Iconic Colleen Moore Fairy Castle at MSI undergoing conservation

SHARE Iconic Colleen Moore Fairy Castle at MSI undergoing conservation
SHARE Iconic Colleen Moore Fairy Castle at MSI undergoing conservation

Call it the biggest little home makeover in the world.

Conservators at the Museum of Science and Industry are beginning work today on a three-month “facelift” on Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, one of the musuem’s iconic exhibits. The castle, which, according to the museum took seven years and nearly $500,000 to create in 1935, will be dismantled, deconstructed, revamped, fitted with state-of-the-art electrical systems, re-painted as needed and then reassembled and reconfigured for its official “re-unveiling” on March 17, 2014.

The public is invited to watch the entire process in a special conservators’ studio/gallery direcctly next to where the castle is usually displayed.

“The castle has been on display at the museum since 1949” said director of MSI museum collections Kathleen McCarthy. “In our role as caretakers of the castle, we have done conservation projects on it before, the last one in the mid-1990s. … This conservation effort is focusing on the castle itself, not the objecs [and furnishings]. We’re working a lot on the facade because over the years the paint has worn away or simply fallen off in spots. It’s a bit of a technological challenge to paint metal because over time the paint just peels off. Also, we’re looking at any damage that’s happened to the walls and due to electrical lightbulbs which were much large and hotter back in the day, resulting in some of the walls being scorched.”

During regular museum hours, visitors can watch the project as it unfolds through the skill and artistry of four conservators, a miniature maker and two electricians all dispatched for the painstaking, hugely detailed work. Science plays a role in the project as well, as the paint, for example, must be analyzed for pigments and replicated as near to the original as possible. Heat and humidity levels must be analyzed and stabilized.

McCarthy Likens the project to something every homeowner goes through especially in older dwellings.

“The castle’s plumbing system has leaked over the years,” McCarthy said. “So we will be fixing anything that’s buckled because of [water damage]. The electrical system will be updated and we will replace some of the lighting with fiber optics. Originally the chandeliers had lightbulbs the size of a grain of wheat. Of course nobody makes those anymore. Im the late 60s early 70s we replace them with fiber optics while retaining the look and feel of the original [light fixtures]. So we’re updating and expanding the use of the fiber optics as needed. It’s really like updating the plumbing, electrical and paint in one’s own home.”

The Cinderella Drawing Room in the Moore Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry. | COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM

The castle, constructed of cast aluminum in the late 1920s, weighs nearly a ton, and features 12 lavishly decorated rooms. It was the labor of love for the raven-haired Hollywood silent film star Colleen Moore, whose passion for dollhouses and miniatures was legendary (as was the bobbed haircut she made famous). According to museum documentation, she began the project in 1928, utilizing some of Tinsel Town’s most acclaimed set designers and miniaturists to help make her castle a reality. More than 100 people worked on the castle’s construction and decoration. In 1949, Moore donated the castle to the museum, often visiting it and adding to its interior artifacts. Moore, a native of Port Huron, Mich., died in California in 1988.

Colleen Moore was a successful Hollywood silent film-era star.

And fear not, the castle was designed and built to be taken apart as needed for conservation and transporting.

“Each room is an individual piece that breaks apart from the whole,” McCarthy explained. “Including the facade, some 200 pieces, and all those pieces are now on display in the gallery where conservators can work on them individually. After Colleen built the castle, she traveled the country with it to raise funds for children’s charities. It traveled by rail in its own rail car with armed guards.”

All the castle’s accoutrements — tiny furniture pieces, paintings, dishes, glassware, candelabras, dressing table items, tapestries, tiny bathtubs with their running water, bearskin rugs, and more are also on display in glass cases providing a rare opportunity for visitors to see each of the more than 1,500 objects up-close. In addition, McCarthy revealed the castle also features an attic, where “old” items were put away in storage as “new” items were added to the various rooms. Moore visited the castle over the years, personally donating new items. (Some of the castle’s chairs were fashioned by jewelry items donated by Moore, her mother and grandmother.) Often, the items also were donated by fans of the exhibit.

“This is the most time I’ve spent with the castle,” McCarthy said. “There’s something so enchanting about it. It really was an innovative and groundbreaking project. There is just something magical about it.”

A slideshow of Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Museum of Science and Industry is located at 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, and is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Visit msichicago.org or call (773) 684-1414.

— By Miriam Di Nunzio

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