Man built Victorian-style doll houses for his grandchildren

Published 9:00 am Sunday, September 8, 2019

In an Albert Lea resident’s basement is a scene from “Inception” — a house within a house.

Philip Johnson’s home is currently home to three other homes: two scaled-down but still feet-wide Victorian mansions and one more traditional silhouette.

They are all doll houses.

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Johnson made the doll houses for his grandchildren, though two of those houses still live with Johnson and his wife.

“Everything I’ve got on there I made myself,” Johnson said.

The Victorian doll houses are built to scale; nine feet from floor to ceiling became nine inches. The houses have two full floors, a half-floor and two attics, one accessible from the outside by hinges in the roofing that fold up to reveal the room. The front bay windows are filled with Plexiglass and covered in a protective blue plastic to keep them safe while being stored. The windows — without glass due to their small size — move up and down.

While epoxy glue was the main adhesive, the home’s sections are screwed together so everything can come apart. There is a good reason for that, Johnson said.

Philip Johnson said the tower was difficult to build due to the hexagonal angles needed to build the walls and to attach it to the home. Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

“Have you ever tried to get one of these out of the basement?” he said.

Most of the chimneys were built out of cardboard, then coated with color. Afterward, Johnson used painstaking strips of hand-cut electrical tape to cover the paint in small strips. The exposed chimney was coated with a mix of sand, Plaster of Paris and paint to create bricks, racing against the clock before the plaster set. Johnson said it took him eight hours just to do the tapework for the two chimneys currently in his basement.

It took him one or two years to find the right color for the chimneys as he worked on the three Victorian doll houses simultaneously, he said. So in that time, he did other projects. He refinished some chairs. He installed most of the windows in his full-size home.

After he put together the first doll house — the smallest one — he helped a few people put together doll house kits they purchased, he said. He would keep back the picture of how the doll house was supposed to look when finished. He used pictures of other doll houses and ones he saw on trips to Hobby Lobby to help create his. But it was his oldest daughter who got him interested in building the big Victorian homes, which he started doing about 35 years ago.

He does not make the doll houses anymore because a lot of the materials he used are not made anymore, Johnson said.

Philip Johnson opens the attic hatches on the first dollhouse he made, a smaller model not made in Victorian style. Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

The doll houses rest lazy Susan-style on wheeled three-drawer cabinets Johnson made from remnants of a kitchen project.

Johnson also made 22,000 individual shingles between the three homes, he said. The scalloped roof trim is a series of tongue depressors tips lined up in a row.

One side of the home features a hexagonal tower Johnson said challenged him.

“It took me a long time because I’m not any good at math,” he said.

That, and attaching the tower required further calculation to create the necessary angles to attach it to the house.

“You should have heard me swear,” Johnson said.

The whole thing is coated in seven layers of sanding sealer.

Woodworking and refinishing work has been a lifelong hobby, Johnson said.

In the basement near the doll houses stands a wooden hobby horse that holds a fully grown adult and rocks back and forth, its string hair swaying.

“I just wanted to do something,” he said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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