Upstairs at the Cock ’N Bull, the liveliest place on Albert Square, a raucous card game has just broken up. With ale flowing freely, a red-suspendered card sharp tilts his head back in mid-guffaw, as a fiddler and piano player stomp out a lively jig, prompting the pub’s resident cat to seek shelter above the dartboard.
Downstairs, much more subdued, stuffy men in suits sip draughts and chat up Tom the bartender. One upstanding citizen looks to the ceiling, apparently annoyed by the infernal racket. And, in alcove away from the reverie, Tom the artist adds a few deft brush strokes to a painting while his model, a lithe young lass with shoulders exposed, stays stock still.
This Cock ’N Bull, it’s one happenin’ joint.
You really feel compelled to pop in and down a pint, check out the scene. The only problem is that the pub exists on a one-12th scale and is part of an imaginary city in Edwardian England called Smallsea. Check that: It’s not imaginary. Rather, it’s a meticulously well-imagined, incredibly lifelike and historically accurate “metropolis in miniature,” some 47 buildings and streets and housing developments that bring to life an idyllic period for Anglophiles.
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No mere dollhouse, this. Creator Diane Birnberg’s fiefdom takes up an entire suite in an upscale shopping center in Carmel. Yes, she does a bit of retail dollhouse business, but that’s mostly an afterthought. Birnberg, a semi-retired owner of a financial firm, and husband Howard, an architect, use the space to lay out their vision of city life circa 1900.
There’s an elaborate back story to Smallsea, but do you really want to get bogged down in the details of Lady Anna Truloe Lamson’s discovery of the kingdom and its race of humans known as “Twelfths”? All visitors need to know is that they can browse the cityscape as long as they wish, take in the bustle-bloated ladies dashing on cobblestone streets, while vendors hawk chestnuts, peer into the many businesses, even observe two ink-stained wretches, reporters Ben and Sally, hammering out a story about a runaway cat on deadline at the “Illustrated Smallsea News.”
“It’s unbelievable, never seen anything like this,” said Helga Hiers, sauntering up and down the long rows of tables that serve as the town’s foundation. “Look at that attention to detail at the Taxidermy Shop (Birnberg) just finished. She glued the fur on every one of those plastic animals, hair-by-hair, with tweezers. That takes a lot of patience.”
“And,” added customer Judy Brown, “an incredibly steady hand.”
For the Mistress of the Minute, it’s no big deal. Literally and figuratively.
The way Birnberg, 64, tells it, Smallsea is just a hobby that got a little out of hand. She says she never intended to become a dollhouse deity, creating life and art by dint of her imagination, fine-motor skills and savings account. But one room led to another, one house led to, well, 47 – and counting. She sees herself as a writer whose novel is constructed rather than written.
“This has taken on a life of its own,” Birnberg said. “Totally unplanned. I was on a business trip to London 20 years ago and had the afternoon off. I went to a dollhouse shop simply on a lark. I loved everything I saw.”
Her husband bought her a dollhouse “kit” from the store. It sat, untouched, in their home in Chicago for three years. When she finally got around to constructing the house, she had a thought that would change her life – or, at least, change her leisure hours.
“I thought, ‘Where are they (the dollhouse residents) going to shop? After that, I just kept adding things.”
By the time the Birnbergs moved from Illinois to Carmel in 2008, they had 25 houses they needed to relocate. And these weren’t kits, either. After that initial foray, Diane and Howard designed and built the edifices themselves, studying the history of the Edwardian period so scrupulously that they made sure the cigarettes the residents smoked did not have filters, which didn’t exist in those days. They decided to let the public take a peek into Diane’s heretofore private obsession by leasing a retail space.
That’s when she got serious about making Smallsea a cohesive community, replete with a rich history.
“I like Edwardian England because it bridges old and new,” Birnberg said. “It was kind of the last hurrah before World War I, when everything changed. On business trips, long ones, I started creating the backstory. It was published in a dollhouse magazine in England in a nine-part series. At some point, I’m probably going to self-publish a ‘Smallsea’ book. People are always asking me about the (history).”
Except for a model of Sherlock Holmes’ famous 221B Baker Street address, all the homes and businesses in Smallsea are figments of Birnberg’s overheated imagination. Elsewhere on Baker Street is a mortuary with a horse-drawn funeral hearse at the ready. The Rhods Wine & Spirits shop with apartments above that serve as homes for literary critic Charles Winslow, spiritualist and medium Madame Blagojevich and “escort” Claire De Nuit, whose “gentleman caller” Mr. Porter sips a brandy in the buff in Claire’s “boudoir.”
That’s just one building. This goes on and on. At All Saints Church, a wedding is in progress; at the corner of Bond and High streets, the harried “bobby” named Smyth has to deal with a traffic accident involving newfangled “horseless carriages.” At Howard’s Bon Marche department store, ladies marvel at how the stained glass sparkles from the newly installed electric lamps.
You would think, nearing 50 structures, that Smallsea would practice a little “smart growth” and halt rapid development. But right next to the taxidermy, a porcelain shop is under construction. Birnberg places workmen with hammers and nails on ladders propped against the building until the furniture and dolls specially made for her in England, Spain and France are delivered.
“I’ve been collecting porcelain for about five years,” she said. “We actually have lots of plans. We have a backlog of buildings. It’s quite a list. But we’ve maxed out on space.”
Might Smallsea spawn a suburb?
Birnberg won’t say but, remember, she’s known for thinking small.