Visitors to Eugene’s Shelton McMurphey Johnson House will discover that the attic holds a 1” scale (1 inch = 1 foot) model of the 1888 Victorian “Castle on the Hill.” Following a 23-year effort, the dollhouse was finally completed by the Eugene Miniatures Club and donated to the City of Eugene in 2003.
The Victorian model dollhouse was started in the 1980’s by local master carpenter Harold Hepner. While this was not his first attempt at building dollhouses, it can be considered his most complex. He had previously worked with the Eugene Miniatures Club to build several dollhouses for fundraisers.
Hepner built two rolling carts that would support the heavy structure, and began with the exterior foundation. Using original architect’s plans, he built working windows and doors from scratch, and most of the exterior trim. Prior to his death in 1993, Hepner had nearly completed the first floor. His widow gave the work in progress to a friend who did miniatures, hoping she would be able to complete the project. However, no additional progress occurred until the model was adopted by the Eugene Miniatures Club in 1994.
Under the leadership of then-club president Dorothy Wright, members donated one evening each week to work on the project. Progress was slow, as everything had to be customized to mirror the actual SMJ house.
To ensure accuracy, volunteers used Hepner’s plans and completed parts, historic photographs hanging in the house, and their own photographs of exterior details. This was made easier because the work was taking place in a bedroom at the SMJ House. Irene Gates led the effort to join strips of wood trim to create floors, ornate baseboards, window casings, door frames, chair rails and picture rails for every room. Joanne Snyder spent many hours recreating exterior trim details from the reference photos.
The main staircase proved to be an especially complicated design element; newel posts and spindles were hand-turned on a miniature lathe by Joyce Metcalf. Jeff Wilkerson recreated the parlor fireplace in his home studio.
After mastering the complex roof angles, C.C. “Con” Wright shocked the other volunteer builders by sawing the roof in half. This dramatic step allowed the model to be opened up so it could be moved through standard-size doors. Wright also created a special tool used to hand-split thousands of thin cedar shingles.
Marcia Hudspeth led club members in gluing each of the shingles in place, one at a time. Once completed, the roof was adorned with a widow’s walk and even a lightning rod.
Some differences exist between the scale model and the actual house. As the model design was based on original architectural plans, it does not incorporate later changes made by the home’s actual occupants. For example, the bathroom entrance placement, or the additions of a sleeping porch and kitchen wood elevator are not included. The model’s exterior color was matched to the actual house’s faded paint, and is not historically accurate.
During construction, the Eugene community was happily permitted occasional sneak peeks at the worksite. And twice, the partially-completed structure was carefully transported to the Hult Center for city celebrations.
The model was completed in December 2002, and formally gifted to the City of Eugene in 2003. It was displayed at the Lane County Historical Museum until the attic stairway at the SMJ site was reopened.
The model is currently on display in the tower room of the mansion attic and can be viewed during regular house tours. The club continues to maintain the model and regularly adds scale furnishings that brings its many rooms to life. Joanne, Joyce and Marcia were part of the original crew and they still attend club meetings.