Expressions of daily faith life in miniature

By Joyce Duriga
Sunday, December 11, 2016

Expressions of daily faith life in miniature

The New Mexico dining room shows that the occupants would have had a traditional devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe with the statue on the mantel. (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
California Living Room, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
French Hall Louis XII, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
French Bedroom, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
Left, the French Provincial bedroom features a crucifix, kneeler, rosary, Mary statue and Mary icon. (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
This English gothic church is dedicated to Mary and includes such details as cushions on the kneelers and a cloth covering the tabernacle. (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
Mrs. James Ward Thorne (photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

One of the most popular exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago — the Thorne Miniature Rooms — offers visitors a glimpse into how people decorated their homes during different eras and in different countries. But if visitors take a close look at the decorations of some of the rooms, they see traditional items that would lead one to believe that those particular rooms would have been occupied by Catholics.

Take for instance the French Provincial bedroom, where there is a crucifix, a kneeler, a rosary, two statues of the Virgin Mary and one oval shaped Marian icon. There’s also the New Mexico dining room with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the mantel and a small shrine hung on the wall.

The prominent wealthy Chicago woman who designed the rooms — Mrs. James Ward Thorne — was herself a faith-filled Episcopalian but she selected all the decorations for the rooms, according to caretaker Lindsay Mican Morgan.

“It would have been her picking these various specific objects out herself,” she said.

The rooms with Catholic accents are based on cultures that were historically Catholic, such as France and the American Southwest.

Mrs. Thorne designed the 68 rooms in the 1930s with artisans she hired. Many of the rooms are not much bigger than a large shoebox, and all except for the French chapel are designed on a 1-inch to 1-foot scale. The work was meticulously done. For example, many of the books and newspapers have actual print that can be read under a magnifying glass, and the tapestries were all made by hand.

This time of year, some of the rooms are decorated for Christmas or Hanukkah. The New Mexico dining room gets decked out for a celebration of las posadas.

“That one’s really fun, all kinds of paper garland and a pine nut type of dessert. And more recognizable things like tamales and cookies. But that was a really fun one to research because there are things that are very recognizable,” Mican Morgan said. “We try to be honest to the rooms.”

Many of the items Mrs. Thorne found in European antique shops. She also hired artisans to craft things for her rooms.

“She was hiring really amazing artists,” Mican Morgan said.

Not everything is historically accurate, and that wasn’t Mrs. Thorne’s intent.

“Sometimes these things weren’t known when she was replicating and sometimes it was just something she missed or an element she really liked but she didn’t realize wasn’t original to the space,” she said. “I think it’s just the honest perception of someone in the 1930s looking back on time.”

While the Thorne Rooms have been widely featured in television and print media, the history of Mrs. Thorne’s charity work often goes underreported, the caretaker said.

“Every time she showed these rooms she was not making money. Quite the opposite. She spent so much money making these rooms, but every time she showed them there would be an ask for 5 cents or 10 cents and that all would go to charity, usually the children’s hospital or a program called the Women’s Exchange.”

Mrs. Thorne often used her position as one of Chicago’s most popular socialites for the betterment of others.

“I think it is really important to recognize how important charity was to her,” Mican Morgan said.

Over the years the Thorne Rooms have continued to captivate visitors to the museum.

“The scale is a huge thing. It’s a major reason why they work the way they do on people. You can see everything all at once. There’s a sense of power you have over them, which doesn’t happen when you go to a historic house museum or a period room at a museum,” Mican Morgan said.

“When it’s scaled down and you can overpower it in a way, I think people let themselves imagine themselves interacting in the space more. It’s all about imagination and it’s very inviting to people to be able to have that sense of play.”

There’s a sense that people could pick the items up in their hands.

“It’s really inviting for imagination and feeling like you can really appreciate the designs and the craftsmanship,” she said. “People will say, ‘This one’s my favorite.’ Or ‘I’d love to sleep in this bed.’”


  • thorne miniature rooms
  • art institue of chicago
  • mrs. james ward thorne

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