There’s something sticking its head out of a window in the blacksmith’s shop in the venerable Lit Bros. Enchanted Colonial Village display, but what that thing is is open to debate.
Dog? Rodent? Something from the Island of Dr. Moreau?
Virginia Frey, director of the American Treasure Tour Museum in Oaks, isn’t sure, and she’s in no hurry to label it. The more inexplicable, the better — the museum is known for featuring the “bizarre, eclectic, and unusual,” and the enchanted village, which once brought 500,000 to 700,000 people a year to Lit Bros.’ department store at Seventh and Market, couldn’t have found a better home.
We tracked down the village after a reader asked what happened to it. Diane Kuhl wrote in through Curious Philly, where readers ask our reporters to hunt down answers to their burning questions. “Where is the Colonial Village from Lit Bros. now?” Kuhl asked.
We found it in Oaks, where it’s being rebuilt. But it’s taken quite the route to get there.
The exhibit’s roundabout route to its new American Treasure Tour Museum address (One American Treasure Way, just off the Oaks exit of 422) started in the early 1960s when Lit Bros., looking to compete with other department stores on Market Street, decided to invest $1 million in a Christmas display.
In-house designer Thomas Comerford, working with a German company, came up with a block-long installation in the style of a colonial village — mini buildings that include a blacksmith, baker, matchmaker, toymaker, tailor, a family gathered for a feast.
The installation was an instant hit — drawing hundreds of thousands of folks every year. Interest in the exhibit outlasted Lit Bros., which closed in 1977. The village then went looking for a home — passed from the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent to Longwood Gardens and later to the Please Touch Museum.
Now, it’s found a permanent and perfect home in Oaks, where the enchanted village is in the hands of folks who appreciate and can handle its particular brand of enchantment.
For instance — the colonial village has dozens of “animated” figures. In this context, that simply means that they move, powered by electrical mechanisms. (Think: the animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese, just from a few decades earlier.) The American Treasure Tour Museum has a staff of technicians who are adept at repairing animated figures. The museum has hundreds on display — nearly all in working order.
“Our motto is there is always room for more,” Frey said. And they have the room: At 100,000 square feet, the museum is housed in a former B.F. Goodrich tire factory. There’s a mammoth Toy Room, and a Music Room section featuring a collection of antique music machines and nickelodeons in good working order.
The village will live in the Toy Room. Reconstruction of the village is about halfway done, but will be finished soon, and completed portions are already part of the museum’s tour.
The museum’s skilled repair staff knows how to deal with a challenge like the 60-year-old village, which arrived in pieces on a tractor-trailer — without an instruction manual. Workers say they were lucky to find the village pieces marked with what sound and lighting technician Bruce Gill called “craftsman hieroglyphics” — symbols that match and line up so one panel can be correctly aligned to another.
Whereas other museums viewed the enchanted village as a temporary holiday display, the museum plans to make it a year-round feature, right at home amid the thousands of antique toys and vintage holiday decorations that comprise the Toy Room.
“It’s always Christmas here,” Frey said. Toys rule here. Standing sentry outside the enchanted village, for instance, is a giant Gumby. Snaking through a nearby hallway is what Frey says is the world’s longest Slinky.
Other curiosities include a model building constructed of 396,000 Popsicle sticks. Interspersed among the toys and other artifacts are antique and vintage cars — the museum actually started as a car collection, and broadened to include kitsch and collectibles of all shapes and sizes and … moods.
There is a display of unblinking Victorian dolls that is either charming or the set for the next Annabelle horror movie. In either case, the enchanted (possessed?) village fits right in, and the dog (or rat) is among friends.
“People just know to call us,” said Frey, strolling through the collection of staring figurines.
Are their eyes following us?
“I work here,” she said, “and I don’t like being here at night.”