- Associated Press - Monday, January 4, 2016

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) - Every dollhouse that finds its way to restorer Joe Balsanek has a story.

There was one from the Chicago area that was damaged by a dripping water pipe while its owner was in Florida for the winter.

And the one from Excelsior that almost ended up in the trash, but instead received a $10,000 restoration.

Then there was the dollhouse salvaged at a garage sale - the one that pulled Balsanek, a Hastings City Council member and a former theater set designer, away from his full-time retirement.

“My daughter called me and said she had found a beat-up dollhouse for $20,” Balsanek told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1SjApxT). “She said, ‘You think you could do something with it?’ So I restored it for my granddaughter over two years. And that’s how I got started doing this.”

That was eight years ago. Since then, Balsanek has become the go-to guy for dollhouse owners who want their partially finished dollhouses completed or old dollhouses rehabbed.

“The emotional attachment that comes with these things - it fuels me,” said Balsanek, who also builds the miniature houses from scratch. “It fuels my creative process.”

He does his work in the back of the Carousel, a boutique in downtown Hastings where his wife of 46 years, Betsy, works the front counter in exchange for his use of the space rent free.

With classical music in the background, Balsanek hovered over a work table one afternoon in December, measuring tiny window sashes pulled off his current project - a 1935 colonial-style dollhouse with a front portico outside and a double staircase inside.

“With this one, we’re going to be wallpapering and repainting the walls and putting in new hardwood floors - the whole nine yards,” said Balsanek, 69.

“It’s going to cost around $2,500, and that’s kind of the low end of the things that I do.”

His shop’s shelves are crowded with bottles of glue and acrylic paint, tiny tools and a 3-inch table saw.

There’s also a stack of city council meeting minutes and agenda packets.

Organized in drawers of a plastic storage container and a Craftsman tool chest are dollhouse-size door hinges, rounded push pins that double as door handles and the Popsicle sticks he uses in a pinch as window trim.

Wearing an apron spotted with paint, Balsanek opened the front of the dollhouse and marveled at its workmanship.

“This was built with great care and dexterity,” he said, adding that his goal always is to save the original parts whenever possible.

“When you look at this and consider what tools were available back in the ‘30s, it’s just an amazing piece of work.”

Balsanek’s resume as a set designer includes creating more than 100 designs for theater productions at the Guthrie Theater and Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis.

He has designed theater sets for several east metro Twin Cities high schools, Hamline University in St. Paul and Inver Hills Community College, where he worked as a theater and speech professor from 1978 to 2000.

When Balsanek retired, he focused on other hobbies - playing golf in the summer (he has six holes-in-one) and bowling in the winter. For many years, he has been involved with the Hastings American Legion, where he is now the commander.

“I said that I wasn’t going to do anything for five years. Of course, that’s when the phone began ringing off the hook with people wanting me to work,” he said. “But I was tired.”

Balsanek fell into his dollhouse hobby by accident.

While working on his granddaughter’s dollhouse, he frequently stopped for supplies at the now-closed Little Enchantments hobby store in South Minneapolis. During one such visit, the owner asked what he was up to.

When Balsanek told her, she replied that she had customers in need of a craftsman with exactly his kind of skills.

Despite his plans to take it easy in his retirement years, Balsanek said, the thought of working on dollhouses intrigued him so much that he slowly began taking on rehab work referred by Little Enchantments.

“I had no idea this was going to show up … none whatsoever,” he said of working with dollhouses. “But it’s part of my creative process, and it still kind of keeps me sharp.”

He averages about two or three rehabs a year; his output depends on the size and condition of the dollhouses. He doesn’t tell his customers when they can expect him to finish his work.

“I don’t rush the job, because when you’re working with minute stuff like this you have to take your time,” Balsanek said. “You cannot mass assemble and cut a whole bunch of pieces and hope that they all go together - because they won’t.”

Houses built from scratch cost an average of about $5,000, depending on the size.

“I actually like the rehabs better because it’s more creative,” he said. “If I’m building it from scratch, you have the windows and they are all the same. Like this one here, each window is different, and I kind of like that. I like the challenge and I like the creativity.”

Lynn Klein of Excelsior brought her Victorian-style dollhouse to Balsanek in 2012 after she said another restorer spent six years working on it and charged too much - with little results.

She said her husband, Jim, was so frustrated that he retrieved the dollhouse and wanted to trash it.

“Luckily, we heard of Joe,” Klein said. “He put in hardwood floors, ceramic tile and molding and wallpaper, and built a turret with a copper dome. He brought it to the top of what I imagined what it could look like. He’s a true artist.”

For Balsanek, the hardest part of working on the houses is letting them go.

“You don’t see them again after that,” he said. “But the owners have them, and they’re having a good time and can keep their memories. And I have my memories with them, too.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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