Isn’t one of the most satisfying aspects of creating miniature scenes the fact that you can insert your own memories into the story? Even in our historically accurate room boxes, I often slip a little something in that while totally true to the time frame, may be a reminder of something I love. One special structure in the KSB Miniatures Collection takes the concept even further. South Bend incorporates the memories and beloved objects of two owners, as well as the anecdotes of its makers Pat and Noel Thomas.
The story of South Bend starts in the 70s. It wasn’t a commission; it began its life as an idea in the minds of Pat and Noel, who had left their busy SoCal city lives and jobs in advertising to pursue a slower lifestyle. As Pat describes it, the decision to build doll houses for collectors was largely due to a desire for change. They found solace in Washington State and began using their creative talents to build 1/12-scale structures inspired by architecture they admired in the quaint coastal towns. It was a leap of faith and not quite a livelihood yet, but at their second show, collector Sarah Salisbury took note of their work and bought The Seaview. Sarah, who was known for her discerning taste, soon ordered her second house which was South Bend, fashioned after the gingerbread-clad Victorian houses in the village for which it was named.
Since the Thomases goal was to challenge themselves on every design, they extended the tower from the gabled area of South Bend and added details such as the wrap-around porch and horizontal bands of decorative siding. Inside, they focused on woodwork and began to experiment with their now-famous aging processes and techniques. Pat discusses creating South Bend’s lived-in look by using burning cigarettes, wood chips and newspaper in an entertaining blog called How to Smoke a House. South Bend’s impeccably aged character is seen through many of their efforts—yellowed peeling wallpaper, grimy windowsills and hints of dust and spider webs (which per Pat, may have very well come from a vintage vacuum bag).
Sarah received South Bend in 1977 and it remained on its specially made earthquake-proof base for more than 20 years before she began dismantling her collection due to failing health. She loved it and it became one of the many items which she eventually sold or gave away to friends and other collectors in the hopes they would care for the pieces as much as she did. In fact, she and her family were very supportive of our endeavors to promote miniatures as an art form and donated over 300 pieces for an auction at the KSB Miniatures Collection grand opening in 2008.
I had the pleasure of attending Guild School with Sarah for a few years. We had very much the same standards in our collecting and more often than not, we were competing against one another at auctions. When the Thomases offered South Bend for sale in the 2000s, I felt an immediate connection to it, and the knowledge that Sarah had owned it was a definite plus. I was also aware of Noel and Pat’s work firsthand as I was one of the lucky ones in 1999 to win a space in their class at Guild School. I related to their work as there was so much realism in their buildings. And learning to make them look old and run-down was fascinating in itself. I remember happily scratching up wood to make a shed look weathered. And I loved the way Noel and Pat worked as a team while they taught the class—always on hand to give feedback on our individual interpretations. It was a great learning experience with two special artisans.
When I decided to purchase South Bend, the first question I asked Pat and Noel was if they could add a basement and landscaping onto the house without upsetting the integrity of its structural design. Even though it had been part of Sarah’s collection in its present state, I wanted to add my own touches and some of my fondest memories growing up were spent in the basement of our house watching my dad build furniture. The cellar Noel and Pat added to South Bend was every bit the same as the one I remember. I can easily envision Dad at the work bench or shoveling coal into the furnace. The canned items are reminders of a huge garden we had. When canning season came, the basement shelves would be overflowing with things to eat throughout the winter. My mother’s peach chutney was just the best!
While the basement was designed after the home I grew up in, the actual house looks more like a home in Maysville owned by the seamstress who altered my childhood dance and cheer outfits. Upon first glance at South Bend, I could see Mrs. Fist through the window at her sewing machine working on satin and tulle dance costumes. It was a huge walkback in time for me. I designed a more formal parlor in South Bend with beautiful Belter furniture by Stan Lewis and Betty Valentine. The sewing area has a German-made sewing machine that has the exact feel of the ones used in the 30s and 40s. Honestly, all of the rooms in South Bend have significance to me. The nursery contains an English crib like the one I slept in at my grandmother’s house and one of my favorite rooms is the kitchen where a fresh cherry cobbler has just come out of the oven.
Look closely in the picture to your right and you’ll see a patch of smoky grease on the ceiling over the cook stove, a detail Pat says was inspired from their own kitchen. Our Springer Spaniel, Pam, by Kerri Pajutee, appears to be in the process of being potty trained on newspaper. Now, mind you, that is the way we would love for it to have been. In reality, for the whole eight years we had her, she was never potty trained! I love the way miniatures allow me to manipulate history just a bit.
The past is so much a part of who I am today and I am blessed to be able to relive all of those joyful memories through the workmanship of fine artisans. Sarah had a fear of basements and Noel and Pat originally included a lock on a door leading to the imaginary cellar on the house. That door is now open and new remembrances fill the once-empty space. South Bend is special in that it incorporates memories for many and has the power to elicit recollections from anyone who has lived in or admired the beautiful Victorian homes of the past. I hope you will take a few moments to read Noel and Pat’s memories of building these architecturally important pieces on their website, view their structures from 1973 to 2009 and be reminded of Sarah Salisbury’s commitment to the world of miniatures in Pat’s touching in memoriam.
P.S. I have also acquired Megler Landing and The Whittier by the Thomases which will be debuting at the KSB Miniatures Collection soon. Look for them in future blogs. And please view Noel’s watercolor work. He is an amazing painter as well as miniaturist.