The Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania offers a variety of different art forms for visitors to enjoy. There are portraits and landscapes and sparkling china and silver and the famous Bohemian glass on exhibit. The museum is also known for its collection of Pennsylvania German textiles and furniture. One of the most popular items in the museum is the E. J. Prime dollhouse and what many consider one of the “best collections of dollhouses in the country”.
The Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts is overseen by the Historic Bethlehem Partnership which is a not for profit organization dedicated to providing the public with an opportunity to learn about Bethlehem’s historical heritage through the preservation of historical sites, and objects.
The Elizabeth Johnston Prime Dollhouse Collection is an important historical legacy for
the museum. Elizabeth who grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania got her first dollhouse at age seven in 1935. Her interest in doll houses and miniatures became a lifelong passion, in particular dollhouses of the Victorian era. Her very first dollhouse from 1935 is part of the dollhouse exhibit at the Museum in addition to several others from her collection. The exhibit is known as the Elizabeth Johnston Prime: The Dollhouse and Toy Collection and is on permanent display at the Museum.
Elizabeth Prime was a social worker who loved children but did not have any of her own. She reportedly collected dollhouses for a variety of reasons including that she felt they were works of art and that doll houses were a way to preserve the cultural history of the world. Elizabeth also liked that the dollhouses she collected made children happy.
Her collection of miniature homes have been featured in several books on dollhouses including those by Oliva Bristol who is a dollhouse buyer for Christie’s in the United Kingdom. Elizabeth was very particular about the dollhouses she purchased and she looked for miniatures that had great detail and were in as mint condition as possible. According to her friends she had a really good eye for one of kind dollhouses that were also works of art. Though not an artist herself, Elizabeth felt that in restoring and preserving her dollhouse collection she was using her creative skills.
One of the dollhouses in the Prime collection is an antique German house from Cologne. The house which looks like a Bavarian villa features silver candlesticks and original art work depicting Catholic saints. There is also a large outdoor veranda on the home complete with dolls that Prime added taking in the sunshine. Another house in the collection is an English townhouse from 1895 that was created by toy company owned by George and Joseph Lines in England. The house is an elaborate miniature that depicts life in the 1800’s in the homes of the well to do in England. The townhouse has a family of well dressed dolls and several servants in colorful livery.
Currently the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts is undergoing a $2.5 million renovation and the building a new 5,000 square foot addition. The project is due to be complete this summer. The project includes providing temperature controlled storage for the textiles and other fragile collection pieces. Also to be included in the new building will a collection of 44 building miniatures that were donated by Elizabeth Johnston Prime. The new dollhouse exhibit will provide visitors with an overview of architecture and design in miniature spanning more than 150 years.