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Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at Museum of Science and Industry getting makeover

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Updated: January 23, 2014 6:02AM



Call it the biggest little home makeover in the world.

Conservators at the Museum of Science and Industry are giving a three-month “face-lift” on Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, one of the museum’s iconic exhibits. The castle, which according to the museum took seven years and nearly $500,000 to create in 1935, is being dismantled, deconstructed, revamped, fitted with state-of-the-art electrical systems, repainted as needed and then reassembled and reconfigured for its official “re-unveiling” on March 17.

The public is invited to watch the process in a conservators’ studio/gallery directly next to where the castle is usually displayed.

“The castle has been on display at the museum since 1949,” said Kathleen McCarthy, director of MSI museum collections. “In our role as caretakers of the castle, we have done conservation projects on it before, the last one in the mid-1990s. . . . This conservation effort is focusing on the castle itself, not the objects [and furnishings]. We’re working a lot on the facade because over the years the paint has worn away or simply fallen off in spots. It’s a bit of a technological challenge to paint metal because over time the paint peels off. Also, we’re looking at any damage that’s happened to the walls and due to electrical light bulbs, which were much larger and hotter back in the day, resulting in some of the walls being scorched.”

Visitors can watch the project as it unfolds through the skill and artistry of four conservators, a miniature maker and two electricians all dispatched for the painstaking, hugely detailed work. Science plays a role in the project as well, as the paint, for example, must be analyzed for pigments and replicated as near to the original as possible. Heat and humidity levels must be examined and stabilized.

McCarthy likens the project to something every homeowner goes through, especially in older dwellings.

“The castle’s plumbing system has leaked over the years,” she said. “So we will be fixing anything that’s buckled because of [water damage]. The electrical system will be updated, and we will replace some of the lighting with fiber optics. Originally the chandeliers had light bulbs the size of a grain of wheat. Nobody makes those anymore. In the late ’60s, early ’70s we replaced them with fiber optics while retaining the look and feel of the original [light fixtures].”

The castle, constructed of cast aluminum in the late 1920s, weighs nearly a ton and features 12 lavishly decorated rooms. It was the labor of love for the raven-haired Hollywood silent film star Colleen Moore, whose passion for dollhouses and miniatures was legendary (as was the bobbed haircut she made famous). According to museum documentation, she began the project in 1928, utilizing some of Tinsel Town’s most acclaimed set designers and miniaturists to help make her castle a reality. More than 100 people worked on its construction and decoration. In 1949, Moore donated the castle to the museum, often visiting it and adding to its interior artifacts. Moore, a native of Port Huron, Mich., died in California in 1988.

And fear not, the castle was designed and built to be taken apart as needed for conservation and transporting.

“Each room is an individual piece that breaks apart from the whole,” McCarthy said. “Including the facade, some 200 pieces, and all those pieces are now on display in the gallery where conservators can work on them individually. After Colleen built the castle, she traveled the country with it to raise funds for children’s charities. It traveled by rail in its own rail car with armed guards.”

All the castle’s accoutrements — tiny furniture pieces, paintings, dishes, glassware, candelabras, dressing table items, tapestries, tiny bathtubs with their running water, bearskin rugs and more are also on display in glass cases, providing a rare opportunity for visitors to see each of the more than 1,500 objects up close. And McCarthy revealed that the castle features an attic, where “old” items are put in storage as “new” items are added. Some of the castle’s chairs were fashioned from jewelry donated by Moore, her mother and grandmother. Some items also were gifts from fans of the exhibit.

“This is the most time I’ve spent with the castle,” McCarthy said. “There’s something so enchanting about it. It really was an innovative and groundbreaking project. There is just something magical about it.”

Email: mdinunzio@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MiriamDiNunzio



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