of Trustees, he deliberately placed it in a corner of MSI’s Central Pavilion near fire-fighting equipment so people drawn to the allure of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle would have to walk through scientific exhibits on energy to get there, in the hopes that something educational would catch their eyes along the way.

On October 31, 1949, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle went on public display. Millions of people have seen it since then.

On October 4, 1960, His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Akihito & HIH Crown Princess Michiko – later Tenno (“heavenly sovereign”) & Empress of Japan – visited MSI, and according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter William Braden, Mrs. Lohr personally became involved in the tour of MSI when she mentioned Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle. Princess Michiko asked to leave the planned itinerary so she could see the dollhouse.

In 1976, Colleen Moore donated her Fairy Castle to MSI. The official ceremony occurred on December 29, 1976, with Colleen Moore Hargrave and MSI President Daniel Miller MacMaster, Sr. (1913-2005) aided in the ribbon-cutting ceremony by two wee little girls, Ashley Anderson and Fiona Hunt.

In September of 1996, the Fairy Castle underwent conservation treatment. The ventilation system was improved to give the Fairy Castle a dust-free environment. In January of 2005, MSI chose Electric Angel's cover of "Velocity of Love" as the music for the Fairy Castle.

In 1949, MSI published The Doll House of Colleen Moore: A Fairyland Castle. Terry Ann R. Neff edited Within the Fairy Castle: Colleen Moore’s Doll House at the Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1997.

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