Masterpieces in Miniature in downtown Gresham
Jeremy Buck's grandfather taught him to always look up when he first walks into a building.
His grandfather, Bruce Plumb, had an eye for what most missed. While others look at their feet or are distracted by what was in front of them, Bruce would peer up, down and all around.
"He would find all the little details of a place," said Jeremy, with CCB Insurance Services and works in the Gresham area.
That curious eye helped Bruce create incredibly intricate miniatures during his life — many of which are now on display in Gresham. In total he made 20 pieces — from a cathedral with forced perspective so it appears much larger on the inside to a room built for a king with glowing chandeliers.
"It was a hobby he loved to do," said his wife, Mary Helen Plumb.
Bruce, who died in 2014, made his miniatures in his workshop — a 24 by 24-square-foot garage that he shared with a car. Before he began any new project, Bruce would spend months planning. He would come up with ideas in his head and draw sketches for about half a year before starting on a room.
Calling his pieces miniatures is disingenuous. All of the works are massive and filled with rooms of furniture, working mechanics, and hidden secrets. The centerpiece of Bruce's miniatures, and his first, was a mansion he began building in 1978.
The Mansion is 4 and a half feet wide, 5 feet deep and more than 5 feet tall. It has 28 different rooms, 650 working lights, and was made with 21 different kinds of natural wood. The house weighs 700 pounds and comes apart in four main pieces. During shows, Bruce loved to joke around with the young girls drawn to his creation. He would tell them if they could pick up the Mansion, they could take it home.
"It was never to make money, he loved meeting with people at shows and bringing people together," Mary Helen said.
The Mansion, and eight of Bruce's other constructions, made their way east from the Plumb home in Portland thanks to a conversation at a Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce gathering. Jeremy spoke with the ownership of Hue Architecture & Design, located in the heart of downtown Gresham, who were excited to showcase several of the pieces in their office at 20 N.W. Third Street.
"Looking at the pieces you realize how much detail went into everything," said Erika Dehle, the director of interior design who helped facilitate the displays.
Many of the pieces had been stored the Plumb family's Portland home, and several were gathering dust in the attic and basement. So the family packed them into boxes to transport them to Gresham. The Mansion requires 10 boxes to transport, while the Cathedral could only get into Hue after they removed the door from its frame.
"Hue was instrumental to bringing the pieces out to Gresham," Jeremy said. "They have been a huge help in this process."
And while the designers at Hue loved showcasing Bruce's work, the collection has been moved to a new location in downtown. They will be on display at the Gresham History Museum, 410 N. Main Ave., through November.
"They deserve to be seen," said Kelly Buck, Bruce's daughter.
Life in miniature
Bruce's first foray into working with miniatures began with a request from his wife.
Mary Helen was helping gather items for a bazaar fundraiser, and she wanted her husband to make something they could sell. So Bruce bought a doll house kit and put it together.
"He said, 'This is a piece of junk, I could do better,'" Mary Helen said.
The couple learned about a miniature show in Portland, which they visited so Bruce could explore his burgeoning passion.
"He looked at all the exhibits — most were pretty standard," Mary Helen said.
During the event Bruce purchased a miniature chair kit. After he finished the kit, he constructed his own chair from scratch.
"Looking at the two of them, I couldn't tell which had come from the kit," Mary Helen said.
Bruce had enjoyed a full life before he dove into constructing miniatures. Most of his career was as a brick mason, spending the last years of employment as a plant supervisor. He and Mary Helen had five children and many grandchildren, but the house was empty as the kids grew up and he wanted a hobby to occupy his time.
"After we visited the miniature show, and he made those chairs, he said "I'm going to do something big,'" Mary Helen said.
That is when Bruce began working on the Mansion. The piece is an amalgamation of different sources of architectural inspiration, from the Winchester House in California to his own home in Portland where the family has lived for 60 years. The Mansion took him 20 years to complete. The first decade Bruce was still working, so he would dedicate his time on the weekends.
"He was fascinated by old castles and churches," Mary Helen said. "Other designs he figured out for himself. He never stopped working on one until it was done to his satisfaction."
The mechanical systems are intricate. In the Mansion there are lights in every room, fans that spin, and smoke that comes out the chimney. In one room there is a television that once picked up a signal — now it just shows static. In a tower on the corner is a working elevator.
Every room is unique in the Mansion, and people often discover new details in the intricate rooms. One has a bar filled with bottles, and a poker table with cards midgame. There is a pool on the roof and suits of armor in the main entryway. The stained glass windows were all done by Bruce — another skill he picked up.
In one room of the Mansion is a chest of drawers tucked up against one of the windows. Despite no one being able to see it from the outside, Bruce built it so each of the drawers can slide in and out.
Secrets aren't unique to the Mansion. All of Bruce's work had hidden sections. Each time you peer into them you discover new details. Even his daughter Kelly still finds new things to marvel at despite being around the pieces for more than 40 years.
"I just realized there was a picture on that shelf," she said as she bent down to peer into the Throne Room miniature.
Jeremy made a discovery of his own during the recent Gresham Arts Festival this summer. As visitors stopped into Hue during the festivities, he noticed a strange way the light was hitting the side of the Throne Room. He knew his grandfather wouldn't make a mistake by not having the wall flush, so Jeremy was worried the piece had been damaged.
Instead, he discovered a secret control panel no one in the family knew about. In all of the pieces, there are panels that reveal switches for the lights and other mechanical systems. The Throne Room panel controlled a CD player which plays sounds of a thunderstorm, and another button makes the lights flicker throughout the model.
When the miniatures first came to Gresham, Kelly watched one man approach the Cathedral.
"He stopped dead in front of the Cathedral and marveled at the perspective," she said. "People are always amazed to see the work."
For his family
Much of Bruce's work is filled with miniature pieces inspired by his family.
It can be seen in the family crest he created for the Plumbs, which is all over his miniatures. The king and queen represent him and Mary Helen, five stars for their children and 13 hearts represent his grandchildren. Since he designed it, more grandkids and great grandkids have arrived, so he put initials, flags and other signifiers throughout his pieces for his loved ones.
"Family is integrated in so many of these things," Jeremy said. "In one tower is our family history in stained glass."
Family also picked up on his hobby. Through the years Mary Helen designed different pieces of furniture adorning the miniatures. The first she made was a clay pumpkin, and she later crafted rugs, cushions, chandeliers and many other things. The family also joined a miniature club, where they all made structures as part of a beach town and a 12 by 12-foot wall of rooms.
"Most everything we did was family oriented," Mary Helen said. "He was an interesting man, I miss him terribly."
When Bruce was working on the Mansion, people would always ask him what he was going to do with it. Sometimes he would joke he was going to "burn it" just to see their reaction.
"I suppose it will end up in a museum but I guess it will be up to my kids," Bruce wrote.
In early September, Jeremy helped lug the heavy boxes of miniatures from Hue down the block to the Gresham History Museum to display his grandfather's work.
Despite the heavy load, he looked up when he first walked in.
If you go:
Investigate Bruce Plumb's amazing miniatures while they are on display at the Gresham History Museum. Perhaps you will discover a secret that has been forgotten by the family.
The show will be at the museum, 410 N. Main Ave., through the end of November.
Miniatures in Show
Another of Bruce Plumb's creations will make its way to Clackamas for an annual Miniature Show as part of 50 exhibits to explore.
Mary Helen Plumb is taking the miniature Bruce made for their 50th wedding anniversary down to the show. Covering the walls of the piece are pictures and designs tracking their lives. In total, there will be more than 32 dealers selling almost anything you can imagine in miniature. Events like this is where Bruce bought the furniture and decorations he didn't craft by hand.
The event begins at 10 a.m. and takes place Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6, at the Monarch Hotel & Conference Center, 12566 S.E. 93rd Ave. It is $7 to attend, with children under 12 free of charge.
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