Couple’s Home is Museum in Miniature

The Post and Courier
Your Lowcountry
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Couple’s Home is Museum in Miniature
by Andy Paras

There is nothing small about the collection of dollhouses Diane Forde and husband Henry Ruthinoski have amassed over the years. In fact, it takes a large home to house them all. That’s one of the reasons the Long Island, NY natives bought the historic Howell-Fishburne house on Hampton Street in Walterboro Last July. The other reason is they planned to operate the house as a bed-and-breakfast, one in which other lovers of dollhouses and miniatures travel long distances to see their collection. The couple turned the front room into a large miniature museum that includes more than 50 dollhouses, an amalgam of dolls and other collectibles.

The houses date to the 1880s and come from China, Germany, Korea and the United States. There are farmhouses, Tudors, Victorians, log cabins and Mexican storefronts. They were created by hand out of fiberboard, metal, shingles, and an array of other materials. There are so many of them that the only thing more burdensome than moving the delicate homes from one house to another would be if the state decided to levy property taxes against them. “We had a Penske truck, and it was three-quarters full with dollhouses,” Ruthinoski said of their recent move to Walterboro. “A 26-foot truck, and we still had more.”

Forde, an artist, caught the bug first. Her love for dollhouses started when she was a little girl. “I’ve always been fascinated by them,” Forde said. “There’s just something about the houses. I
always wanted to get inside.” Her passion for the dollhouses later turned into a hobby she and Ruthinoski could do together. They started building their first dollhouse together 10 years ago, but their house caught fire and the dollhouse was destroyed. They have built a few more since then, but they both became much more interested in collecting antique dollhouses. “I dragged my husband into it, but he actually enjoys it tremendously,” Forde said.

They found some of the houses in antique shops, but some of their real prizes were discovered over the Internet. Forde said the most important piece in their collection is a German dollhouse from the l880s that she believes once was used as a Christmas decoration. The house, encased in a cabinet, has the original gas lights and a little Santa Claus-like figure standing on the balcony. They both have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of each house and every piece of furniture inside.

Forde is an artist and former visual merchandiser who decorated window displays for businesses such as Macy’s. Ruthinoski was in marine construction for 30 years. They soon realized that what was once a hobby now afforded them an opportunity to work together full time.

They bought the house at 500 Hampton Street and opened the Hampton House Bed and Breakfast. They had their first customers this month. They expect the museum to attract aficionados from all over the country, but also others who just want a nice place to stay in Walterboro.

The house – the big one – is a draw in itself. It was built in 1912 and was featured in Southern Living. “It’s a great house, isn’t it?” Forde said. “We needed a house that was very large.”

People wanting to make reservations at the bed-and-breakfast can call 542-9498. Dollhouse tours also are available by appointment only.

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