At the home of Steven Burke and Randy Campbell, I walked from room to room as a giant, pressing my eyes against windows and through doorways, studying the interior contents of a house. Sometimes it’s easier to pull off the roof of the bowling ally to see its workers ready to set up pins; or the movie theater to see rows and rows of empty seats.
I run my hand along the roof of a cathedral and over the flying buttresses down the side. Ferris wheel bucket-seats, also empty, and barely big enough to fit my finger tips, are at arm’s reach.
I can see my house from here, or one that looks like it, anyway. I see a castle, a sawtooth mill, train station, diner, a four-square, Queen Anne, a schoolhouse, skyscraper, and the U.S. Capitol.
But here there not be giants. Just average-size people admiring the expansive, larger-than-life collection of smaller-than-life American Folk Art buildings.
“We have, with one exception, all of the buildings of a an American community, all of the structures that America has built from pretty much the beginning until comparatively recently,” said Steven Burke, who seems at ease knowing his hobby has crossed over to a compulsion. “We even have a cat hospital. That’s pretty specific.”
More than 35 years ago, Burke walked into an antique store at Brightleaf Square in Durham with about $200 in his back pocket. He felt drawn to an architectural rendering of a building. He then felt a burning in his pocket, and bought the building for $165.
“I took it home happily, and found soon, that I was compelled by an architectural rendering — a three- dimensional building,” he said. “I began to wonder if there were more of them, and set off in that year on a course that’s now gone for 36 years, to find evermore of what we call American folk art buildings. To find them, to learn about them.”
There now are more than 1,300 of “them,” worked into and throughout Burke and his husband Randy Campbell’s home. The folk art buildings are both prominently featured and in the background. Houses make up the largest part of the collection, not including houses of worship, which make up almost one quarter of the total. None are doll houses or bird houses. Some were built for model trains of varying scales.
As a child, Burke’s family lived for four years in London. He soaked in the buildings around his family’s home, and made structures for his train set, mapping out routes of tracks over rugs.
Burke isn’t sure of why many of the buildings in his collection were made in the first place. The folk art buildings were made between mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. Were they summer projects? Something to do during the cold-winters? School extra credit? A want to memorialize places of significance?
“People had many long winter nights accompanied only by the radio or by their spouse,” Burke explained. “So they went and made a building.”
‘Rendered small,’ is the term he uses. “Different cultures have different takes or different histories of what they make, or what they value. Much of American folk culture, from imagery to techniques, came from German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, including much of our take on Christmas, for instance. The ascendancy of persons of German extraction in Pennsylvania has yielded that state’s remarkable heritage for folk art and certain kinds of expressions. The state that has probably by all evidence yielded the largest number of these structures is Pennsylvania,” he said.
Almost as boggling as the collection itself is the manner with which Burke has arranged the folk art buildings. It is no small achievement that one is still with ease able to move about their home. You do not wind through paths. It’s a good bet that Burke also has one of the area’s largest assemblages of columns and pedestals, which are used to display his buildings at varying heights. The groupings effectively create mountain-side communities, minus the mountains.
“A house so replete with objects becomes necessarily a design project,” Burke said. “The accommodation of varied objects with dimensionality seems soon to require attention to placement, how they fit, how more can be fit in. How they read against each other, how they fit with the columns or pedestals or stands on which they are placed. It all becomes a matter of jostling and envisioning and placing. It’s kind of a curatorial project.”
Burke’s attention to style and arrangement — Ferris wheels often receive the loftiest positioning because of how the shape plays against the white walls of the house — is helpful in keeping the collection from becoming visually overwhelming. A person is able to absorb the detail at levels.
That’s important, because the details, no matter how small, will snatch away your breath. Look at the skyscraper that stands a few feet tall, and be impressed with all of the windows. Look closer and notice some have curtains or blinds. The dry goods storefront has dress models in the window. Most of the buildings have exterior intricacies, but the churches went all in. Look through their doorways and windows at the pews, kneeling benches, and frescos. Burke has added or rewired the lighting in some of the buildings, creating a sort of skyline timeline.
Burke admits he is more the “crazed and passionate” collector, while Randy is more temperate. Even still, Randy’s interest in American folk art structures has grown, and the two sometimes travel to add to the collection. Many of the buildings are found in antique stores, at auctions, and on eBay. They have friends who are antique dealers who will send photos of potential additions.
With his collection now spilling from the couple’s home and into two smaller buildings, Burke has become more discerning in what makes the cut. There is less room for redundancy, and more consideration given to structures that are particularly neat, compelling and, preferably, small. Surprisingly, condition often is not a factor, as the buildings have been honored and maintained over time.
“We do a lot of gluing, however. Things just fall off. We don’t rebuild. We don’t repaint. But we will redo when needed,” Burke said.
Though they are destined to be upstaged by the three-dimensional folk art buildings, the artwork in Burke and Campbell’s home should not be overlooked. They are, of course, of buildings, some painted, drawn, some are architecture plans, each intentionally arranged.
Coming out of a time when people were unable to safely visit their favorite places and buildings — many of which are in some way represented in his collection, Burke is pleased with his surroundings. “Daily, whether normal or plagued, living in a place of visual delight is a help, a boon, and a wonder. We’re always glad to be here and enormously grateful for it.”
For more information about the collection of American folk art buildings, go to www.americanfolkartbuildings.org