Diminutive Dwellings

W. Steven Burke ’70 reflects on the mysterious allure of American Folk Art buildings.
July 22, 2014

From the outside, W. Steven Burke’s elegantly understated Greek Revival home and adjoining buildings—all designed by him—in the heart of the historic district in Hillsborough, North Carolina, offer no hint at the worlds and wonders inside. But cross the threshold and suddenly you’re surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of small buildings that occupy nearly every surface.

It takes time to absorb it all. There are dozens of churches on display, from exquisitely detailed renditions of historic cathedrals to rudimentary interpretations of rural sanctuaries. There are rustic bungalows and train stations, department stores and government buildings, diners and hipped-roof garages, movie theaters and power plants, a circus tent and a bowling alley. Replications include Grant’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Empire State Building. Materials range from cigar boxes, wooden crates, and discarded cans to lace, dried macaroni, and even—in the case of Thomas Edison’s childhood home— postage stamps. Many are illuminated from within; some feature interiors replete with imaginative small renderings of murals, pews, and pipe organs.

Burke’s first acquisition was serendipitous, a downsized red barn bought from an antiques shop with his tax refund in 1985. A few months later, another scaled-down building caught his eye. “I began to wonder whether there were more of these buildings, who made them, and why they were made,” says Burke. “Sometimes a dealer would know the answer, but more often than not, the history of a building was unknown.”

Nearly three decades later, Burke and his partner, Randy Campbell, have amassed 1,200 structures. In the process, Burke has become an expert in what he calls American Folk Art buildings, dating from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-1950s. An architectural buff, Burke points out a Beaux Art detail here, a Deco Nouveau influence there.

“These buildings evoke so many questions and invite multiple interpretations,” says Burke. “In total, they represent a remarkably unexplored area of American architectural and material culture.”