You're first struck by those beautiful wood doors, 18 feet tall, with a giant handle far too high to reach.
You can't enter the Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures through the fairy door, either. It's the size of a vertical mail slot. It's for fairies.
"We have a resident fairy" at the museum, said Pat Arnell, who opened the museum's 4455 E. Camp Lowell Drive doors – the human scale doors – to the public on Tuesday.
Behind fanciful doors is a large world of small things within Tucson's newest attraction. The Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is a collection of more than 150 miniature houses, of all eras, places, sizes and styles from across the world. There are another 50 or so "room boxes," a full Christmas village underfoot and under glass, and rooms of beautifully preserved pieces, all finished in implausible detail.
In The Hatchling Apprentice, a room box, you'll see a fish tank, with its coral and exotic blue inhabitants, the entire thing maybe three inches long. Look closely in another miniature house, and the precisely turned salt and pepper shakers on the table might be a quarter-inch tall. Over there is pair after pair of miniature shoes, too small for even a newborn. The Hares and Bears rooms are created in the half shells of a walnut. In The Butcher Shop, crafted by Ron and April Gill inside an old dental sterilizer, the detail is exact right down to the rust running from the faucet on the tin back splash of a work sink.
"My favorite piece is usually something I'm working on," Arnell said. "It's like your children, you can't play favorites."
The workmanship, the invention and the patience of artisans draw gasps from guests. "Oh my gosh!" exclaimed one viewer, examining a three-story, three-foot house built nearly 100 years ago in Malden, Mass., out of walnut cigar boxes.
It's a big museum – 15,560 square feet – filled with the tiniest of things, most of them the possessions of Arnell, who built the museum with husband Walter to house her considerable collection. Pat walked about the museum Thursday, directing people, and telling part of the story.
"I always liked little things," Arnell explained. "I had all my original doll house furniture, but I didn't have the house." When the Arnells moved to Tucson in 1976, she discovered room boxes, and played with them, "and then I discovered a house" for her Strombecker wooden dollhouse furniture. A hobby was born.
"I'm just a kid who never grew up," Pat quips. Today, she owns enough miniature houses to fill a museum, collected from auctions or in shops or by commission.
Previously, the collection was displayed in a separate building on the Camp Lowell property. "We had groups come through by appointment," some enjoying it so much they returned every year to study the wonder.
"I just decided … so many people, as they get on in years, have these beautiful collections they've spent years forming, and they don't know what's going to become of them," she said.
So, 3-1/2 years ago, the Arnells set about the project of building a museum.
"There are several miniature museums in the country," Pat said. "Miniature museums, for some reason, go into Victorian houses. You don't have the adaptability and leeway you have when you start from the ground up. This is the only miniature museum built from scratch."
And built it is.
Swaim Associates Architects designed the structure. Those doors represent "forced perspective," getting the visitor into the dimension of miniatures. Tucson firm Lloyd Construction Company carried out the construction work.
Detailed, beautiful work deserves thoughtful, even painstaking presentation, and the interpretation done by Claro Creative Services gets each story to the letter. "Miniatures: A Little History" reads one typically puny, informative sign, and there are many others, all clever while expanding the displays.
The museum has three main areas – the Enchanted Realm, History and Antiques (with one of the oldest miniature houses in the U.S., circa 1775) and Exploring the World, with pieces from all over Europe, Japan, Thailand and beyond.
The Arnells are hopeful the Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures can be "an interactive space where the entertaining and educational aspects of the collection could be enjoyed by everyone – a place that would be enchanting, magical and provide a rich, sensory experience."
People came from all over the country to a private reception last week. They are members of the Tucson Miniature Society, and the National Association of Miniatures Enthusiasts, or NAME, and the International Guild of Miniature Artisans, or IGMA. They were impressed. Arnell, too, loves the result.
"It turned out much better than I anticipated," she said, watching for the resident fairy.
A grand opening is planned for Oct. 3.
The Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures
Opening Sept. 1
4455 E. Camp Lowell, Tucson
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission -- $7 general admission, senior / military $6, youth $5, children under 3 free. Group rates available.