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An In-Depth Look at Huguette Clark's Dollhouse Obsession

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Whereas mogul William A. Clark, a copper baron and politician who died in 1925, had exacting standards for his eye-popping mansions—his Fifth Avenue manor on NYC's 77th Street had 121 rooms, 30 bathrooms, and a golden chamber that well put the "gilded" in the Gilded Age—his daughter, reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, whose 2011 death spurred a tangle of slogging inheritance battles, siphoned her energies and cash into home details on a much tinier scale. One of her Japanese miniatures, for example, required getting special permission from the Japanese government to use rare cedar reserved solely for imperial buildings. She spent $80K to get it built. "You could call them dollhouses, but they were really historical art projects," said investigative reporter Bill Dedman, who—quite literally—wrote the book on Huguette Clark's houses, large and small. "Like her father with his art collection, Huguette spared no expense," he writes in Empty Mansions (Ballantine Books, 2013), which he co-authored with Clark's cousin, Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Clark's miniature houses came in two main varieties: storybook and historical. For the former, she commissioned a dollhouse maker in Germany to build tabletop dioramas depicting the best parts of fairytales such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Rumpelstiltskin. Roughly the size of a desktop printer, they were, as Dedman writes, "story houses, theaters with scenes and characters painted on the walls. ... religious houses with Joan of Arc, forts with toy soldiers, cottages with scenes from old French fables, and house after house telling her favorite fairy tales."

Clark, who had a great interest in Japan of the late 1800s, also commissioned historically accurate miniatures of Japanese houses and temples. "She developed an incredible knowledge about the art and culture of Japan," Clark's Japanese artist liaison, Caterina Marsh, tells Dedman. "It was astonishing what she knew, all the legends and folklore. To me, she was the last of an era."

She was demanding of her dollhouse artisans. She paid them exorbitantly, but every inch was vital—she once called up one of her dollhouse employs in a panic: "The little people are banging their heads!"—and every window shutter mattered. Cable records to her master builders, some of which were 4,000 miles away, reflect this insistence for perfection:
"Rumpelstiltskin house just arrived. It is beautifully painted but unfortunately is not same size of last porridge house received. ... Please make sure religious house has front of house 19 3?4 of an inch wide. Would also like shutters on all the windows. Would like another Rumpelstiltskin house with same scenes with scene where hay is turned to gold added as well as scene before hay is turned but with wider front and also wooden shutters on every window." And:
"Received the wall and garden. Unfortunately, they are useless. The door for the wall being in front of the elevator, it is impossible to open it. This door should open into the kitchen. The second-floor windows are not necessary as there is so little space to place the furniture. The window to the left of the door is the only one that is well-placed. The measurements of the garden are not the same as in the model I sent you, and the sides are too short. I am sending it back to you." Of course, some Clark had commissioned as gifts. Such is the case with the house given to Delia Healey, her caretaker in the 1980s. Healey had three jobs: take care of the doll clothes, make Clark lunch, and tape and transcribe Clark's cartoons. Clark, Dedman said, gave Delia's family a dollhouse (and dolls to mimic all the people in their family) as a thank you—though the gift was taken away shortly after and sent back to Germany to get the floors refinished.

If Clark got her meticulous nature from her father, Dedman says, she got "her reclusiveness from her mother." Though Clark had a handful of eight-figure estates—her 42-room Fifth Avenue apartment, occupied only by her 19th-century French dolls since her death, has been selling piece-meal over the past few years; her empty, 52-acre Connecticut manse hit the market in 2011 for $24M, and, after a PriceChop, seems to be facing subdivision; and her California estate seems destined to become a foundation or public manor—she preferred to stay holed up in her Fifth Avenue digs, only venturing into the outside world to go see fashion shows to glean inspiration for her dolls.

So where are her dollhouses now? "In storage. I don't know where," Dedman said, adding that they were more than likely destined for that future foundation/museum in Santa Barbara, Calif. Its an exciting prospect, as most photos of her dollhouses and dioramas remain safely guarded by her estate, who seem to be keeping them from being public fodder.

As for the gift dollhouses? Well, the roadwork to those seem to fade into a mess of sales and auctions, a map even more complicated than the instructions of Clark's controversial will and testament. And while the estate settles and the caretakers claim their winnings, it's clearer now more than ever that Clark's legacy is not wrapped up in empty mansions or the some $300M in assets to be divided, but rather in the slightly bonkers, childlike devotion she had for her miniatures work, as peculiar and grossly extravagant as it was.

· Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune [official site]
· All Huguette Clark coverage [Curbed National]
· All Huguette Clark coverage [Curbed NY]
· Tentative Deal in Feud Over Will of an Heiress [NYT]