tiny buildings, big collections
bringing a little something back home
By CNN Interactive writer KC Wildmoon
it could happen to anyone -- vacationing in, say, New York. No, someplace less Gotham. San Francisco. No, more ... international. Paris. Too flashy. Mmmmm ... for the sake of argument, let's say Cairo.
You're vacationing in Cairo and you wander out to the Giza Plateau to look at the pyramids. You stop at a gift shop. You buy one of those little metal replicas of Cheops' final resting place and pack it away for the return trip.
You've just unwittingly brought home a latent virus, the seeds of something that could erupt months or even years later -- and make you build a shed behind your house to hold ... your collection of miniature souvenir buildings.
Architect David Weingarten did just that. While traveling in Germany with an uncle 20 years ago, Weingarten picked up a replica of a Romanesque cathedral.
"There was a big one and a little one," Weingarten says. "(My uncle) bought the larger one for himself, and I got the smaller one."
The tiny cathedral languished barely noticed for eight years -- until Weingarten met "my partner in life," Margaret Majua, who owns refrigerator magnet stores.
"She had a building or two as well," he says. "We went to an antique store, and they had some buildings which we liked very much."
"It set off the virus."
3,000 buildings and counting
The collection now numbers more than 3,000 pieces, from Eiffel Towers and Rockefeller Centers to banks and light-up Empire State Buildings. They are pencil sharpeners and inkwells, replicas of football stadiums and ancient temples, all housed in a whitewashed shed called the "Building Building" tucked into the hills east of San Francisco.
"It's almost out of room," admits Weingarten, now co-author of a book with Majua and photographer Alan Weintraub called "Souvenir Buildings, Miniature Monuments" (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996).
A trip to the Building Building "always (brings) a gasp," says Weingarten. "It's sort of an overwhelming thing."
The buildings represent about 1,200 places -- several hundred pieces each from towns like Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- on every continent except Antarctica. Around 100 Statues of Liberty alone sit on display with other New York landmarks.
"We prefer to say 'devoted' instead of 'obsessive' collector," Weingarten says, "but it's something that has touched a lot of people. Everybody knows what these little buildings are."
Buildings like the pyramids, London's Big Ben, Washington's monuments -- these are the common miniature buildings Weingarten's talking about. But tourist spots aren't the only buildings memorialized for all time in copper, brass, pewter, and other heavy metal.
Banks in the earlier part of this century frequently gave out tiny models of their buildings, often functional coin banks, to new depositors and the like. Other companies, as well, had copies of their buildings made, sometimes as ink wells or other parts of desk sets to hand out to employees.
'I have that building!'
Tom and Cindy Simpson of Alpharetta, Georgia have added "a whole new dimension" to their traveling experiences since they began collecting the small buildings.
"It's quite a feeling when you're driving and you actually run into these buildings," says Tom, a biologist by trade. "To say, 'Hey, I have that building!'"
The Simpsons' collection -- spurred by Cindy's architectural background -- now numbers around 300. Tom Simpson says he's been amazed by the diversity of the buildings -- the sizes, the quality, and the range.
But beyond an interest in the tiny buildings themselves, he says the collection satisfies a deeper need.
"We meet a lot of other collectors -- there's a people element in it," he says. "And there's a novelty in this -- when you do find one of these buildings, you know you've found something unusual."
That ... and the latent virus, the one Weingarten says may lurk within more people than care to admit it.
"It's something every devoted collector understands," he says.
So if you find yourself picking up a tiny metal replica of the White House -- or a set of salt and pepper shakers from some obscure diner in West Virginia -- beware. Your simple vacation purchase could be the beginning of a lifetime of tracking miniature monuments around the world.