Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Strange Dollhouse.....with a secret room!

This is a guest post from my friend George Mundorf who has used his "stay at home" pandemic time in NYC to refurbish one of his little houses...it's a win-win for my readers and me!

About ten years ago I was going through the listings for Vintage Dollhouses on eBay and stumbled across a dollhouse that I call The Strange Dollhouse.

It was rather a Plain Jane kind of house, in poor condition with few obvious redeeming features.  


The windows were unusual, ones I had never seen before, but the house’s style as far as I was concerned did not spell out any interesting era: not Deco, not Mission, not Nouveau. 

First Floor

First Floor


Entry and Stairwell


The interior was in rough shape, all in shades of dreary tan and brown, one wall was broken, the windows were missing the “glass” and falling apart, trim (such as the baseboards), was painted on.  

 Second Floor

 Second Floor

Bedroom 1

Bedroom 2

Bath and stairwell

Before I passed it by, I noticed that the house had an important element that I look for in layouts = the “blueprint” of the house made sense. 

  • There were working doors to all rooms; importantly the bathroom.  
  • There was a staircase.  
  • There were small hallways - so a staircase did not show up in a room on the second floor, making that room useless for a bedroom or bathroom.  
  • You didn’t have to go through a room to get to another room. 
  • And while missing a dining room, it did have two bedrooms. 
  • In addition, the dollhouse had some desirable quirkiness.  The second floor had diagonally striped floors - which regrettably I could not duplicate as I never found paper in two tone striped brown, and I didn’t trust myself to paint them myself.  
  • There was also a tiny door near the side entrance to the kitchen.  What was that about?  I pictured the owner putting gardening tools, perhaps a lawn mower, in this space.  As it turns out, the space inside that little door was “L” shaped, went under the staircase, and had an exit into the kitchen with a normal size door.  Therefore, I guess it was a combination pantry and outdoor storage space!  

The house was becoming more and more desirable to me, so I bought it, figuring I could dress it up to make it a better looking house.  It arrived, was dirty, falling apart, and I still thought ugly. The unusual windows were made of soft metal, lead(?), so the opening parts broke off with ease.  I couldn’t replace them, so I just tried not to touch them.  The bottom line is that I thought I bit off more than I could chew, and put the house on a back shelf and forgot about it.  For ten years.

Several months ago, I purchased a lot of facades of miniature books.  The books were not the cheap, brightly colored books you see in abundance, but rather books you might find in a fine British library.  

They were very flat since they were only the front “bindings”, so I guess the point was you could have the look of a big library using shelves that would require very little depth.  

I have always been intrigued with secret panels and wanted, one day, to include one in a dollhouse I was restoring.  I pictured a wall with the books attached, so it appeared like a deep shelved bookcase but that slid easily because it was, in reality, a flat door.   

                    ...sliding panel to the left.........and now open!

Then I thought of what would be behind the door.  Having a secret panel is one thing, but why have one?  Where would it lead?

It all came together when I remembered that strange dollhouse I had hidden away.  There was space for a wall with a sliding panel, and it occurred to me the house had a vaguely European look to it so it could be a German house from the 1930s that had a hidden room for….an English spy!  

So once I got my story straight, I had the impetus to get moving on the dollhouse.

My first order of business was to make the house sound.
Walls were repaired, torn floor paper removed, windows taken out, sanded down, painted and “re-glazed”. 


I used real tiles in the kitchen and hallway, each tile being 1/4” square.  This was time consuming and expensive. 

                     Entrance                    Kitchen

The original house had tiled floor paper in the living room, but tiling that in real tiles was cost prohibitive. 

                       Original paper tile                 Refurbished!

Though the house, in my mind at least, was from the Art Deco period that I like the best, I decided that a German house from this time would be conservative - perhaps with a Bauhaus touch here and there - but nothing that would draw attention to itself,  much like the original dollhouse.  Remember a spy is in residence!


One unusual construction detail of the house is that part of the staircase and surrounding wall is made of metal.  I have no idea why.  I was having trouble with that little door mentioned above - the wall had shifted and the door wouldn’t close, so I had to dig into the wall and cut part of it out.  Not so easy when the wall is steel!

I found appropriate wallpaper from original and/or reproduction Gottschalk paper for the interior and a textured rock wallpaper for the exterior. I really disliked the original red trimming on the roof, so repainted it gray.


The house still was kind of boring outside, so I decided to go to town with trimming - doubling the window surrounds with light green, black, and turquoise painted strips of wood. 


The outside disparately needed some pizzazz so I added a copper covered roof over the entrance, put copper sheeting on the roof over the front windows, added window boxes with bright colored flowers and an antique trellis.  With all of this added decoration, the back of the house is still completely plain and windowless.

Inside I outlined trim, doorways, and windows with very thin strips of wood, mostly black in color but occasionally using green, blue or lavender. 


Now the secret room.  I thought the house would not have been built with this secret room, but it was an added addition due to the troubled times, built quickly with no thought of interior decoration within the room. 

Perhaps a nursery had been boarded over, so the original nursery wallpaper would be in evidence but fallen into disrepair due to the hurried construction. 

The mirror in the bedroom is an actual two-way mirror, and you can see into the room from the secret compartment but it appears to be a mirror from the outside.  I bought the 2-way plastic on eBay, and it was both reasonable and easy to cut into a small piece.  


Also from eBay, I bought miniature items for the “spy room”: a pistol, 2 rifles, a map of France that I marked up, 2 “GI Joe” German passports, a fire extinguisher - which I took apart for German “documents,” a pair of binoculars.  I wanted to add a cot and a chair, but there was simply no room.  

I searched for one of the three miniature shortwave radios that I own somewhere among my souvenirs, but needless-to-say they couldn’t be found.  I almost spent $65 to purchase one currently (as I write this) on eBay but decided I’d make one instead.  It’s rather imaginative with springs, bolts, nails etc. (rather Steam-punk perhaps) but I like it.

If I furnish it - never a priority for me - I will do it in Kage furniture or Dol-toi.  It requires a smaller scale furniture, and even Kage may be too big.  I’ve been looking at rugs on eBay lately….



So my strange house is finished and it turned out better than I hoped.  

All it needs is a small 1½ inch German flag hanging on the exterior.  I looked but couldn’t find one.  My English spy needs all the camouflaging help he can get!

-George Mundorf

OK readers....who has a 1½ inch German flag they wish to gift to George to help in camouflaging his English spy! 

Thank you, George, for sharing the reconstruction and repurposing of this grand vintage dollhouse!

PostScript  11-3-21:  George has found his German flag!!