Welcome to Bay Harbor, a coastal New England town that boasts a bakery, a yarn store, and a shell shop. Quilts can be found for sale at a barn located a few miles outside of town. A used bookstore will soon open its doors. But Bay Harbor isn’t like other towns.
For one thing, the entire town could fit in a closet. For another, it was built by Catherine Symchych—a master craftsman of dollhouse miniatures and a librarian at Burnham Memorial Library. Everything is sized one inch to one foot.
Symchych first starting crafting what she describes as dollhouse miniatures when she was five, playing with her sisters. She recalled making a tissue box out of a wooden bead. “That was the height of craftiness,” she said with a laugh.
Since then, her work has shifted towards storefronts. “They’re honestly much more fun than houses,” Symchych explained. Aside from being easier to work with, she enjoys delving deeper into the details and then being able to let go. Although, her creations are never really done. “There’s always more quilts, more cakes, more trinkets,” she said. “Every once in a while I’ll come across something and go, oh that should really go in the shop. You can always add more; cause that’s what you do in real life.”
While Symchych finds many of the items for her shops at dollhouse shows and yard sales, she often commissions custom pieces, like the shopkeepers that populate her town.
Where did the imaginary name Bay Harbor come from? Symchych has no idea. “I’m bad at naming things,” she said with a laugh. None of her townsfolk have names either, but their personalities seem to fit each shop.
“The guy that works in the Indian store does not hang out with the rock shop guy,” she said with confidence. “I can’t imagine these people socialize with each other.” Maybe the lady with the knit hat in the yarn store and the woman with the long braid in the quilt-laden barn, she conceded.
“When you say dollhouse, people tend to think of things that kids play with,” said Symchych, peering into the door—a little over seven inches—of a miniature shell shop, one of her creations recently on display at the library. “These you don’t play with.”
But this perception doesn’t bother her. “People can think whatever they want,” she said. When they see her work—the town she’s built—that perception disappears.
Many of the shells in her shop Symchych found at craft shows or on the beach. A tiny crab in the center of the window she found on a beach in Alaska. Sea urchins and sand dollars dot the window display like little hole punches. “I just pick up stuff all over the place,” she said. “I used to go to Florida for vacation and the place that we went to has the best shelling in the world. So I decided I was going to make a dollhouse shell shop.”
Symchych’s barn is much bigger than her storefronts, though still scaled one inch to one foot. It also differs from her other miniatures because it is not made from a kit.
“I had wanted to make a barn for a really long time. But nobody made kits for barns,” said Symchych. Before moving to Vermont, she lived in Laramie, Wy, where she built many of her miniatures. While perusing a newspaper one morning, she saw a picture of the perfect barn. “They were doing a tour of all these old barns around Laramie, and they had a picture of the Corthell Barn,” Symchych paused. “I lived on Corthell. I was like, I have to do that barn.”
She built her miniature using photos, old and new, as a reference. In the staff bathroom she crafted for the barn (which she lovingly referred to as “nasty”), a framed photo of the original Corthell barn hangs above the toilet. “Somebody called me up and said, ‘I have a picture of my grandmother, in the 1920’s, with the barn in the background—do you want this picture?’ And I was like, uh, yes please.”
Outside of Bay Harbor, Symchych made a miniature model of her garage back in Wyoming. Before moving to Vermont and joining the Burnham Memorial Library staff, she worked as a bird rehabber and educator, taking care of everything from humming birds to pelicans to great blue herons. The replica of her garage is perfectly to scale, with nearly every detail—every owl postcard, vintage license plate, and bird perch—reflected in miniature. “This one was hard because I didn’t just need any cabinet; I needed my cabinet,” said Symchych.
Athena and Doug, two burrowing owls she took care of, were made by folks she met through dollhouse and craft shows. “They are so good that my volunteers saw pictures on Facebook and thought they were the real life owls,” said Symchych. “You can distinguish between the two owls. Athena only has one wing and she has cataracts in her eyes and you can see in the model that her eyes are a little cloudy.”
Currently, Symchych is working on constructing a used bookstore to join the town of Bay Harbor. “I’ve discovered that it bothers me that my sections will not be able to be alphabetized by author the way they should be,” she said laughing.
She also still has her first dollhouse, but she’s in the process of remodeling. “It’s a work in progress,” she said. “For 12 years it’s been empty of furniture and now it’s getting redone.”