Park Ridge native’s scale models preserve historic buildings as snapshot in time

Christopher Petersen often describes what he does as “building memories.”

Petersen, 63, lives in Colorado but grew up in Park Ridge, in a white house on Washington Street.

That house has seen some alterations since Petersen lived there: the new owners have painted it blue and put new additions on the back.

“That’s not what I remember,” Petersen said. “I remember sleeping out on the back porch, which no longer exists.”

He remembers climbing through the windows and walking on the roof. He remembers attending Field School, then Emerson Middle School and Maine South. Like many other Park Ridge residents, he remembers seeing Star Wars for the first time at the Pickwick Theatre.

Petersen has captured pieces of Park Ridge as he and other residents remember it in a series of scale models.

His model of a high school friend’s childhood home on Lake Avenue has its screen porch and a bicycle out front. A model of a home on the 200 block of Berry Parkway is complete with an oxidized copper canopy over the front door, suspended by tiny iron chains.

Another model based on a Prospect Avenue home is detailed with blue shutters on one of the top floor windows and lattice screening on the back deck, which features miniature stairs down to a plat of grass.

Then there’s the scale replica of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s childhood home on the 200 block of North Wisner Street, which he built for Clinton’s visit to Park Ridge in 2019 and donated to the Park Ridge Historical Society.

That project was part of the society’s effort to document pieces of Clinton’s upbringing in town, which included a documentary film based on her youth and an oral history project carried out with the help of high school students from Maine East High School.

John Murphy, who was president of the Park Ridge Historical Society in 2019, said Petersen had loaned the society a handful of his other models and heard about the Clinton project while setting up that exhibition.

“It almost seemed like he leaped out of the building and headed over to the Rodham property to see what it looked like,” Murphy said.

Petersen said he can get the measurements he needs to build a scale model replica of a building from a few pictures and knowing the size of a standard front door.

“Using photographs, [I could] go okay, this building is this wide, and it’s about this tall, and this is how wide the doors are, and how tall the windows are,” he said. “I don’t necessarily need the house to still be standing.”

Petersen had the chance to show Clinton the replica of her childhood home during her 2019 visit to Park Ridge. Murphy remembers the former presidential hopeful being intrigued and charmed by the model, but added that he sees the model as a teaching tool for today’s youth in Park Ridge.

“[The house model] was able to communicate that she was just a kid that’s like anybody else, had ups and downs and struggles and triumphs, just like other kids here in Park Ridge,” he said.

Murphy said he thinks models and miniatures are a way to help people feel more connected to an event or a person from the past.

“It’s hard to get a sense when you’re hearing the story, but there’s nothing like seeing an object that seems familiar that has a sense of place that gives an anchor to a story,” Murphy said.

Even larger than the Rodham house, which features climbing vines up the front of the two-story brick facade, is Petersen’s 1:8 model of the Pickwick Theatre. The 1:8 means that an eighth of an inch is equal to one foot in real life.

“I think when a lot of people think of Park Ridge, the first thing that comes to mind is the Pickwick,” he said. “Being a Park Ridge native, I get back to Chicago quite often and I just like having something around that I can look at and reminisce.”

The model is made of basswood, Petersen said, and features tiny versions of the posters that hang by the ticket counter, and the stained glass window that soars over the theater’s marquee.

“When I make models, I want to make sure that they look accurate from across the room, but nose to nose up against them, you can actually see all the extra detail,” he said. “I tried to incorporate as much detail in there as possible and I just loved the Art Deco look.”

“I can just glance at it and it brings back all the fond memories I have of growing up there,” he said.

He’s also had some more unusual requests, including a 1:12 model of a home in Louisville, Kentucky commissioned by a television production company and a college football stadium.

The stadium project couldn’t move forward, Petersen said, because a miniature for something as large as a stadium would have been so small that much of the detail would have been lost.

And that detail is the critical element in all of Petersen’s projects. He said he maintains a substantial amount of equipment to construct his models, including a laser cutter and several different software programs that help him design and render models before they’re built. He works in a studio near his home in Denver.

The detail comes at a price: Petersen said his models often sell for $800 or more.

That price covers the cost of his equipment, the studio rent and the building materials themselves, Petersen said.

Then there’s the time it takes to put a model together. After he has his measurements for a new project, Petersen said he typically begins with a virtual model of a building on the architectural design software HomeDesigner.

“Once I have that virtual model, I do a fly around… a quick little movie,” Petersen said. “You can see all the different sides [of a model] from different angles.”

Building the model itself is also a painstaking process, down to his use of his laser to etch the outline of brickwork into walls and his use of a joint compound to enhance the realism of that etching.

“I take that joint compound and I rub that on into the lines of the brick and wipe it off and then it looks like actual mortar,” he said.

For roofs, “I make little strips of shingles and I lay them on there,” he said.

For Lindsay Mican Morgan, the former curator-conservationist of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, the level of detail and intricacy of things like shingles on a roof is part of what make miniatures effective tools for teaching history.

That starts with grabbing the attention of someone who’s looking at a miniature, which she described as “this moment of ‘I’ve been fascinated by this; how is this constructed? Who made this?’”

The element of control that people have over models and miniatures also adds to their power, Morgan said.

“There’s something about being able to capture something from your world and be able to hold it that’s… an interesting combination of being dominant over something but also having it be playful,” she said.

Finally, she said, models and miniatures are a more forgiving – and fun – way to understand places and times than a standard history class; it reminds observers of “when you were small, and when a lot of the world was so large to you, and this was something that you were in control of, and could arrange and understand in your own way and in your own time.”