Having just moved a large pink dollhouse, made for my daughter by her grandfather, J. Dennis Robinson’s recent post for TMS Architects was very poignant. The pink dollhouse has seen better days and needs some refurbishing but it was a labor of love and evokes so many good memories. Dennis Robinson is absolutely right….architecture can be found in a pink dollhouse, a model of Portsmouth’s South Church, a hand-made wooden fire station, a home or skyscraper…all were designed, built and are repositories of very powerful memories.
Dollhouses are not just for girls. My grandfather made one for me when I was a boy. It was a realistic, hand-made, wooden fire station almost three feet tall. It had a tower and two arched openings for my fire trucks. Grandpa Jake painted every red brick on the firehouse and installed every tiny shingle on the steep sloping roof. The model is still up in the attic of my parent’s home.
Grandpa Jake and I have a lot in common. He didn’t like working for anyone, so he worked alone, making things for sale. I write books and articles. He made dollhouses and cherry cabinets, rocking chairs, and wooden toys. He farmed a small strip of land near a river in Massachusetts and sold vegetables by the roadside. He sharpened saws and had a small orchard. He raised gigantic worms in bathtubs filled with newspaper in the basement of the barn. Every time I see that little firehouse my memories of my grandfather come flooding back.
After college I lived in downtown Portsmouth for many years. My third-floor apartment bathroom window led to a large flat roof overlooking South Mill Pond. From the roof in summer I could see right into the giant palladium windows of the ancient 1826 Unitarian church next door. I could hear the South Church organ playing and the choir singing as I sunned myself on the roof. I got very attached to that amazing Greek Revival building with its massive stone columns. From the outside the dark structure seems impossibly heavy. Yet on the inside the great open church is expansive, light, and airy.
Not long after I moved away I got nostalgic and bought a model of the old South Church. It was big and clunky and I could never figure out where to put it. I carried it from one apartment to the next, not because it was convenient, but because it was full of memories. The model reminded me of watching fireworks with friends from my roof on the Fourth of July. It reminded me of the roof garden I built up there one summer and of the vegetable plants I grew. It reminded me of the time the Portsmouth Police climbed up the fire escape and raided my roof garden, thinking it was filled with illegal plants, but it contained only cherry tomatoes, basil, mint, bell peppers, and string beans.
For a few years the model of the South Church sat in the garden at my current home across town. My dog used to sit beside it, thinking perhaps that it was a doghouse with no door. Perhaps it made him feel tall. Now he’s gone and the little church reminds me of him as well.
Architecture is powerful stuff. Buildings are memory boxes. And it doesn’t matter how small the buildings are. Inside every one live friends and stories too numerous to count.
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of 11 books about history. His latest titles are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812. He is currently finishing a book about the 1873 Smuttynose Island murders due out November 4, 2014. You can “follow” his history postings on Facebook.