|KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nine vintage miniature rooms — the tiniest of tiny houses — line two walls in a Knoxville Museum of Art corner gallery. Called The Thorne Rooms, these exactly created and painstakingly restored scenes tell a story of American wealth, pop culture, art history and even survival.
The rooms include a 16th-century Spanish bedroom with gold brocade walls, an 1850 formal Victorian parlor and an early American colonial kitchen. Rooms range from 11-by-20 inches to 26-by-39 inches; their furniture, people and objects were built at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot.
So teacups and cooking pots are minuscule, people are a few inches tall, and a bed’s headboard was once a woman’s jeweled hair comb.
Given to the museum in 1962 and among its first possessions, the rooms are among more than two dozen created in the 1920s and early 1930s by wealthy Chicago matron Narcissa Niblack Thorne.
“It always makes me happy to go in and look at those rooms,” said David Butler, the museum’s executive director since 2006. “If you grew up in Knoxville or Chicago, you know what The Thorne Rooms are. If you are of a certain age group and grew up in Knoxville, you were taken to see them as part of your culture.”
Depending on the decade, these miniatures have been exhibited at World’s Fairs, admired in museums, stored out of sight and then loved once again. For 16 years in the 1990s and 2000s, no one in Knoxville saw the rooms at all.
Thorne loved dollhouses as a child, but her rooms — often scenes of European and American history — were no play sets.
Married to an heir to the Montgomery Ward department store fortune, Thorne had money to fund her art and interest. She collected miniature furniture and accessories during frequent trips to Europe. The KMA’s 1770 New England bedroom includes a petit point rug made in the former Czechoslovakia.
Thorne hired cabinetmakers to build the rooms from her drawings. She often painted and stained the rooms’ wood, papered their walls and sewed their curtains. She once posed for a portrait surrounded by miniature objects and paints while wearing a double-strand pearl necklace and green artist’s smock.
And she showed the rooms off. The miniatures were displayed at Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, San Francisco’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.
The Knoxville rooms are among Thorne’s original scenes. But she and her craftsmen created nearly 100 through the 1940s. They depicted European castles, French boudoirs and American living rooms from 1500 to 1940.
Now her work is divided among at least three museums. Thorne gave 68 of her later creations to the Art Institute of Chicago. Fifteen are currently on exhibit, according to the institute’s website. Twenty more are at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.
Knoxville’s nine rooms were a gift. IBM bought 29 of Thorne’s original rooms in 1962. It gave some to the Phoenix museum and nine to the Dulin Gallery of Art, the KMA predecessor.
Located in a former Kingston Pike mansion, the Dulin was founded in 1961. By 1965, The Thorne Rooms were shown in wood-paneled walls of a first-floor, dimly lighted room in the 1915 house.
But when the gallery outgrew its house and its name, it seemed to outgrow The Thorne Rooms. The Dulin became the Knoxville Museum of Art and moved to a new 53,200-square-foot contemporary styled building in 1990.
At least one newspaper story noted that the new building design would have exhibit space for The Thorne Rooms. But the four-story concrete-and-steel building with an exterior of Tennessee marble opened without Mrs. Thorne’s miniatures.
Some likely considered the then 60-year-old tiny rooms too quaint, too out of style, for the new KMA. So before the Dulin closed, the rooms were loaned to the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge in 1987. After three years, they were returned to the KMA and placed in a temperature-, light- and humidity-controlled storage.
By the time The Thorne Rooms returned to Knoxville, they showed their age. Time, light and the use of materials like acidic paper had taken a toll. They were dirty and dingy.
For years, they sat in storage and exhibit limbo. There wasn’t money to restore them to exhibit quality. Even if they could be restored, museum officials at the time just weren’t sure they wanted to show them or where to place them.
In 2002, the museum had its 1885 American summer kitchen room restored and placed behind glass in an exploratory children’s gallery. The other eight rooms remained untouched.
Sixteen years after they were placed in storage, The Thorne Rooms got new life.
Knoxville resident Sherri Lee donated money for the nine rooms to be restored and exhibited. She gave the funds to honor her mother-in-law, Mrs. McAfee Lee, who’d introduced her to The Thorne Rooms when they were at the Dulin.
“It was a tremendous gift, and I don’t think this would have happened without Sherri,” Butler said.
The miniatures were first displayed in custom cabinets in a first-floor hall. But Butler said the location just wasn’t right. They were moved to their current gallery, where the dim, professional lighting helps accent their details while protecting their almost 90-year-old materials. At Christmas, area miniaturists decorate the tiny scenes with tiny holiday items.
Butler said The Thorne Rooms have a permanent home. They’re more than just detailed miniature scenes.
“I not only love them for themselves but for their connection to our institutional history,” he said. “And I love the fact that we have embraced our history. I suspect people before went back and forth about them. But thank goodness Sherri loves them. We will always be grateful.”