Bonnie Broel’s Doll World
– Susan Sontag, author
Let us go back in time to the whims of our childhood. Now, that the past can be fashioned in the image of our own delights, a childhood re-made to order – all sweet candy and Easter eggs, Christmas year round, Tara and Rhett and Miss Scarlett, valentines, the ice cream shop and the ballerina, all meticulously modeled and hand crafted as fulfilled dreams of years gone by – can those dreams be savored, re-lived and shared with others.
The wonderfully ebullient days of make-believe are as safe and secure as Bonnie Broel can make them in her museum of miniatures, a fantasy traipse through the
tiny cities and villages of the good life down the ages. But who knows it’s there?
Broel is perhaps best known as the “Queen of Weddings” in New Orleans. For years, moms and dads of brides-to-be have called on Broel to set up the ideal wedding for their daughters. Items include gowns for the bride and dresses for the bridesmaids as well as sumptuous meals, music, photos … the works. In certain quarters when you say “wedding” you can only be talking about The House of Broel, the quintessential stately antebellum mansion on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District.
As could be expected, the mansion in which Broel lives and does her magical weddings is furnished with the proper artifacts of another era and delicate furniture. And even an aroma of a certain stuffy antiquity befitting the gentility of another age floats through the high-ceiling rooms.
“I am an artist, a designer,” Broel says. “I always had a passion to design gowns for ladies … and that was what I wanted to do. And yet, I found out how fleeting fashion is. It is of the moment and although I want to put part of this building into a fashion museum, the dollhouses are something permanent that I hope will last long after I’m gone.”
Permanent as in, “… settling down in one place as a child all over again.” Only this time, the New Orleans native who spent most of her young years shuttling back and forth between here and Detroit, the city in which her father’s business was based, is getting it right. And finally recapturing those young years as she would like them.
“When I was young I was never allowed to play with dolls or dollhouses,” Broel says. “I was supposed to be a business woman. That’s what my mother was raising me to be. I wanted to be an artist and she wouldn’t hear of it. So, this – my miniatures – is really my getting back to being a child again. I guess I’m rediscovering my childhood.”
For most of her adult life, Bonnie Broel didn’t disappoint her mother – she owned dress shops, designed fine fashion and has easily maintained her crown. But Bonnie Broel was still disappointing herself.
That is until one weekend in 1982, when she and her son Clark attended a fundraising event at Louise S. McGehee School that was centered on dolls and dollhouses.
Broel bent over and peered long and longingly into the tiny worlds of make-believe laid out before her: Lilliputian women in the finest dresses and men in smoking jackets and smiles all around.
When he saw the rapture on his mother’s face, Clark asked, “Want to build a dollhouse, Mom?”
For the next 25 years, Bonnie Broel spent as much time in her tiny make-believe world as she did in her real life, grown-up world.
If there were any doubt that her world of miniatures was her life’s calling it came for Broel after she restored nine properties and was up to her neck in plumbing and roof repairs.
“With my doll houses I didn’t have all of that,” Broel says with a slight roll of her eyes for emphasis. “I can control everything right here in miniature. Everything can stay beautiful all the time.”
The tour begins. It is quiet, almost reverent. Broel walks from one miniature mansion to the next, pointing out each detail from wallpaper inside a Victorian mansion to the splendorous details of an English manor house.
“It’s all so very charming, isn’t it?” she asks without missing a step on the tour.
Along way, she pauses to point out remnants of the real world: a collection of ceramic frogs – she explains that her father was in the frog business. She points out a faded photo of his home in Russia and lets on that she herself is of royal lineage – a Polish countess. But just as quickly, it’s back to the small, small world.
“This is my ‘Dollhouse of Romance,’” she says as she stops in front of one of her collections and waves her hand majestically over the piece she has created. “You’ll note everything takes place on Valentine’s Day. I have traditional foods on the table: crawfish, beignets … even a bottle of Tabasco® sauce.” And over there: Rhett Butler in the parlor about to deliver his “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” goodbye to Miss Scarlett. Another piece has a young girl kneeling and saying her night prayers in a little room. There is an Asian house of art, a Baronial hall, a tiny fairy hut and even a rebuilt cowboy brothel reduced to small scale.
“You can’t do all this without being passionate,” Broel says as though it needed to be said. “And I am nothing if not passionate about my museum.”
The tour passes under a magnificent, real-life Baccarat crystal chandelier dating to 1850, but that hardly draws a notice from Broel who’s still immersed in her tiny world of make believe.
Broel has applied to the Guinness Book of World Records hoping to become listed as the largest miniature museum created by one person. She also has formed a foundation which, among other causes, promotes her museum in miniature as a bona fide New Orleans attraction – all 14 dollhouses and 40 separate room boxes. She is her museum’s own best spokesperson, telling everyone she meets and inviting them to the mansion for a visit.
Still, her small idea hasn’t taken the quantum leap to mega success as a “must see” stop on the tour.
“My best friends are very supportive of the museum,” she says. “But I do not feel the community support at all. I don’t know why that is.”
Undaunted, the Queen of Weddings moves on, totally assured that one day, the real world outside will come to truly know and appreciate her tiny world of make-believe inside.