Jean Rickenbach flipped through the pages of a book with something about France in its title. It was difficult to read all the words along the spine of the hardcover-bound book—because it was the size of her thumbnail.She removed her glasses for closer inspection but had little success. She then opened a holiday greeting card of similar size and proudly showed off the words inside, clearly written in cursive: “Merry Christmas.”
“It’s just amazing,” said Ms. Rickenbach, a board member of the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society, referring to the numerous tiny ornaments of an octagonal dollhouse the LVIS received as a gift from a wealthy former member back in 1998.
The dollhouse, now on permanent display at the LVIS office in the village, was once owned by Deborah Light, an
East Hampton resident, who commissioned it in 1980 and had it modeled after a house built in 1892. The house is what they call an exotic revival. Ms. Light was well-known for throwing exclusive parties at which well-heeled friends would donate extravagant miniature ornaments for her dollhouse, including hand-crafted furniture carved from real wood.
“You had to be invited to the dollhouse ornament parties, because they were so expensive,” Ms. Rickenbach said. “It was a dream of hers to have this house built to her specifications,” she said of Ms. Light, who kept the dollhouse in her home before donating it to the LVIS.
Ms. Rickenbach gingerly poked the tip of her index finger into the living room of the house and pointed to a postage stamp-sized copy of The New York Times, which was lying on a miniature rocking chair carved out of real wood. She pointed to the scalloped shingles on the outside of the house, delicately crafted from solid wood, and the exquisitely painted stained glass windows here and there.
Inside the house, replica Staffordshire ornaments rest on the shelves of a wood-carved dining room hutch, a Tiffany box nestles on the pillow of a bed with real sheets, and an intricately carved, wood rocking chair sits on an area rug in the baby’s room. In the study, there is a file cabinet, and in each drawer there are real papers inside of folders.
“This is a museum-quality piece. It’s something a little princess or a little king would play with,” said Ms. Rickenbach, who chairs the LVIS Dollhouse Committee, which is tasked with cleaning and caring for the house.
“We clean it with toothbrushes,” Mr. Rickenbach said. “There are a total of five of us, and we’re very, very busy. You have to love what you’re doing to do this.” The committee also decorates the house in themes four times a year: Christmas, spring, Halloween and Fourth of July.
Last month, Dennis Lawrence, a cabinetmaker from Springs and good friend of the LVIS, built wedges along the sides of the house to fit protective Plexiglas so that it can continue to be displayed without concerns that anything will be taken or broken.
Ms. Rickenbach did not have an estimate of what it cost to build the house, but with the addition of its hundreds of ornaments, she said it would be difficult to estimate its value. That is why the LVIS was so appreciative of Mr. Lawrence for donating his time and expertise to build the grooves and install the protective glass.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” said LVIS board member Jennifer Tarbet, adding that the house is very popular with children, who can continue to view it through the protective glass.
“It’s not what you would call a children’s dollhouse, but we have so many children coming to the dollhouse,” Ms. Rickenbach said. “The men love it, and the women love it because we make up little stories about the rooms.”
When the house was still in Ms. Light’s possession, she shopped it around to several museums that wanted it, but she ultimately decided to donate it to the LVIS.
“She wanted something that everybody could enjoy and that would always be here, because you’re not going to get rid of the ladies,” Ms. Rickenbach joked.