Miniature tea room stopping pedestrian traffic on Queen

At the risk of drawing the ire of readers, it can truly be said in the case of Denise McConaghy’s work that it is a small world, after all.

McConaghy is a miniaturist, restoring and building finely detailed dollhouses at a scale of one inch to one foot. Her latest, a Victorian tea room scene, is also the first she has ever publicly displayed, and it’s been drawing eyes to the front window at Pippins Tea Company on Queen Street East since it was set up about two weeks ago.

“When I started the house I had no intention of displaying it,” said McConaghy.

Denise McConaghy
Denise McConaghy

Pippins owner Barb DeAngelis said she’s glad McConaghy decided to show off her work, as the house has been stopping passersby in their tracks since it went up.

“It’s amazing. I can be doing something in here and I’ll look up, and there will be eight people looking in the window. All kinds of people: men, women, and children,” she said.

Not only is the tea room set the first McConaghy has ever set up in public, it’s also the first time she’s had to move one from her own home. While it took some planning, the move went well with the help of her daughter. The house made it intact, and the two went to work setting up furniture, place settings, and artwork – no quick task, as the only difference between moving a real house and a dollhouse is the size. Every piece, from chairs down to cutlery, had to be individually set up, often kept in place with a small amount of wax.

The setup, as well as the construction, involved a lot of time with tweezers and a magnifying glass, said McConaghy, who points out that working in miniature is truly a hobby for those with patience, and an eye for detail.

“I can work on something very small for hours at a time. It’s a great stress relief,” she said.

A bit of vision doesn’t hurt either – the house at Pippins was bought in rough shape at a garage sale for $10, and looked quite a bit different than it does now.

“When I see a house I like, I see it in miniature,” said McConaghy. miniaturist_0440

Her love of small-scale homes was prompted by her first dollhouse, built for her by her grandfather at age 12. She still has that house, and plans to fix it up at some point as well, but she’s definitely progressed since that first house, now installing full electrical wiring to power scale-model period lighting in the houses.

“It’s a fair bit more work and planning,” she said, pointing out that the principles are the same as with actual house wiring.

The difference is a matter of voltage – McConaghy has survived a few shocks from the low-voltage systems – and of tools, which are either much smaller, or not even necessary, as she can cut the wires with a fingernail.

Altering dollhouse kits, including adding wiring and replacing pieces with custom-made ones, is a common occurrence in the small but passionate miniaturist community.

“It’s called ‘kit bashing.’ There’s actually a term for it,” said McConaghy. miniaturist_0487

While she alters pre-made parts, she’s also been creating her own from collected bits and pieces, including some of the paintings set up at Pippins (the paintings she didn’t do were still hand-painted by other artisans).

“You start off 100 per cent purchasing, then you get more confidence and move to building more yourself,” she said. “As I learn more, I do more myself.”

McConaghy’s tea room dollhouse will be on display at Pippins, 2098 Queen St. E. at Wineva, for most of March. And in case you were wondering, no, it’s not for sale – at least not until she runs out of room in her home.

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Spectacular work. Despite the chill, I’ve spent ages gazing at each room through Pippin’s window. Ms. McConaghy’s reminded me that you never really lose that magic imagination of childhood. I wish she needed an apprentice.

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