Not Your Average Dollhouse

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Catherine Nofsinger has overcome obstacles and celebrated life while pursuing her remarkable passion. The Park Oak Grove is having a reception in her honor on Sunday.
Catherine Nofsinger has overcome obstacles and celebrated life while pursuing her remarkable passion. The Park Oak Grove is having a reception in her honor on Sunday.

by Cheryl Hodges

Back in 1983, then 56-year-old Catherine Nofsinger was hard at work on her burgeoning masterpiece—a detailed wooden rendition of “a Charleston mansion.” At the time she said in an interview for the Roanoke Times that she hoped it would be finished in about two years, when it would eventually find a fitting home in a museum.

After decades of work it is still not “quite done” according to Nofsinger, but other than perhaps a lack of paint which she plans to give it for a more finished look,  it seems awfully “done” to anyone else who is fortunate enough to see it.

 The sheer size (10 feet long  x 5 feet high), along with the intricate level of detail are mind-boggling, made even more so when considering that this tiny woman was able to put together such a formidable project. She says she modeled it after photos of Charleston style homes she found in magazines dating from the ‘50s.

Nofsinger is now 85 but looks, acts and clearly feels a good bit younger than that.  She is animated and energetic when she speaks, adding to her youthful impression. While her crowning project is plenty impressive, it turns out that central to her story is the fact that she was born deaf at a time when attitudes and opportunity were vastly different compared to those found today.

When Nofsinger was very small, a housekeeper suspected that the little girl in her care might not be hearing normally. The lady clapped behind her back and sure enough, there was no reaction from Nofsinger. In those days, according to Duane Nicholson, her niece, there weren’t a lot of expectations for a deaf child, and like others in their era, her parents did not know what to do for their young daughter. Fortunately for Nofsinger, her parents found out about The Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, MA. (Now Clark Schools for Hearing and Speech.)

Nofsinger was enrolled around age 10 and spent her school years there, away from home, where she learned to speak and read lips. In those days, the deaf were discouraged from using sign language.  When asked about signing, Nofsinger laughs, and holds up her right hand configured in a sign as she says, “This means ‘I love you’ and that’s about all I know [about signing] … they go too fast for me.”

The idea to work with wood came “from my neighbor, Mr. Thaxton” says Nofsinger, who grew up in South Roanoke on Brightwood. “He taught me how to saw wood.” According to Judy Bodley, who moved onto the same street 41 years ago, “Catherine and her mother welcomed all the neighborhood children into their home all the time – they all grew up knowing Catherine.”  Every Christmas Nofsinger would give a gift to each and every child in the neighborhood – a handcrafted wooden ornament.  Sister-in-law Grace Nofsinger said that as the years went by Catherine made as many as 100 each season so that every child in the neighborhood would have one.

The large doll house is her life’s work, but not her only work. She made several other doll houses and a miniature model of a home, which she gave as a gift to Grace Coolidge, (wife of President Coolidge) who Nofsinger knew from her Clarke School days. Mrs. Coolidge kept up with their friendship for years, sending letters and asking about her ongoing woodworking projects.

The bubbly Nofsinger thoroughly enjoys showing off the intricacies of her doll house, which includes 26 rooms and 10 different fireplaces, all of which are replicas of famous fireplaces, including one in the “East Room of the White House and the Raleigh Tavern fireplace,” she says.

The precision of her handiwork is evidence of her perfectionism; the little windows each open and close … The large perfectly constructed staircase at the entry way is made from “my father’s cigar boxes” and the front columns are “made out of coat rods.”

Nofsinger pictures the completed house in all its grandeur, painted white.  But then again, she laughs as she says “I hope to finish it maybe next year … or two more years … maybe 60 years!” She adds, “my doctor says it [working on the house] is good for my mind;” perhaps part of the charm is that her dollhouse is always going to be “almost done.”

Catherine Nofsinger now resides with her cat “Cookie” at Park Oak Grove (4920 Woodmar Drive SW), where there will be a reception in her honor on Sunday Oct. 9 from 2:30 – 4:00 p.m. Her dollhouse will be on display. Call 540.989.9501 for more information.