Friday, April 4, 2014

David David Smalley's Miniature Museum

Pete Gershon

[When Pete Gershon wrote Painting the Town Orange: The Stories Behind Houston's Visionary Art Environments (which we reviewed last week), one chapter dealing with four Houston artists had to be excised for space reasons. Gershon has graciously given us permission to publish the chapter as four separate blog posts on The Great God Pan Is Dead. This is the second post. You can read the first post here.]

Dateline Houston, January 1941. Cornelius Pickett, former executive vice president of the Lumberman’s Association of Texas is inaugurated as mayor. The 36th Infantry Division of the Texas Army National Guard is activated and leaves Houston to train in Fort Benning, GA for battle overseas. And in the attic of his Craftsman bungalow in the charming Hyde Park area west of downtown, a man named David David Smalley opens what he calls his “Miniature Museum” to entertain the neighborhood kids.

David David Smalley's bungalow with the Miniature Museum in the attic

Smalley worked as a mapmaker for the Southern Pacific Railroad, married and raised two children, and taught Sunday school. In his free time, he collected things. Little things, mostly. Really, he collected just about anything you could name. In his miniature museum, which filled every inch of his dusty attic space, the visitor stepped into a wonderland of doodads, thingamajigs and whatchamacallits, more than 1500 in all. There were mastodon teeth, World War I bullets, jars filled with the monogrammed stubs of Smalley’s map-drafting pencils, and souvenir pennies from the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. There was a cucumber seed found on the Capitol grounds, an early X-ray tube, a Mexican chocolate mixer, and an old corset stay (“probably traveled many a mile,” read its display card; each object was assiduously labeled with one). The museum didn’t just contain the things he collected; it also displayed things he made. He carved delicate flower designs into Lucite blocks cut from the windshield of a World War II bomber, made model train engines from toilet paper tubes, and whittled dozens of model airplanes from balsa wood, which he painted army gray and hung from the ceiling. There was a train set, an eight-foot-tall telescope (its 12-inch glass lens ground by Smalley’s own hand), and a metal robot that would wink, wiggle its ears, and dance to the delight of Smalley’s pint-sized patrons. He built that, too.

Lucite blocks cut from a WWII bomber's windshield

The guest book bears the signatures of the 690 visitors who stopped by in between the museum’s opening on January 1st, 1941 and Smalley’s death on October 31st, 1963, right around the time that Jeff McKissack was toiling away on his plant nursery, that Cleveland Turner was hopping off the bus on his way to California, that John Milkovisch was beginning to stash bundles of flattened beer cans in his attic. That averages out to about 35 visitors a year. But drawing a crowd was never the point, nor was making money. As the sign at the front door read, “Please bear in mind this is a private museum and we cannot expect too much from the exhibits.” Still, it’s tough to imagine that those 690 guests didn’t get much more than they bargained for.

"We cannot expect too much of the exhibits"

David David Smalley was born in Indiana in 1889, named after his grandfather and uncle, both Davids. His grandson Frank Davis suspected he was drawn to Texas by his sense of adventure. D.D. married the daughter of the sheriff of Hempstead, which until a decade prior to his arrival was still known as “Six-Shooter Junction.” They settled on Tulane Street in the Houston Heights in 1912, and Smalley found work in the classified department of the Chronicle. It might have been a good fit for the gentle, shy Smalley, but he’d soon find more exciting work when he was hired to survey the Texan frontier as a draftsman and mapmaker for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1918.

“He liked this place because he could drive 30 minutes outside of Houston and find a damn dinosaur,” Davis told the Houston Press’s John Nova Lomax in 2002. “Free! He went through piles and piles of gravel there on the river bottom and found it.” He also found arrowheads (one of which was still embedded in a human kneecap) and pulled Civil War cannonballs from the mud at the bottom of the Brazos River. Smalley never went to college. Davis told Lomax: “There wasn’t anything in college that was half as exciting as what he was doing in his everyday life.”

A contemporary newspaper account states that Smalley contracted influenza, which weakened his spinal column. Frank Davis contended that family lore had his grandfather falling off of a hayloft and onto a wagon wheel. Whatever the case, beginning in 1924, Smalley spent over a year in a body cast at the Southern Pacific Hospital on White Oak Bayou. He was free to use his hands and his limitless imagination, however, and whiled away the hours making beaded purses and model airplanes. One day, he asked a nurse to bring him a knife, some wood scraps, wire, glue, and a 16-ounce flask. From these materials, he constructed a tiny rural scene inside the bottle, with a farmer playing the banjo and his wife chopping wood on the front porch of a fully furnished farmhouse surrounded by barnyard animals. He entitled it “My Old Kentucky Home.” Smalley would go on to make more of these bottle scenes during his convalescence and the proceeds from their sale was enough to buy a radio transmitter for his ward with a set of earphones for every patient.

He became a lifelong ham radio aficionado. “Radio is a pair of legs for you,” he told an early newspaper reporter during his hospitalization. “You can get all over the country with it.” His daughter Laura got around with it, too, and courted her future husband, a Pennsylvanian, using the radio set he kept in his backyard workshop. He built his robot out there and figured how to run lethal amounts of electricity through his own body without harm. He rigged his shack with a foot-operated sound system that teased visitors with eerie creaks, groans, and thumps while Smalley maintained a poker face. He completed correspondence course after correspondence course, studying astronomy, geology, paleontology. He hosted a local radio show where he performed as a one-man-band and challenged his listeners to call in and stump him with a tune he couldn’t play. When he entered his first attempts at painting in a contest at Houston’s City Auditorium, his work took first, second, and third place. With a family to raise, a full time job, and Sunday school classes to teach, it’s hard to imagine how he had time for it all, but then again, as he once told his grandson Frank, “when you’re busy doing something, it makes its own time.” The local papers published articles about Smalley, proclaiming him the “King of Hobbies.”

Popular Mechanics in the Miniature Museum

When the Smalleys moved from the Heights to a bungalow at 1406 Welch Street around 1940, D.D.’s collection was relegated to the attic at his wife’s behest. He lovingly arranged his rocks, his bones, his pesos, his gas masks, his costumed flea, and his splinter from Old Ironsides on cramped shelves that lined every wall, and beneath the model train set in the center of the room he stashed his near-complete runs of such magazines as Popular Mechanics and Life, along with countless cigar boxes containing even more treasures (clock parts, spools, European postcards), as well as a quarter of a million postage stamps. He wasn’t interested in the rare or valuable ones. Instead, he enlisted the help of his grandchildren and their friends in steaming ordinary stamps from correspondence that arrived at the Southern Pacific office. They then sorted them by color and denomination, and with white silk thread Smalley tied them in neat bundles one hundred thick. Then he wrote “100” on the back of each packet with a sharp pencil.

Stricken with cancer, Smalley spent the end of his life amassing and repairing a collection of more than 900 clocks; he carefully set them so that each kept a slightly different time. Ostensibly he wanted to spare his family the deafening sound of 900 clocks chiming at once. The end result, however, was a conversation-stopping five-minute cacophony of overlapping chimes. In between there was a constant, anxious ticking.

Ten years after his death, Smalley’s family first contemplated selling the house. But what to do with the thousands of items still stashed in the attic? Rather than breaking down the display, Frank and his sister Vicki decided to open it back up to the public, at least for a little while. “I often run into people interested in all sorts of things who claim they were started out by my grandfather,” Davis told William Martin (yes, the same William Martin who interviewed Jeff McKissack), in an article about the museum’s re-opening published in Texas Monthly in 1974. “He used this place to get people interested in things. Very little of the stuff in here has any value by itself. It only has value as a collection, as the record of the life and mind of a very interesting man. To give the pieces to different members of the family, or to museums, or just to throw it away, would destroy that record. We hated to see that happen.”

To help with the project, Davis enlisted his friend Helen Winkler, an art historian and administrator who in the late ‘60s had studied under Dominique De Menil during her term as director of the art department at the University of St. Thomas. She’d soon move to New York City to help establish the Dia Art Foundation, a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts organization that commissioned massive site-specific environmental works by James Turrell, Michael Heizer, and Walter de Maria. But in 1972, she was simply looking for a set of speakers. Davis, a reformed hot-rodder and a folk musician who was also recording the psychedelic rock of the Red Krayola and the 13th Floor Elevators as an engineer at producer Walt Andrus’ studios, had them.

“The living room of his house, which was his grandfather’s house, was filled with eight by four foot Mylar speakers, just incredible sound,” says Winkler as we sit poring over photos and documentation about the Museum at a long table in her immaculate West End residence. It’s something of its own miniature museum, or perhaps a miniature gallery, with an eight-foot Dan Flavin fluorescent light sculpture in the foyer, a huge collection of art books, as well as panels of monochrome optical glass and a long row detailed kachina dolls made by her late husband, the artist Robert Fosdick. “Frank asked if I wanted to see his grandfather’s museum, and he took me upstairs. It was filled with so much stuff you couldn’t get around, but that was okay, because you could spend hours just sitting in one spot and looking. I was totally fascinated. It was the most magical place I’d ever been.”

Miniature Museum interior

Davis and Winkler struck a deal with the rest of the Smalley family. What if they installed a back entrance that led directly to the attic? That way, the family could rent out the property and the museum could remain undisturbed. “They said yes,” says Winkler, “so we took everything out of the museum, and we cleaned everything, painted the interior, and brought everything back in and installed it.” Winkler helped to raise about $800 to finance the endeavor, and she and Davis spent weeks dusting, repairing and arranging. The kitchen exhaust fan connected directly to the attic and it had blown in so much dust during the intervening years that in a maneuver that surely would have tickled Smalley, they decided to preserve some of it in a jar and add it to the display. From 1973 to 1978, the museum was open from noon to six on Saturdays and Sundays. Winkler and Davis were sometimes on hand as docents; Winkler would occasionally bring by a visiting artist like Flavin or DeMaria. Minimalist sculptor Sol LeWitt was so impressed he later mailed her a bird’s nest to be added to the collection. The museum drew more visitors in the first few months after its reopening than it had in Smalley’s lifetime, but when thieves broke in and absconded with some antique rifles, valuable metal ores and pieces of the model train set, the family shut its doors. “It wasn’t a museum after that,” Davis told Lomax. “It was a crime scene.”

Still, the particularly curious could arrange to view the museum by appointment until Davis and his sisters sold the house in 1994. Susanne Theis obtained an emergency grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Orange Show volunteers donated more than one hundred hours of labor cleaning, cataloguing and packing the collection in the attic’s stifling heat throughout the month of August. Davis was filmed giving a walk-through tour and photographer John Lee Simons documented every inch of shelf-space so the items’ arrangement could be properly reconstructed in the future. Theis declared it a “wunderkammer,” a German word meaning “wonder cabinet” that was often applied to the curio collections of royalty and aristocrats in the centuries before the rise of the modern museum. But wonder or not, for the next eight years, Smalley’s treasure trove sat dormant in a barn on Smalley’s granddaughter’s farm near San Marcos.

Karl Kilian had known Helen Winkler since their school days in the art history department at the University of St. Thomas. While she’d gone on to establish Dia, he’d opened the Brazos Bookstore in March 1974 to sell hand picked texts and to bring writers and readers together for book signings and lectures. In 1999, friends of the shop started a non-profit organization called Brazos Projects to host related events in an adjacent gallery space, including exhibitions of furniture made by sculptor Donald Judd and architect Frank Gehry, and a rare showing of painter Cy Twombly’s photographs of famous art pals like John Cage, Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg.

Most of these exhibits were mounted for just a month or two. But in 2002, Brazos Projects hosted a revival of Smalley’s museum that ran for a full nine months. Nobody could fully appreciate the magnitude of the collection unless they visited three or four times, Kilian reasoned. “I liked the totality of it,” he says. “The scale, the intent, the quality. I was just relentlessly charmed by the candor of it. Between Frank and Helen and the work that Smalley made, there’s no bullshit. There’s just you and the pieces, and they’re not trying to impress you or win you over or anything, they’re just there in their there-ness. It’s such a clean encounter.”

At Winkler’s urging, Rice University architecture professor Danny Samuels led a team of nine students who constructed a steel Unistrut frame replicating the proportions of the Welch street attic, from the spacing of the shelves to the pitch of the roof. From the frames’ arch dangled bare lightbulbs just like the ones that lit the original collection. Winkler and Davis were on hand every weekend to guide visitors through the display. In fact, a workshop was installed in the rear so that Frank would have a place to keep up with the constant maintenance that the fragile items required. Just as in Smalley’s lifetime, kids were encouraged to handle the materials, and with their help, Davis revived the practice of postage stamp-stacking, using the many boxes of unsorted stamps left behind from the museum’s earlier incarnations. When a child had bundled one hundred stamps. Frank would take a pencil stub from his grandfather’s jar and mark them accordingly.

“Kids just adored Frank,” says Kilian emphatically. “Every Sunday kids came. There were six-year-olds teaching their three-year-old brothers and sisters to count with the stamps. And everybody wanted Frank’s approval. ‘Can I help, Frank? Let me do it, Frank! Can I bring it to you, Frank?’ It was really incredible to see.”

And then, when the exhibit ended, the collection went back into its boxes. This time the repacking was more organized, and Smalley’s treasures now reside in a commercial storage space in downtown Houston rather than Vicki Fruit’s stuffy barn. “I think everyone would love it if it could be displayed permanently someplace,” says Helen Winkler. “The Orange Show always wanted it, but they didn’t have a space. And then the idea of maintaining it makes it a kind of elusive magic. I keep hoping that someone with an interest in folk art of a strength such as this would get it and want to put it back together.”

Flipping through a small album of snapshots, Winkler is clearly drawn back into the place’s magic. “This is the jar with his pencil stubs,” she says, “I think they all had his initials on them. These are the mastadon teeth; he had a whole mastadon. These are dinosaur turds. This is a skull, he had a lot of skulls.” What does it all say about D.D. Smalley? “Obsessive compulsive,” says Winkler without hesitation. “But with a good heart. Never could stay still. He probably would have been hospitalized today.”

Update: Commenter Max pointed out this video, which we felt we just had to include:


  1. Here's a video from when the Miniature Museum was installed elsewhere:

    1. That's awesome! I'm elevating it into the body of the post.

  2. FANTASTIC!!! Thanks for the memories.