The Glen Burnie Manor House in Winchester comes in sizes both large and small.
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The late R. Lee Taylor stands with part of his collection of miniatures.
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View from the back of the Glen Burnie miniature.
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The center hall of the Glen Burnie miniature.
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The miniature breakfast room.
Photos courtesy of Museum of the Shenandoah Valley
Come close and peer in the windows.
See the claw-footed bombé chest? Its drawers slide out. The worktable in a hand-carved slant-top desk drops down. The rugs are handwoven, and the silver is sterling. The room’s doors open and close, the chandeliers light up, the larders are stocked.
You are looking at home furnishings on display at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, but built on a dizzyingly tiny scale: one inch for every foot. Not dollhouses for children, these, though children delight in them. These are miniatures painstakingly created by master craftsmen—in many cases, the best in their fields.
“The attention to detail!” marvels Dana Hand Evans, the museum’s director. “It’s just incredible .… This is not a hobby. This is a life’s work.”
And all of it is the brainchild of one man. What would lead R. Lee Taylor, a popular figure in the area, to re-create his real and dream homes on a one-twelfth scale?
Taylor, who died in 2000, lived for many years in Winchester as the curator and overseer of Glen Burnie, a 254-acre estate and one of Virginia’s grand historic homes. A Tennessee native and World War II veteran who participated in the Normandy landing, a 23-year-old Taylor met Glen Burnie’s eventual owner, Julian Wood Glass Jr., then 37 years old, in New York City in 1947. The two began a 20-year romantic relationship, and in 1955, when Glass, an executive in the petroleum industry, inherited Glen Burnie from his father, Taylor helped Glass restore it. In 1957, Taylor moved into Glen Burnie.
By the time it passed to Glass, the home was in poor condition. Taylor, who had only recently left the military, devoted himself full time to the restoration of the Georgian-style home and its six acres of formal gardens. He carefully designed and laid by hand the garden’s brick walkways, arranged plantings and dug plots. He also adopted a large family of geese to keep watch over the gardens—something that many years later may have played a part in his death. More on that later.
Taylor gained a reputation around Winchester as a cheerful, dapper man who loved to take care of things, from the gardens and house to the geese to a pet squirrel he named Peter Pocket. He was a connoisseur of wines and of friends.
Taylor’s attention to detail became legendary. His holiday decorations were a famous annual tradition, and his advice as Glass collected antiques helped shape one of the great collections in Virginia, consisting mainly of 18th- and 19th-century European and American furniture, paintings and decorative arts, which Glass displayed in his various private residences.
Taylor’s focus on elegance extended to everyday matters. Visitors would wander into the Glen Burnie gardens to find tables set with glasses, pitchers of water and ice—just in case. He was rarely seen without a spotless white dress shirt, blazer, tie and pocket square, all just so.
“He loved to do things well,” says longtime friend Jean “Whip” Dutton. “If he didn’t know how to do it, he’d teach himself.” He was particular, too; Dutton, now 85, fondly recalls a time Taylor commissioned a dramatic metal garden gate. After it was installed, Taylor decided it was not good enough. He had it removed and remade.
In the mid-1970s, Taylor and Glass separated. Though the men were no longer on good terms, Glass allowed Taylor to live in and care for Glen Burnie while Glass occupied his other homes.
It was in 1979 that miniatures first became part of Taylor’s life. He read a magazine article about the miniature of a historic house in Louisiana, Shadows-on-the-Teche, and decided he could do better.
Tiny versions of real things offer a way to control and capture reality that is impossible in full-size. Taylor, so obsessed with detail, must have felt the lure of such precise mastery and craftsmanship. Here was a realm he could create and care for, removed from the vagaries and threats of the real world.
By the time Taylor became involved in miniatures, the field had its own conventions, standards and a guild system for artisans. Taylor fell into that world with ease and enthusiasm, says Phyllis S. Tucker, whom Taylor hired to create furnishings for his projects. She visited Glen Burnie regularly, staying in a cottage guest room.
Tucker remembers watching from a window as Taylor led a line of his adopted geese in for the night to keep them safe from foxes, one gosling cradled in his arms, the others trailing him the way they would their mother.
“He was beyond interesting,” Tucker says. “He would not only take care of things, he would take care of them in the best way possible and in as elegant a way as possible.”
In 1985, Tucker wrote a cover story about Taylor’s collections for Nutshell News, a miniatures magazine. At the end of the article, Tucker suggested that Taylor re-create Glen Burnie in miniature.
A few months later, Taylor told her he’d begun. “There was nothing Lee liked more than a challenge,” Tucker notes.
His incentive may have been more complex. Though he’d lived in and cared for Glen Burnie himself for almost 30 years while Glass visited from time to time, Taylor had no claim on the home. Had he and Glass been a married couple, he would have had some legal recourse; as it was, Glass could throw him out at any time. This, Tucker says, worried Taylor. Perhaps he poured such effort into the tiny Glen Burnie because it was a home he would always have, just the way he wanted.
Over the following years, Taylor worked long hours at Glen Burnie’s kitchen table and carefully made a perfect copy of his beloved home. He used clay brick for the exterior and real wood flooring for the interior. The larder held tiny cans of Del Monte tomatoes and Campbell’s Light vegetable soup. Some of the minuscule library’s books (Stately Homes of England, Floral Design) were readable.
Taylor hired master craftspeople such as New York’s Charles Krug to re-create fully operational copies of the antiques he’d collected; Krug called a tiny folding game table, complete with reverse-painted glass game board, his masterpiece. When a friend took too long to make a tiny copy of the home’s area rugs, Taylor taught himself needlepoint and made the rugs himself.
Taylor even placed a miniature man in one of Glen Burnie’s bathrooms, shaving, stark naked. (The museum has tactfully wrapped a tiny towel around his waist for display.) It is the only human figure in any of his miniatures.
Taylor and Glass reconciled in 1992, just before Glass’ death at age 82. In his will, Glass stipulated that Glen Burnie should be open to the public beginning in 1997, and in 2005, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley was built nearby on the site. Even after Glen Burnie opened to the public, Taylor continued to live there, serving as curator of the gardens until his death in 2000.
Remember the geese? Here’s where they come in. Dutton says Taylor, despite needing heart surgery, refused to see the best surgeon in the area because the surgeon’s dog had attacked one of Glen Burnie’s geese—something Taylor could not forgive. Taylor went to a different surgeon and did not survive the operation.
After a small memorial ceremony, his ashes were interred in a wall of the Glen Burnie gardens. He left his miniatures collection to the museum, where it continues to draw astonished visitors. For his official portrait, he posed before his tiny Glen Burnie, smiling proudly, arms crossed over his pale-blue blazer, dapper in a checkered tie and pink pocket square.
Bill Studebaker, a nationally known miniatures craftsman, refurbished the Glen Burnie miniature in 2009. “He assembled a world-class collection,” Studebaker says. “I was astounded when I walked in there—there are only a few other places in the world to rival it. There’s just some truly astonishing workmanship.”
The cost of the collection is difficult to estimate. It reflects the evolving passion of a single man—some pieces could be found in a standard dollhouse, others are one-of-a-kind masterworks, still others were created by Taylor’s friends or talented amateurs. While the museum declines to speculate on the value, it’s worth noting that a single miniature by a master such as Krug can sell for thousands of dollars.
The miniature of Glen Burnie is to be a star exhibit in the real house, which reopens to visitors this summer after extensive renovation. But in Taylor’s miniatures, nothing has changed. The kitchen remains untouched. A fingernail-sized bottle of real wine waits to be decanted. Miss Piggy still plays on a tiny television. Everything just so, forever. TheMSV.org