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.
D.D. Smalley amid the residue of his hobbies. The rifles behind him were stolen in the 1970s.
Deron Neblett
D.D. Smalley amid the residue of his hobbies. The rifles behind him were stolen in the 1970s.
Clockwise from left: Susanne Theis, Helen Fosdick, Frank Davis, Karl Kilian and Vikki Fruit -- great understanders of the sincere gesture.
Deron Neblett
Clockwise from left: Susanne Theis, Helen Fosdick, Frank Davis, Karl Kilian and Vikki Fruit -- great understanders of the sincere gesture.
Smalley encapsulated: The nubs of his draftsman's pencils.
Deron Neblett
Smalley encapsulated: The nubs of his draftsman's pencils.
One of his recycled bomber-windshield bouquets.
Deron Neblett
One of his recycled bomber-windshield bouquets.
Karl Kilian: The Miniature Museum can give even a veteran bookseller eyestrain.
Karl Kilian: The Miniature Museum can give even a veteran bookseller eyestrain.

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.

Today, David David Smalley would likely be branded obsessive-compulsive and given medication. And no, that name is not a misprint. Davis has no idea how his grandpa ended up with the same first and middle names, but he sees it as apt. "It certainly gave him a license for excess," he says. "And then there's that old joke, 'He was so busy they had to name him twice.' "

Smalley was born in Indiana in 1893, and in his youth, America was seized with a mania for all things Wild West. Davis speculates it was a longing for adventure that led his grandfather to Texas, where he married the daughter of the Waller County sheriff. They lived in Hempstead, a place that had been called Six-Shooter Junction until just a decade before his arrival.

Smalley reveled in what was still a raw state. "He liked this place because he could drive 30 minutes outside of Houston and find a damn dinosaur," says Davis. "Free! It was there and he figured it out, and he loved to find it, and he just did it. He went through piles and piles of gravel there on the river bottom and found it."

Smalley never attended college. "There wasn't anything in college that was half as exciting as what he was doing in his everyday life," Davis says. But perhaps Smalley wished he had gotten his degree. He was always looking for validations of his skills. "He must have had some guilt about his lack of education," Davis says. "He would teach himself how to do something and then take a correspondence course so he could get a certificate in it."

Smalley found his calling when Southern Pacific hired him as a mapmaker/draftsman in 1918. The job allowed him to put his artistic skills to use and, when he surveyed terrain, to travel. But in 1924, Smalley took ill. Influenza invaded his spinal column, and as a contemporary newspaper account had it, his backbone grew "crooked and more crooked." He was put in a body cast and spent a year in the Southern Pacific Hospital literally getting bent back into shape. If his hobbies didn't already have him in their clutches when he went in, they did by the time he came out; at any rate, it was about this time that the Southern Pacific employee magazine and the Houston Chronicle discovered the man they came to call The King of Hobbies.

Fortunately for Smalley, his arms and hands were not immobilized. He asked the nurses for a knife, some wood scraps, some wire and an empty flask. Ten days later he unveiled the first of many creations: a pastoral barnyard scene in a bottle, now exhibited in the museum. The figures are a little crude, but the detail is marvelous; the tiny farmhouse has furnishings inside and a farmer on the front porch strumming a banjo.

Then Smalley turned to more traditional carving-in-a-bottle fare, with a succession of Spanish galleons, which he sold to fund another project: a radio set for his ward with speakers at each bed. Smalley also fined the slovenly patients who neglected to shave and earmarked the proceeds for the radio fund.

After the body cast had ironed him out, Smalley went home and built a radio shack in his backyard. In it went a ham radio set, on which he would talk to people in different parts of the world, enlisting them as abettors in his hobbies. "Radio is a pair of legs for you," he told a reporter at the time. "You can get all over the country with it." (Smalley's daughter Laura was to prove him right a few years later. In a low-tech precursor to You've Got Mail, she wooed her future husband, a Pennsylvanian, over the ham radio set.)

In the shack, Smalley's imagination had free rein. He built a robot that moved its arms, feet and mouth when its inventor manipulated the appropriate pedals and levers with his feet. He rigged up the walls to make all kinds of mysterious sound effects. He devised ways of harmlessly shocking himself with a voltage many times over the lethal limit. When children came to visit, he terrified them with his gadgets and taught them about geology, paleontology, geography, painting, astronomy, mechanics and magnetism. He even showed a young Davis how to defuse the live Civil War cannonballs he'd fished out of the mud at the bottom of Buffalo Bayou near the Milam Street Bridge in 1947.

From the articles about The King of Hobbies, we have two quotes left from the man. One was the one about radio. The other was on his convalescence, of which Smalley said: "A person who stays in the hospital a long time learns a lot of philosophy. He sees a great many amusing things too. Some day I'm going to write a book about it."

He never did. But he did the next best thing.

Instead, they've had to shepherd a couple of truckloads of delicate material through the sale of its home, a move across Texas, eight years of dormancy in a San Marcos barn and now a move back to its old neighborhood in Houston.

"You can't get away from it," says Fruit. "And you can't just dump it in the trash pile." She does admit to a little resentment of the responsibility. "But," she says, "Helen takes it out of that range."

Helen is Helen Winkler Fosdick, the sister of former Menil Collection director Paul Winkler and the Hyde Park Miniature Museum's most ardent champion. Fosdick was a volunteer at the museum in the '70s, and she helped dismantle it in 1994. She worked almost daily on the reinstallation of the museum this time around -- painting shelves, hauling boxes, and occasionally assuaging Davis's temper and cooling simmering sibling rivalries.

"When a lot of people didn't understand the Hyde Park Miniature Museum, she did," says Brazos Projects director Karl Kilian. "She's a great understander of the sincere gesture, and she is able to convey it to other people without being didactic."

Davis and Fosdick together in the museum remind one of an old married couple. Davis is always grousing about the hyperefficient Fosdick moving his stuff. But every night when she sweeps up, she saves the dustpan for Davis to inspect, to make sure that none of the Hyde Park Miniature Museum has gotten mixed in with the dust it collected in its exile. "Even the tiniest piece is part of the whole psyche of D.D. Smalley," she says.

Fosdick's hope is the same as that of Davis and his sisters. "Perhaps Houston can get it together to raise enough money to find a permanent location for this," she says. At a glance, the museum is a cousin to other quirky Houston landmarks like the Orange Show and the Beer Can and Flower Man houses. But while the Orange Show Foundation looks after its namesake and the Beer Can House, and Cleveland "The Flower Man" Turner still lives in his florid abode, the Hyde Park has no permanent home. It's an interesting rock still lying on the side the road.

To Susanne Theis, the Hyde Park is the über-museum, "the purest expression of what a museum was ever intended to be." Theis calls it a Wunderkammer, a German word that translates as "wonder cabinet." In the Renaissance, and possibly as far back as Roman times, before the idea of modern museums had evolved, nobles and rich merchants often had curiosity cabinets, which they would display to their friends and business acquaintances. These proto-curators had much the same approach as Smalley: If there was a tale to be told about something, anything, into the Wunderkammer it would go.

When Theis got the phone call from then-Menil director Winkler in 1994 telling her that the museum was threatened with oblivion, she rallied the forces at her disposal. After Theis obtained a grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County to cover moving costs, two dozen Orange Show volunteers labored through the month of August in the sweltering attic, boxing up and removing Smalley's legacy. Great care was taken to preserve every detail. Two documentarians videotaped Davis walking through the museum talking about the collection, and photographer John Lee Simons photographed every inch of the shelves, so that the museum might be reconstructed precisely.

"The amazing thing was that everybody there felt that they were part of a sacred mission," says Theis. "It was clear to me that it was special and really important, and it was crucial that we do right by it and give it a second chance."

Eight years later that second chance came. "When Brazos Projects opened, I was trying to think of something fun and useful to do. It just occurred to me that this was a wonderful thing that was ready to be," says Kilian. In the past, Brazos Projects has exhibited the photography of Cy Twombly and furniture designed by architect Frank Gehry and sculptor Donald Judd. The Hyde Park Miniature Museum represents a step toward outsider art for the exhibition space.

"Maybe some kind of outsider collecting, if you would," hesitates Kilian. "There's just something so charming about it, and so honest."

This museum will not dazzle its beholders at a glance the way a gallery of priceless gems or famous paintings can. The Hyde Park requires a little get-to-know-you period. "If you just give up your resistance when you go into that space, you can't help but be won over by it," says Kilian. "It's like seeing stuff really magic again. It's not cynical; there's something so pure about the experience."

Brazos Projects' previous exhibits have run for only one or two months, but this one will run through the rest of the year. "We knew there was no way people could see it in three or four visits," says Kilian. "You can just marvel at one section of one wall for hours. You get eyestrain."

Though most of the items were valueless in their time, and for that matter for decades after, by now some of them have pretty hefty price tags -- especially in the present day of eBay mania and the Antiques Roadshow. "I hate it that a lot of this stuff is worth money now," Davis says. "I wish it was all just totally worthless. I really do. I'm so tired of it that in Houston, the only reason things are available is because they are worth some money."

Smalley certainly never gave a damn if his collection had monetary value. The only criterion he had was this: "If he knew something about something, he would exhibit it," says Davis. "He really wanted people to be educated by what he had learned. He wanted to pass it on."

One such example is the brick. To the uninitiated, that's all it is -- a brick. Ask Davis about it, though, and the following story unfolds, as taken from his grandfather's catalog: During the period between Britain's declaration of war on Germany and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America's stance toward Britain, though officially neutral, was more like a silent partnership, with the United States arming England in its life-and-death struggle with the Nazis. The trouble was that Britain had very little to send back to America in trade. Still, cargo ships need ballast, and if there was one thing Hitler gave the British, it was lots of ballast. After American ships unloaded their grain or armaments in England, they took on cargo consisting of the pulverized remnants of London. That was how this particular brick eventually found its way to the Hyde Park Miniature Museum.

says Davis. "Well, all this new media stuff…they entertain you, but they take up extraordinary amounts of time. They want to be observed. Big-time business and all. In his day, there was always more of a chance to have a one-on-one relationship with yourself, instead of a one-on-one relationship with someone who has paid for your time."

Davis makes a point of having a relationship with himself, too. He doesn't watch TV, and he says he hasn't read a book in 20 years. His studio, a former candle factory set on the lush terrain of the banks of White Oak Bayou, looks like Smalley's attic on a larger scale, with various contraptions and gizmos scattered about higgledy-piggledy. One experiment is designed to figure out what happens to extremely high voltage when it's conducted through a vacuum. Others are part of Davis's exploration into the science of holography (none of the holograms you see on commercial products could have been produced were it not for one of his patents).

The concept of metamorphosis fascinates Davis, as it did his grandfather. One of his favorite exhibits in Smalley's collection is a homemade steam engine, cobbled together from spare parts by an anonymous tinkerer. "You think of some guy. Not only does he understand the technology, but he is looking at his own environment, and all of a sudden the use of something transforms itself into something else," marvels Davis. "He has a rifle, and all of a sudden it's just a steel tube. He needs a piston, let's go. It's a miraculous transformation that happens…the thrill of discovery…"

Long before Davis was born, Smalley invented a musical instrument -- the "little jo" -- that he played live on KTRH. It was a flat mandolin with only four strings, an alarm-clock bell and a mounted harmonica. Many years later, a young Davis, who then knew nothing of the little jo, invented his own odd stringed instrument to fulfill an assignment for a class at the Museum of Fine Arts. "The problem was this: A plus B equals C. In other words, we had to take one element and add it to another and have it come out neither A nor B," he says. A relative had given him a beautiful brass snare drum with nymphs chasing each other all around it. Davis took the neck off his Stratocaster and attached it to the drum, and the "daddy banjo" was born.

Davis hasn't performed a traditional gig in about 20 years. He got his start playing as the male half of the Frank and Kay duo, from which Kay later emerged as 1980s country hitmaker K.T. Oslin. Davis played the daddy banjo solo in Houston clubs and on the road for another couple of decades, but gave up playing in public abruptly when an Anderson Fair patron, having never seen Davis before, told him he was "pretty good" and that he "might be able to make a living playing music."

Today, the only gigs Davis plays are hit-and-run affairs. Parked next to a vintage Volvo in front of his studio is an old ice cream van that Davis has rigged up with curtains and blue Christmas lights. When it's running, he likes to load up the daddy banjo and perform impromptu concerts in his predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. "They come up and offer pennies and dimes, but I just smile and shake my head," Davis says. "I don't say a word. When I'm done, I pull the curtain in front of me and go up front and drive off."

Davis's studio seems as though it's been crammed full of all of his scientific, artistic and musical odds and ends for years, but it hasn't. Aside from a few older items like the daddy banjo, the stuff in the studio now is pretty much the stuff he's acquired since June 10 of last year, when most of his life was swept into the bayou by Tropical Storm Allison. Davis lost all of his artwork, his furniture, his papers, everything. "I did find some of my art down on Main Street," Davis says. "But why pick it up? It was all just ruined."

When Kilian called to weigh Davis's interest in reopening the museum, Davis was busy trying to piece his life back together after the flood.

"The enthusiasm about that place [the museum] is in that place," he says. "You just have to expose yourself to it. But you do know going into it that it takes time away from your -- quote -- life. But it's so damn interesting. It's not like there's a choice."

he knows he won't be able to look after his grandfather's legacy forever. He hopes the Hyde Park Miniature Museum will find a champion to see it through after he's gone. "It's got such a life of its own," he says. "It'll find a place."

But Smalley's final hobby was eerily prophetic of his museum's current situation. Stricken with cancer and fully aware that his life was winding down, Smalley spent his last few months trolling garage sales for old clocks. "At that time, it wasn't a fad yet," remembers Davis. "He found a wonderful assortment of old clocks and fixed them and built shelves for them all around the whole house. All the walls were covered. His collections had finally kind of dripped down from the attic into the house."

Every 15 minutes, every half-hour, every hour, the cacophony rose to amazing levels. Fruit remembers that Smalley staggered some of them and that others simply kept bad time; the noise that marked the passing of each hour went on for a good five minutes. "It was like some old cartoon, when a character would have some brilliant idea for Earth," Davis laughs. "It was like the sound effect for a light bulb going off over somebody's head."

But Fruit and Davis both say it was the ticking of each passing second that stayed in your mind long after you left the house. "It was like being in one of those massive chicken farms where they hatch little chickens and they are all pecking on the tin," Davis says. "It was the most unusual sound."

And though the clocks are not exhibited, that's the sound this museum is making.

The Hyde Park Miniature Museum is on view at Brazos Projects Exhibit Space, 2425 Bissonnet. Hours are noon to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays only. For more information, call 713-522-8530.

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