Small Wonder

The Hyde Park Miniature Museum has been dredged out of mothballs, but will it find a permanent home before time runs out?

"I wish it wouldn't take so long to enjoy someone else's life," says 61-year-old Frank Davis. He's painstakingly repairing one of the many locomotives his late grandfather crafted out of toilet paper rolls, balsa wood and bits of wire. The magnifying eyeglasses on his nose make him look like a coal miner or a mad scientist.

"You know what I mean?" he continues. "I guess you really have to put out some effort."

Davis has put a lot of effort into enjoying his grandfather's life -- and making sure others get the chance to enjoy it, too. His grandfather was D.D. Smalley, curator of the Hyde Park Miniature Museum, a collection named for its intimate size rather than the size of its objects. Smalley's monument to novelty, marvel and whimsy, the museum contained the residue of his archaeological, artistic, technological and historical obsessions. He opened his attic, in a house that still stands at 1406 Welch Street, to the public in 1941 and operated the museum on weekends until his death in 1963. Children were his favorite patrons, and he gave each a little gimcrack for stopping by.

Deron Neblett

Like those of his grandfather, Frank Davis's hands are rarely idle.
Courtesy of Frank Davis
Like those of his grandfather, Frank Davis's hands are rarely idle.

Davis and his sister Vikki Fruit reopened the museum for a few years in the '70s but closed it for good after thieves broke in and stole some of the precious metal ores, antique rifles and, most cruelly, the model train set that delighted so many children. "It wasn't a museum after that," remembers Davis. "It was a crime scene." Still, the collection was viewable by appointment until 1994, when Davis and his sisters sold the house. Since then Smalley's treasures have been boxed up in a barn on Fruit's property near San Marcos.

But now, the museum runs riot again all around Davis. It's been brought out of storage for a nine-month exhibition at Brazos Projects Gallery. The strip-mall space next to Brazos Bookstore has been remodeled by students in the Rice School of Architecture's Building Workshop to look exactly like the museum's original attic home. The shelves are lined with the hundreds of arrowheads and minerals Smalley collected on his travels. A beehive, a walnut and a dinosaur turd -- all petrified -- are displayed alongside the potpie-size molars of the mastodon Smalley dredged out of the Brazos River bottoms. There are antique knickknacks, gewgaws and thingamajigs of every description; beautiful Lucite flowers made from the windshields of discarded World War II bombers; dozens of model airplanes Smalley carved from raw balsa; and 250,000 commonplace postage stamps that Davis and Fruit -- at Smalley's behest -- soaked from envelopes, dried, counted into bundles of 100, tied with bits of silk string and stacked snugly into cigar boxes.

"It was all the interesting rocks," says Davis of the collection, "not the boring ones on the roadside. These were the ones that were so interesting that somebody had already picked them up and brought them home, found out what the hell it was, put a number on it, and put it on the shelf."

If the Hyde Park Miniature Museum speaks, it says to live life to the fullest, to wonder at the world. Find the interesting rocks, dig up that mammoth or clod of stegosaurus poop, pick up a block of wood and make it into an airplane or 50. But the paradox is this: Why bother? Grandpa's already done it for you.

"It's still got the magic that it had," says Davis, surveying his grandfather's stuff. "Hardly worth going out there, because all the interesting rocks are already here."

But Smalley was not content to leave his descendants an attic full of stuff. He also stamped them pretty heavily with his DNA. Like his grandfather, Davis is an inventor, a tinkerer, a musician and a man fascinated by both art and science and especially the intertwining of the two. He does his best to find his own rocks, but ever since Smalley's descendants sold the house that once contained his testament to wonder, they've had to drop everything and relive his life again.

"The Hyde Park has really been a mixed legacy for Frank," says Orange Show Foundation director Susanne Theis. The foundation helped save the Hyde Park in 1994 when its home was sold. "It's such a burden, because it's not just an idea or some intangible quality that people remember about his grandfather, it's literally 57 boxes filled with stuff. If you're aware of it and how precious it is, then the responsibility that you have to carry around with you is staggering."

For the next eight months, Davis -- and the museum -- have a reprieve. But if the Hyde Park hasn't found a permanent patron come December, its inventory will be dismantled, boxed up and trundled back to Fruit's barn and an uncertain future.

which is to say it is an impossibility. Smalley's mind was a lot like the city he came to call home: There was no zoning in it. How else to explain the display card on which a 19th-century French ladies' toothbrush shares space with a few decrepit porcupine quills, a Mexican chocolate mixer and a handful of shell casings brought back from the trenches of the Great War? Another exhibit, one that would surely clench the jaw of any self-respecting Daughter of the Republic of Texas, juxtaposes some brickbats from the Alamo with a piece of ordinary balsa wood and a very large, and by now very dry, bean. Smalley assiduously cataloged them all, and the entries fill several books. No. 475 is "Land." That's all it is -- a jar of dirt -- though the catalog informs us of its Brazos River provenance.

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