This American Life
Steven Burke’s and Randy Campbell’s astounding collection
of American folk art buildings
By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by John Gessner
For three decades Hillsborough’s Steven Burke and Randy Campbell have quietly been assembling what’s probably the largest collection of American folk art buildings in the United States — and maybe the world.
“Some would say our fascination lies somewhere between obsession and psychosis,” says Burke, whose sense of humor is as dry as a good martini. Campbell nods in agreement, a wry smile crossing his lips.
A Tennessee native, Campbell went to college in northern Alabama. He worked at a bank in Alabama before moving to Durham, where he managed accounting for The Regulator Bookshop and later for the UNC’s biology department. Now retired, he keeps his hand in the business by working two days a week at Purple Crow Books, Hillsborough’s iconic bookstore.
Burke is the son of a U.S. Army officer with diplomatic postings, and spent many years in London. He first came to the Old North State as a Duke University student and later worked for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. His serious collecting began in 1985, when he spent every penny of his $187 tax refund in a Brightleaf Square antiques shop in Durham.
The three of us are having coffee in a sunny room in their five-building, Greek Revival compound called “It Had Wings,” eponymous with the short story by writer and neighbor Allan Gurganus. The compound was designed by Burke and Campbell after they purchased a vine- and poison ivy-infested piece of property in downtown Hillsborough in 1991. Construction of the house wasn’t completed until 1994. Additional structures were built as the years passed.
“We felt it was so unusual to find a vacant lot in an historic district, so we wanted to be very careful in what we designed,” Burke says.
While it is their residence, “It Had Wings” is also home to their American folk art buildings collection, an assembly of 1,200 small-scale houses, churches and structures created by various craftsmen. Some of the structures are on display where we’re drinking our coffee. They feel just as much a part of the room as the table where we’re sitting, or the comfortable-looking chair in the corner, or the bookshelves and framed prints on the walls.
That makes sense, given that Burke envisioned the collection as an organic part of his and Campbell’s “American places,” comprising three elements.
First, the Greek Revival house and additional buildings on the property are historical in design, though new in construction. Second, the prints and architectural pieces displayed on the walls represent Burke and Campbell’s deep interest in 19th-century American architecture. Third, the American folk art buildings collection itself is incorporated into Burke and Campbell’s house, while two structures — the “Alden Pavilion” and “Fitzgerald Building,” named in honor of the two men’s families — were built to keep pieces as the collection grew beyond what the living space could reasonably hold.
Burke leads me down the hall and through the house, room by room. The hallway and rooms are packed with a mind-boggling array of churches, state capitols, skyscrapers, an ice rink, gas stations, windmills, factories, medieval castles, a zoo, schoolhouses, theaters, oil derricks, office buildings, carousels, lighthouses, garages, Ferris wheels, diners, a bowling alley, barber shops, drug stores and shoe repair shops. Iron furnaces. A row of store fronts. A greenhouse. Factory buildings. A brewery. A flour mill.
Some are remarkably realistic. Others are the purest flights of fancy.
“Not much is known about what led people to create these pieces,” Burke says. “There are very few articles written about them, and virtually no serious studies.” Burke and Campbell were left to conduct original research on their own.
The small buildings before us are fashioned from wood, flour tins, galvanized buckets, ammunition boxes, hubcaps, cardboard, canvas, nuts, bolts, screws, scraps of rug and fabric — whatever might have been available to the maker. Some are small enough to rest in the palm of your hand. Others soar to a height of 6 feet. You could spend hours studying the ways in which house windows and shades are replicated. Or church windows. Or the columns and capitals of public buildings. Or faux stone and brick. Or cupolas and roofs.
As we move along, Burke points out recognizable public buildings, some still standing, some vanished. Here’s Chicago and North Western Railway Station with a magnificent clock tower, built in Milwaukee in 1889, razed to the ground to make way for a freeway in 1968. Mount Calvary Holy Church of Winston-Salem, founded in 1929, survives in miniature, though the original was later replaced by a brick church. Thomas Alva Edison’s birthplace in Milan, Ohio, is covered roof to foundation, for some unknown reason, with postage stamps. Independence Hall in Philadelphia stands proudly in one room. A scarlet-colored, architecturally inaccurate facsimile of the Alamo occupies another. Over here is San Francisco’s Transamerica Tower. And the Chrysler Building in New York City — made of corrugated cardboard.
Assigning provenance to the pieces is nearly impossible. They are true folk art, made by anonymous craftsmen. Some pieces are relatively primitive and clumsy, while others are remarkably skilled in their handiwork. Sometimes a name is scrawled in pencil or etched in the underside of a roof, or on the base of a piece. These creations were more commonly made in New England or the upper Midwest — at least, the ones that survive. It’s quite rare to find a piece made in the South.
“This form of folk art flourished between 1860 and World War II,” Burke says. “People knew how to make things by hand back then. It’s a skill certainly diminished these days.”
Only about 10 percent of Burke and Campbell’s entire collection bears any sort of identifying marks. But through these few signed pieces and their own research, the men have been able to learn the personal backgrounds of some of the prolific and skilled craftsmen who fashioned the pieces in their collection.
Ben Zirzow of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was a retired tinsmith whose specialty was snipping, pounding and welding old 5-quart oil cans to make 2-foot-tall garages with working overhead doors.
Lawson Diggett of Florida began replicating American life in the 1920s and for more than 50 years rendered the Daytona Beach area’s public buildings, billboards, churches, airplanes and race cars just inches in size, selling many of them to tourists. Diggett’s remarkable recreation of the Daytona Beach townscape is housed in the Halifax Historical Museum in Daytona Beach.
And there’s Charles Cole of Racine, Wisconsin — perhaps the most prolific artisan Burke and Campbell have collected. Until his death in 1943, Cole used old cigar boxes to make more than 60 different buildings — each one of them in triplicate — for his three children. Burke and Campbell have two of his renderings of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, one painted to show the gold dome, and one unadorned. Cole also made a replica of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia; Mount Vernon, Washington’s home; the Chicago Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, built in 1869; Grant’s Tomb, New York City; Zahn’s Department Store, a landmark in downtown Racine for nearly a century; the Racine Zoo, on the shore of Lake Michigan; and many gas stations, churches and public buildings.
A father-son duo of artisans in the Burke and Campbell collection are of special interest to me because of a friend of mine. The collectors had bought a carved wood church from a dealer who had rescued it from a Minnesota landfill. Inside the removable bell tower of the church was affixed a piece of paper with the notation in German, “Zweig gemeinde der ST. JOSEPHS KIRCHE;” that is, “Branch congregation of St. Joseph’s Church.” Written in English on the paper was the further notation, “This church was built by Frank H. Aukofer Sr. 1884–85. Considering his not having any trade it is quite a piece of Art. Most of the work was done with a jackknife. It was repapered and painted by Frank H. Aukofer Jr. in January 1918.”
I have a friend in Virginia with that unusual surname, “Aukofer,” so I make a mental note to get in touch with her after my interview.
We’ve finished the rooms in the house, and Burke takes me out the back door to a folly just beyond a patio and flower garden. This is the “Alden Pavilion.” Its façade features three tall doors salvaged by retired Greensboro antiques collector Mary Wells, a longtime friend of Burke and Campbell. Atop the roof is a cupola Wells purchased from a dealer in Atlanta. The cupola was rescued from the country of Georgia on the Black Sea in Eurasia. No one’s quite sure how it made its way to the States.
Burke opens a door to reveal additional small buildings, carnival rides and houses. An unusual group of small buildings with similar architecture occupies three complete shelves of a big, built-in bookcase.
The small buildings depict many of the original structures of the village of Old Salem, the Moravian community in Winston-Salem. A lovely rendering of the Home Moravian Church stands 14 inches tall. Next to it is the Single Sisters’ House — first constructed in Old Salem in 1785 — and Salem Academy and College, the oldest private institution for women in the nation.
These small buildings were fashioned over a period of more than four decades by unknown craftsmen, although some of the buildings carry notations hinting vague attribution to their makers: “R. B. C. Dec. 1939” and “W. M. Ball, 226 South Church Street.” Reminiscent of the Moravian “putzes,” elaborate Nativity scenes often featuring entire villages, many of the buildings were fabricated using art mat board, with details carved from balsa wood. There are now 17 buildings in Burke and Campbell’s Old Salem group, acquired through collectors in Winston-Salem and Mount Airy.
We step back into the garden and over to the “Alden Building.” Burke opens its yellow door into a world of whimsy and amusement, all manner of carnival rides, a circus tent, fanciful castles and a “zoological park.” More houses, public buildings are sprinkled about, and here and there, a skyscraper, several Ferris wheels, a roller coaster.
As I reflect on the myriad of items I’ve just seen.
Burke shows me a copy of the collectors’ limited-edition book, American Folk Art Buildings: Collection of Steven Burke & Randy Campbell. The 96-page, soft cover volume includes color photographs of more than 500 examples of buildings in the collection, along with rare newspaper and magazine articles about some of the structures and the artisans who created them. The book is available through Burke and Campbell’s attractive and comprehensive website, americanfolkartbuildings.org.
Just how significant is this array of American folk art miniatures?
Well, in a 2014 New York Times article about Burke and Campbell, the executive director of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Anne-Imelda Radice, said she “flipped” when she first saw the collection.
“It’s like a history of American architecture,” Radice commented, adding that she hoped one day the collection would be exhibited to the public. “People will go crazy over it,” she concluded.
“Crazy over it,” sounds appropriate, doesn’t it, since collectors Burke and Campbell say their passion for American folk art buildings lies somewhere between “obsession” and “psychosis”? h
Ross Howell Jr. is a frequent contributor to Seasons and its flagship O.Henry magazine. He is the author of the historical novel Forsaken.
For information and responses about this collection: collectionff
It’s a Small World, After Alll World, After Alll World, After
After seeing Steven Burke and Randy Campbell’s miniature version of St. Joseph’s Church fashioned by Frank Aukofer Sr, I emailed my friend in Virginia. A flurry of communications with family members ensued, and my friend learned that her grandfather, Frank Xavier Aukofer Sr., had emigrated to the United States from Germany and settled in Milwaukee. His son, Frank Xavier Aukofer Jr., born in Wisconsin, was her uncle. The family lived on Cherry Street in Milwaukee, near St. Joseph’s Church. The Milwaukee Historical Society digital collection includes a photograph of the now-demolished church — a building much grander than the one depicted by Frank Sr. The search continues for possible locations of a smaller, “Branch congregation” church. Remaining is the discrepancy between the middle initials “H” and “X.” Since capital letters written in cursive are so similar, it seems very likely the wooden church in Burke and Campbell’s collection was made by my friend’s relatives. Small world. RH Jr.