The Art Institute of Chicago was originally the Chicago Academy of Design, founded in 1866 by a group of 35 artists. It opened in 1870 but was destroyed by the Chicago Fire a year later. The current building dates from the Colombian Expo in 1893, and hosted the World’s Congress Auxiliary, with daily conferences on medicine, arts, commerce and women’s rights. Susan B. Anthony, Clara Burton, and Daniel Burnham (Chicago’s chief architect and city planner) were among the 5,000 speakers who presented during the Expo. The famous pair of life size bronze lions, which stand guard outside the main entrance, were a gift from Mrs. Henry Field when the building was rebuilt after the Chicago Fire.
It is a fitting institution to house the Thorne Miniature Rooms, which you will find downstairs.
The collection of 68 rooms were researched and designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, who started collecting miniatures from all over the world at the age of five. As an adult, she thought miniatures could be an educational tool for students of architectural design.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne was born May 2, 1882 and was raised on Chicago. She would marry James Ward Thorne (of Montgomery Ward Department Store fame) in 1901. Mrs. Thorne became an active fundraiser for organizations in Chicago, including the Women's Exchange - founded in 1893 and offering women an opportunity to sell their handcrafts in order to subsidize their household income. Mrs. Thorne also donated handmade items (including doll house rooms such as these) to benefit the Women's Exchange.
Some of these miniature rooms were built for the Chicago Expo in 1933-34, the San Francisco Expo in 1939, and the New York World’s Fair in 1940. These rooms toured the US and Europe for several years before Mrs. Thorne donated them to their permanent home at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. It is thought that she created 100 rooms, some of which she auctioned off for charity, the rest of which are in museums scattered across the USA. Mrs. Thorne closed her studio in 1966 and died later that year. She is buried in Chicago.
The rooms are built to a scale of 1?=1? and are extraordinary for their detail and accuracy in depicting historical architectural styles and furnishings from the 13th to 20th centuries, across Asia, Europe and the United States. She hired master craftsmen (during the Depression) to complete the rooms to her exacting specifications, and added details such as wallpapers and many of the tiny décor pieces. What textiles she did not personally craft, she commissioned from the Needlework Guild of Chicago. According to Wikipedia, some of the rooms are still decorated for the holidays in period appropriate décor…
My favorite was the Chinese Room, which was one of the more complex models, featuring bedrooms, side rooms and gardens that I couldn't capture on camera. A table to the right in the foyer featured a collection of tiny jade bottles. One of the bedrooms had a bed with bolster, both in brocade. The next bedroom had a commode, and a pair of slippers on the floor that were about ½” long.
There was a replica of the Pullman Observation Car, one of four luxury train cars, which George Pullman designed for the Colombian Expo in Chicago in 1893. This model included one of 3 hats I was able to capture on camera – this silk top hat was less than an inch tall, and sat with a pair of gloves, cane and suitcase.
I marveled at the English Great Hall with two suits of handcrafted armor and a little dog in front of the fireplace. The Louis XII Room displayed intricate woodwork and cabinetry. The tapestry shown here is from that room and appears to be embroidered with single threads. It is very finely detailed and is only about 3" across if my memory serves correctly.
A tapestry/embroidery frame near a ‘window’ in the 18th century Virginia Drawing Room also caught my textile-focused attention, as did the embroidered rug in the Jacobean-era English Bed Chamber. In another Jacobean room (an English Reception Room), I admired leaded glass windows with stained glass heraldic medallions that were less than an inch across. I believe this was one of several miniature rooms built by Mrs. Thorne for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933-34.
In addition to the Thorne Miniatures, the Art Institute houses one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist art, as well as artifacts from a wide variety of cultures and eras, including a magnificent Armor Room that you can read about here on Mainly Museums.
The Thorne Miniature Rooms can be viewed at the Art Institute Website. My additional photos on Pinterest include additional shots of the Chinese Room.
The Art Institute is located at 111 South Michigan Avenue, across from Millennial Park. Hours are Mondays 11 AM-6 PM, Thurs.-Fri. from 1-8 PM, Sat.-Sun. from 11 AM-6 PM.
Advance tickets and face masks are currently required. Tickets are $25 for adults, $19 for seniors, students and teens, children under 17 years old enter free. Allow at least 4 hours to see everything, less time if you are more selective.
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.