Fantastical Fairy Castle

Words Greta Bellamacina

The castle
is exactly
like the
of my
that it
is real

Colleen Moore
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Iconic silent movie actress Colleen Moore was the number one box office attraction in 1926, outranking motion picture idols such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth; Colleen was the torch.” Her lifelong acting career was a stunning success, but for more than 40 years nothing meant so much to her as her doll’s house.

“When I remember my childhood I remember it as a kind of waking dream.” As a child growing up in the deep South, Colleen recalled a memory of lying on the grass, looking up at the clouds hanging in the blue Georgia sky. “I knew that up there on the biggest and fluffiest clouds stood a fairy castle and I would find a magic potion, as did Alice, and then would be small enough to visit my dream castle and see the storybook people who lived in the house I had built for them in my mind.” And like all childhood dreams, you have to really believe for them to come true – a kind of gentle, slow magic of belief, which is often forgotten about in the everyday.

Colleen’s doll’s house, based on the castle from her daydreams, began being constructed in 1928. It was designed and lit by Hollywood set designers and lighting experts and decorated with themes from the great fairy tales. After decades of believing, and seven years of construction by hundreds of artisans, the doll’s house was completed. A national tour was organised which showcased Fairy Castle, as it became known, in major cities across the country. Colleen and her castle raised $650,000 between 1935 and 1939, which was donated to children struggling with poverty.

In 1949 it found a permanent home in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where it is still displayed to this day, the castle permanently lit to springtime, in moonlight.

Each room is greater than the next. From the grand piano, open, ready to be played in the drawing room, lit by small flickering flames from
the fireplace, to the magic garden whispering stories from the great hall windows. The princess marble bath nearly full, and the weeping willow tree outside in the courtyard, always ready to transform its leaves in a constant state of springtime.

Colleen recalled her father Charles Morrison giving her her first piece of treasure. “He was an imaginative man, no stranger to leprechauns, he shared with me all my life the love of little things. When I was five he gave me a tiny gilt metal case to hang on a ribbon around me neck.” Inside the locket was a miniature book with the alphabet printed inside. She later learnt she could find all the words she ever needed to make life interesting and truly spectacular from this book.

The castle’s library has to be the most fantastical room. Set designer Harold Grieve chose an undersea motif, with the walls resembling the ocean, bending into the sky. Above the bookshelves, the ceiling depicts the constellations, with golden signs of the zodiac. All mixed up with verdigris copper seashells, seahorses and mermaids. And inside this fallen ocean sits its treasure – books and books and books. The catalogue of miniature full editions includes poetry, plays and novels from
Noël Coward, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The most valuable book in the library is the autograph album, which contains between its inch-square covers the autographs of many of the 20th century’s most famous people, including an impressive six American presidents, Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

A life in autographs, a life of glamour, a world of imaginary dinner party guests and visitors who outstay the rooms they once slept. Permanently radiant, permanently Christmas and under the sea. A cave of Ali Baba and clocks which tell the time but are too small to hear their ticking lungs. Ivory and gold. Stone to stone. The door will open if you have the heart for it.

J.B.Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago