Kentucky to scale
Story and photos by Robin Hart
Surrounded by incredibly detailed miniature houses, towns and villages, Lori Kagan-Moore is right at home. And being the owner and curator of a unique and popular local museum, she also is quite comfortable with the business side of her endeavor.
The Great American Dollhouse Museum, which stands on the edge of a sprawling green space near downtown Danville, is a combination of Lori’s love of dollhouses and her talent for running a business.
“One of the things that I really love about the job that I have here, is that I get to use several skill sets to do things that I really love doing.”
Lori writes the descriptions and storylines that accompany the museum displays. “That’s fun for me.” And of course she enjoys developing her creative ideas into visual art with the dollhouses.
She also is very talented at marketing her business, as well as promoting Danville. Lori could have established the dollhouse museum in Lexington, but really wanted to stay in Danville, especially in the downtown area. She loves the small-town atmosphere and takes pride when talking to visitors about other nearby places to explore and where to enjoy a meal.
Lori’s interest in dollhouses, and all they entail, first captured her heart, as one may guess, was when she was a young child in Michigan.
“I was born smack in the middle of the baby boom in a tiny town called Mahopac, 60 miles north of New York City. My father was finishing a Ph.D. in educational psychology at New York University, and my mother ran an antiques and junk store appropriately called Trash and Treasures.
“I was 5 years old, and my older brother, Steve, was 6, when my father accepted a teaching job at Michigan State University and the family packed up the VW bug and a small truck and moved to my second small town, Mason, Michigan, where I lived until I left for college.
“Having grown up in a crowded row house in New York City, my father yearned for a home without neighbors. My mother preferred the bustling city life of second-hand stores and Chinese restaurants,” Lori recalled.
“We moved into a giant fixer-upper in the flat, green, corn-filled countryside 20 miles from East Lansing.” Her mother continued with her antique business by setting up at shows and flea markets.
“I gained a best friend, Kay Parmelee, and she lived on a farm half a mile away on Okemos Road, back in the day when it was nothing for a 6-year-old to walk a good distance alone down a country lane.
“Kay had a pair of orange crates set up as a dollhouse and we played with that house every day after school until we were too hungry to continue. I begged my mother for my own pair of orange crates, but in the days before the internet, you had to find them to buy them.”
But Lori soon was granted her wish for her very own dollhouse.
“Several months before my eighth Christmas, my parents cordoned off the big house’s cellar. Neither of them had the least familiarity with tools, but they managed to build a two-story plywood structure not unlike a partitioned bookshelf.”
She said the crooked openings sawed through the sides were “clearly identifiable” as windows once her mother thumbtacked up some curtains.
“I loved this dollhouse, and spent the rest of my childhood building furniture out of scraps of wood, egg cartons, fabric and countless found objects. Kay and I took turns playing at her home or mine, always with the dollhouses.”
Lori grew up and attended the University of Michigan. Her dollhouse’s contents were packed into three cardboard grocery boxes and the plywood dollhouse was eventually given away.
Lori completed two master’s programs — one in social work and one in public administration — and became a clinical psychotherapist on the faculty of Ohio State University.
“But the three boxes followed me through rented rooms, apartments and homes, without ever being reopened.”
In 1980, Lori married her now husband, Patrick Kagan-Moore, and in 1989, he was hired by Centre College as a professor of theatre and they moved here. “The boxes made one last move to my next small town, Danville.”
She became a stay-at-home mom with their “two wonderful daughters, Hannah and Emma, both of whom attended Danville schools.”
“At around the time Hannah began applying to colleges, I found myself restless. In a tour of the attic, I happened upon the three boxes,” she said. “The brittle yellow tape fell off at a touch. Transported by my love of tiny replicas, I was relaunched into the world of miniatures.”
Lori said in 2005 she began collecting 1:12 scale houses without having a particular goal in mind. But a year later, “the vision gelled and we looked at a building at 307 N. Sixth St. We admired the building’s 20-foot hardwood ceilings and steel bowstring trusses, and we loved its rich history from WPA construction to National Guard Armory days to the years of Bunny’s Moving and Storage.
“It was important to us that we repurpose an existing building, and it was important to be close to downtown so that we could be part of supporting the vitality of the city,” she said.
So in June of 2006, they purchased the building and began renovations. It took two years to get the property and displays ready. In 2008, the Great American Dollhouse Museum was opened.
“In the 10 years since we opened, there have been dramatic changes. We’ve moved away from the kinds of dollhouses that originated as toys and into the direction of scale replicas and larger scenes. The museum now showcases many aspects of Kentucky’s history: from an Underground Railroad sequence to an early tobacco auction, a large rural area complete with Mail Pouch Tobacco barn and blacksmith, a garment factory much like one that existed in Danville, a Shaker Village, and a complete coal mining town.”
Lori doesn’t take all the credit for the unique and detailed displays. “I am extremely lucky to have two talented artists — Lincoln County’s Bernadine Austen and Alma Kiss from Huntsville, Alabama, who are doing truly remarkable works.”
“I have a tendency to love whatever is brand new for a while,” she said. “… I’m really invested right now in the Kentucky history portions of the museum. It’s Kentucky history and it’s also working people in Kentucky.”
She’s equally enthusiastic about the coal mining town.
“We’ve had so many people come through here and say they grew up in coal and it’s everything they remember. I find that very touching, very rewarding. I’ve had people say that about tobacco as well,” she said. “Right now, what I’m really loving is working on where the working people of Kentucky have been, where they were 100 years ago, what was going on in Kentucky and what was very special and different about Kentucky than anywhere else.”
Lori said her husband continues teaching at Centre and has been supportive during every step of the museum’s development — from investing their savings into the project, to taking countless road trips to procure more unique dollhouses from other states.
Both daughters are also contributing their energy and artistry into the museum. “Our older daughter Hannah, currently working on a Ph.D. in art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, worked on the faux painted floors of the building, created the original fantasy forest and designed facades for our tenement district. Emma, now a senior at Harvard College majoring in folklore and mythology, has created our photographic story boards and our ever-popular scavenger hunts. During university vacations, Hannah and Emma often help with greeting patrons.”
Lori said developing the museum’s next installations is exciting.
“We receive approximately five donation offers per month of dollhouses, buildings and furnishings. We are not able to accommodate most, either because they aren’t museum quality or because they don’t fit in with our focus on United States social history, but the ones we accept are historically accurate and highly detailed,” she said. “One exception to our U.S. history rule is our fantasy forest, and our latest acquisition is an 8-foot tall, architecturally correct medieval castle, which is currently experiencing a complete rehabilitation.”
The castle is expected to be on display in about a year.
Lori, Austen and Kiss are currently in the finishing stages of a huge Victorian dollhouse that will go on long-term loan to the Boyle County Public Library. The house opens from two opposite sides: One side depicts life in 1876; on the opposite side, the world has advanced to 1976. “For obvious reasons, it is called Centennial House.”
The house should be available for viewing in the library by spring of 2019, Lori said.
Lori still clings to her original dollhouse furniture she built as a child. Some are in a drawer and a few are tucked away inside several of the museum’s dollhouse displays.
“Eventually, I will probably put back together a house that’s like the one I had as a child, just for the fun of it.”