THE DOLL HOUSE
Inside New York's weirdest ER.
WORDS BY PATRICIA VALICENTI/SARDINE FEATURES PHOTOGRAPHY BY FRANCIS APESTEGUY/SARDINE FEATURES
Limbs, missing heads, ruptured insides—one small clinic has to deal with all these injuries on a daily basis. It's not ER though, this is The New York Doll Hospital.
"Clinical," the man in the white coat says as he answers the telephone. "Yes, we received her. She had one fractured leg and one fractured arm, but we gave her an injection and she's out of pain now. Oh, and by the way, that box you sent her in wasn't good enough..." Irving Chais, one of New York City's leading doll doctors, consoles the family of a newly arrived patient.
The New York Doll Hospital has been caring for injured and ill dolls and stuffed animals from around the world since 1900. Today, patients are brought by their friends, family or postman Bob up to the first floor of the Lexington Avenue walk- up building to see Irving Chais, the third generation of Chais doll doctors to operate at the hospital.
A huge, slightly macabre pile of dolls used for their parts greets visitors as they enter. Dismembered legs, arms and torsos abound. A wall is lined with shelves stacked high with decapitated heads, and an array of curiously labeled boxes lines the back room—antique bodies, German limbs, French bodies, plastic heads, French eyes, German eye balls—all parts for all kinds of dolls.
Chais' assistant, "doctor" Luis Casas, digs through myriad boxes and plastic bags filled with tiny shoes looking for the perfect fit for his patient. Meanwhile, Irving hoists a Shirley Temple doll the height and weight of a six-year-old girl, covered by mounds of curls, into a six-year-old-girl sized box, ready for Bob the postman to pick up on his morning round. Refreshed and restored, she is being shipped home.
"We've never lost a patient," quips Irving, the 78-year-old grandson of the hospital's founder, George Chais, who emigrated from Germany to New York City where he started a beauty spa. The coiffures of the day demanded hours of work, as well as whole afternoons spent beneath gas-operated dryers. The customers would bring in their daughters, who would bring in their dolls to play with during the lengthy beauty treatments, and soon the dolls were being taken care of, too. Mr Chais started ordering tiny wigs from Germany and then began fixing arms and legs. By 1900, the beauty parlor was seeing to more dolls than human clients and became the New York Doll Hospital. Business has been booming ever since.
Irving picks some patients up out of their boxes and shows them to a visitor. "This one came in without a head, so we put a head on it. This one came in without a nose, so we did the nose. Dolls come apart," he explains. It seems that Irving has been performing surgery since he was a child. "My father showed me different ways of fixing dolls when I was in grade school," he says.
Just like in a real hospital, anxious family and friends call regularly for progress reports on the patients. Recently recovered patients wait in boxes, which are donated by local shoe stores on Lexington Avenue, to be given the all-clear and sent home.
'' Just like in a real hospital, anxious family and friends call regularly for progress reports on the patients.''
"You have to know how to do everything," says Irving as he takes two Madame Alexander dolls out of a box.
"I think this one needs a new wig," assesses Casas, who hails from Bogotá, Columbia, where he worked in a doll factory and founded and still owns the Bogotá Doll Hospital, the Cliniquo des Monecas.
"Just cheeks, the client wants just the cheeks," says Irving, who counts among regular customers a number of professional collectors, as well as people who have become attached to dolls often kept since childhood for sentimental reasons.
Rather than pulling up in an ambulance, many of the patients arrive by post, most often accompanied by a handwritten letter explaining the problem and asking for an estimate. Irving systematically reads the letters out loud and then he or Luis notes down the approximate cost.
While re-stringing and re-wigging are more or less run of the mill, every "injury" is different, and each case needs individual, often lengthy and painstaking attention.
Take the case of the Chinese theater doll with bound feet whose porcelain head had been broken into eight pieces. After putting the head back together, Irving put a wire in it to affix it more securely to the body. Now, he is working on the cosmetics, slowly buffing the clay face. "You have to do this gradually, otherwise you fracture the face," he explains. After buffing, he will paint the black lacquer on the Chinese doll's head.
"Lacquer dries too fast, so you have to really know how to work with it. But it's better than acrylic, which will chip off," he says. He recalls in great detail what was probably his most difficult case:
"It was a doll a woman sent to me from Virginia. It had an antique body that dated from about 1875 and was made from papier-mâché. I went over the surface, and it started to fall apart; it was dried up. She wanted me to repaint the body so she gave me a sample of the color she wanted. She asked me to make the body solid, because a very big, heavy head was to go on it. I told her I could replace the body and she said, 'No, I want that same body, it's a very rare antique. I'll pay any price.' So a week goes by and I'm thinking, 'How am I going to strengthen it so she can put the head on it?' But a couple of days later, I'm taking a shower before going to bed, and I say, 'I've just solved it!'
"I sawed every part in half; the body, the arms, the legs. Then I lined the inside with liquid slow-drying epoxy, and with a brush I lined the inside of all the parts and let them dry. Then I cemented the parts together making two halves a whole, and lined the outside with epoxy. Then I let it dry for 24 hours before I started sanding it down, grinding it seven or eight times to give it a smooth finish. I repainted it with about six coats of primer and strung it together with heavy elastic. I sent it to her and she put the head on. I got a call a couple of days later. 'Is that my original doll?' she asked. 'You know you are a miracle worker.' After that she sent me a box of candy with flowers."
Luis is getting ready to perform some eye surgery when the phone rings.
"No, this isn't New York Hospital, this is the New York Doll Hospital." <Pause> "Yes, I'm perfectly serious. But I'm sorry we can't take you, this is the New York Doll Hospital."
"Oh, every week, people make the same mistake and call thinking we're New York Hospital," explains Casas, who is getting ready to pop a pair of worn-out eyes out of a Chrissie doll.
Irving and Luis do get some "malpractice" cases in. The most common are dolls that someone who didn't know what they were doing tried to re-string. Another favorite home remedy seems to be using cement to put a doll's head back on; the problem is that the head won't turn once the cement dries.
"A woman brought in a head that had to be repainted and reworked. It dated from the Revolutionary War. One of her ancestors who had been with the northern army found it and brought it back with him. The paint was worn off and the eyes had been lost. It had molded hair so we had to open it up and put big glass eyes from that period back into it," recalls Irving. "It was a lot of work taking six months, but once it was finished it was beautiful. At that time it was my two sisters [since deceased] and myself working here. The three of us did everything. Most of it is common sense. Doll surgery is not a dying trade. It's a dead art."
New York Doll Hospital Inc
787 Lexington Ave., New York 212-838-7527