A Grandfather’s Gift: A Dollhouse of Memories

Barrett Green, 3, reaches to touch the dollhouse her grandfather has been making since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Barbara Lassen

Keith Green was busier than most during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As one half of the Ciardullo Green team at Sotheby’s International Realty, he was kept occupied as people fled New York City for space and privacy on the East End. But Green was also busy building something very special: a dollhouse for his granddaughter.

And not just any dollhouse. There was no kit. No instructions. It didn’t come out of the window of a high-end shop. This is custom-made, one-of-a-kind just for the now 3-year-old Barrett Green. 

“COVID arrived as a big dark cloud over all of our lives,” Green remembers. “The opportunity to build a dollhouse for our granddaughter was my silver lining. I could never have carved out the time otherwise.” 

From his woodshop in his basement at the East Hampton home he shares with Ann Ciardullo, he reimagined it as a space to develop a miniature 1:12 replica of a home that was special to him and his family. “I spent 20 years of my life loving and restoring one of the most iconic homes in Connecticut,” he says of his family’s former colonial revival in Old Lyme. 

Keith Green built a dollhouse for his granddaughter from scratch, designing it to look just like the house he lovingly restored in Old Lyme, Connecticut.Barbara Lassen

“While I sold it 10 years ago, I carried the memories,” he says. “I carry all the architectural details in my mind and my heart.”

Now so do the 12 rooms of the dollhouse.

He incorporated facets of his old house, such as the secret room under the grand stairs, the crown-like dormer that centers over the bowed front porch and the iconic columns that hold up the copper roof, with rooms in their East Hampton house recognizable to Barrett. There’s “Ann’s laundry room,” her grandfather’s shop and the children’s playroom. An outdoor arbor next to the dollhouse even has a zinc-top table like the one at the East Hampton house. 

“For once in my life, time was on my side,” Green says of the abundance of time due to the COVID shutdown. “I could slowly scour the internet to find things that would thrill.”

Photos from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic show a work in progress.Courtesy of Keith Green

The dollhouse comprises items from at least 11 different countries. The cedar shingles and cedar clapboard — yes, they are actually cedar — came from Canada. Burgundy leather armchairs were custom-made in Italy.

A hand-painted mantle was shipped from France with “the most beautiful note from the artisan” who knew the story of the grandfather making the dollhouse for his granddaughter. “Every single word was spelled wrong, but it said that it gave her joy to work on this trompe-l’œil marble mantle,” Green says.

He had not only the patience to find each item, but also the patience to wait for them.

His favorite of all his purchases was material for which he waited six months to arrive from Germany: hand-made, true- to-scale, white subway tile for the kitchen, custom-made because they were so fragile they couldn’t be cut.

The dollhouse has 12 rooms, but can you find the secret one?Barbara Lassen

While he sourced material and furniture from around the world, fate would have it that his favorite source was, literally, in his own backyard.

“During our first summer of COVID when we were locked down, we were hit by lightning in our yard. It came through the ground and destroyed our electric gear. It destroyed our pump for our well and blew a hole in our house by an outdoor shower,” Green recalls. “It looked like Road Runner had run through the wall. The tree hit — it was devoid of any moisture, it had been baked by the lighting hit and was pure white and dry and light as a feather.”

The handmade kitchen appliances were branded “Lightning,” because an act of nature led to how they were made.Courtesy of Keith Green

Somewhat of a serial inventor who owns several patents, he milled a log in his shop and resolved to use it for all the intricate kitchen appliances he had planned.

The oven alone, with 137 pieces, took at least three weeks to complete, well over a month with painting. He rummaged through the drawers at Emporium True Value Hardware in Sag Harbor, where he found little parts to use. Along with the refrigerator and dishwasher, they all have doors that open and close and interior lights that work.

“They are real other than they can’t cook,” he says with a laugh. “It was so much fun to figure it out.”

They are branded. Instead of Viking, they are, fittingly, Lightning.

A very “Hamptons kitchen” Green designed it based on the many South Fork homes he’s seen.Barbara Lassen

The kitchen is amazingly realistic and high-end. “I’ve held up that picture to people and they’ve asked me where the house is?” he says.

Being an associate broker, Green has seen some pretty fantastic homes. The kitchen is “an amalgamation of my absolute favorite kitchens in the Hamptons,” he says. “That’s a Hamptons kitchen — the white subway tile, the Shaker cabinets, the free-floating wooden shelves displaying your favorite dishes, the white marble countertops and the stainless steel appliances. This is me taking all of my favorite Hamptons kitchens and saying, in a dollhouse, ‘You can dream it and you can think it and you can build it.’”

There is a lot of “junk that is made for junky dollhouses,” on the internet, Green says. “This is something else. It ended up being somewhere between dollhouse and art. Something to play with and a sculpture.”

Details in and out.Barbara Lassen

What he loves most of all is that he “sourced all these different countries but like life is a collection of stories, so is this dollhouse.”

The home begins with a grand foyer that has a miniature reproduction of a mid-century modernist painting Green inherited from his parents.

There are three bedrooms, one for Barrett, one for her brother Noah, and one for her parents. Green decided not to furnish two rooms — Barrett’s room and her parents’ room. “They will have the mother-daughter joy of going to the Tiny Doll House shop in New York and furnishing those rooms themselves,” he says.

But, there’s “a little bit of magic” built-in to Barrett’s room already; a ladder that goes up to a secret playroom that is hidden behind the roof.

The secret room revealed.Barbara Lassen

By the way, there are no bathrooms — “all of that is in your imagination,” Green jokes.

Fifteen years ago, he built a kit dollhouse for his now 18-year-old granddaughter, Zoey. He was living alone in SoHo then and he didn’t have any power tools. “I could only glue the kit together,” he says with a sigh. He learned from the experience — that one was too deep, so he “flattened” the one for Barrett, so that every room is visible from the front and every room is reachable to the back of the 5-foot wide by 3-foot tall dollhouse.

In fact, he used design features he noticed from the exterior of his “single favorite home in all of the Hamptons” on West End Avenue in East Hampton. “It’s the first majestic house you can see on the ocean — an incredibly flat house,” he says. “It’s wide and flat like this house.”

So far, he has spent more than 1,800 hours on the dollhouse. He estimates there’s another 500 hours of work to be done.

The dollhouse has all kinds of scaled LED lighting that is electrified, from under-counter lights to hanging lights.

Just a switch and the lights are on.Barbara Lassen

There are three pendant lights hanging down that if Barrett reaches in to open the fridge, she will destroy at this age. A crystal chandelier, imported from China, in the dining room is also delicate. He designed them to be extractable, so during the colder months he will build temporary replacement flush fixtures that will still light up.

In the year that Green has been working on the project, Barrett has grown, too. There was a time when all she could do was point at the windows. “Now she will stand there looking at it for literally hours on end,” he says. She will jump into his arms and peer into the rooms, describing each. “She’s not old enough to play with it, but she is old enough to know it’s hers,” he says, adding, she calls it, “My dollhouse.”

Green and his granddaughter, BarrettBarbara Lassen

The dollhouse will eventually be sent to Barrett’s family apartment in New York City, where it will live on a wheelbase suited for a child’s play level. The base will also hold seasonal accessories to dress the house up for the holidays and other memorabilia.

Other features include a scale reproduction of a television, made by embedding an iPhone in the wall of the dollhouse (her parents can control what’s on the “TV”). In his workshop in the dollhouse, there is even a work bench with a 1:144th scale dollhouse being built.

There is even a television.Barbara Lassen

As Barrett grows and the dollhouse is passed along to her children and even their children, there will always be a sign of “grandpa” toiling away on the special dollhouse.

The experience has left him with an even greater appreciation for craftspeople than he had before and “understanding how you can focus your time and attention and your heart on something you are building and get lost in it,” he says.

“Maybe I found myself in that dollhouse because it brought back so many memories of the house that I lived in for two decades,” he goes on. “I got to relive so many memories from that home that I wasn’t just building the details into the dollhouse but I was building the memories into it. If my granddaughter has that kind of experience with this it isn’t that she will pass on the dollhouse to her child, but the memories. And in the end, isn’t that what homes are all about? That we pass along memories?”

This article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Behind The Hedges. Click here to read the digital version.