Department 56 collectors get into holiday spirit
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Gary Pavlic’s house in Troy. But it looks more like Christmas in New York City than in upstate New York.
Pavlic is a collector of Department 56’s Christmas in the City village, a festive collection of porcelain replicas of city landmarks. Every year, structures such as the Empire State Building and the Flatiron Building grace his mantle and piano. Tiny skaters glide across a replica of the rink at Rockefeller Center, and some years, faux snow, produced by miniature snow machines drifts softly down onto the holiday scene.
Since the mid-’80s, Pavlic has been collecting the ornate miniatures. His collection has grown to include around 150 pieces from multiple Department 56 villages. In fact, he has so many he can no longer display them all. And he’s still out there shopping.
“Some people say it’s in the paint. Don’t touch the houses, because that’s what does it. Once you start, you can’t stop,” he said with a laugh.
Pavlic is one of many Capital Region collectors of the intricately designed, hand-painted Department 56 villages. There’s even a local collectors’ club, the Capital Region 56ers, that meets the third Friday of just about every month at the Town of Colonie Community Center.
“We talk about our villages and whatever’s new. Sometimes we do make-and-takes — we make things for our villages like trees and accent pieces,” Pavlic, who is a past president of the club, said.
Each year, the club puts up a display of Department 56 North Pole Series structures at the Ronald McDonald House in Albany for the young medical patients and their families who stay there to enjoy.
Originated in 1976
The first series of Department 56 structures was released in 1976. It consisted of six ceramic buildings that were the beginning of The Original Snow Village. Today, offerings have expanded to include 12 themed villages, including a Halloween series and one made up of replicas of landmarks in Williamsburg, Va., as they would have looked in the 1700s.
And then there are the accessories: sets of snow-covered pine trees, tiny fire pits, flags, fences, woodland animals, lampposts, walkways and yard ornaments. Figurines of humans are also available, but they’re out of scale with the buildings’ proportions, Pavlic said.
“We always kind of snicker that the people are always so much bigger than the villages but we asked folks from Department 56 ... why the people were so much bigger and they said, 'If we did it in proportion, they would be so small you wouldn’t be able to see much detail,’” Pavlic recounted.
Pavlic selects many of his Department 56 buildings and landmarks for sentimental reasons.
“My family goes down to New York every year, so we have some favorite stops, so I like the Rockefeller Center. I have the skating rink. We usually stop there to see the tree.”
Radio City Music Hall is another favorite destination, and Pavlic has a replica of that, too.
“Then we go down to Little Italy and have dinner. I have some Italian restaurants that I put out,” he said. “It’s a really nice way to remember family events.”
Each year, he chooses which buildings to display according to the past year’s events.
“Last year, since my godchild got married, I had the wedding shop up,” he noted.
source of therapy
Collecting Department 56 buildings is also a sentimental practice for Rosemary Graff of Johnstown.
“It was a therapy thing for me when I first started,” she said. “We had a fire in 1988, and my husband gave me a piece to latch onto something, and that’s how I started.”
Today, Graff has between 30 and 40 pieces of the Dickens Village Series. Introduced in 1984, the series consists of a collection of shops and churches designed to capture the spirit of Christmas in Victorian England.
Graff, who is also a member of the Capital Region 56ers, said quite a few men, including her husband, Dave, are involved in collecting the houses.
“Most of them come with their wives [to the meetings], but they’re also collectors in their own right,” she said.
At least 20 men attend the club’s meetings monthly, she estimated.
Lucille Lemma’s husband, Charlie, has taken an active role in setting up her Dickens Village set at Christmastime, and her Halloween village in the fall. He even constructed an extension for the dining room table when the collection expanded beyond the table’s regular proportions.
“I started with one building, just to put it under the tree, and then two, and then so on,” recounted Lucille, who lives in the town of Day. “By the time I knew it, you couldn’t put it under the tree anymore. I used to put it on the table, then I had to have steps made [to display the village on] because it got so big, and then we put extension boards on the table to display it.”
Lucille estimated that she has 50-plus pieces to her Dickens Village. It takes her about two days to set up her whole holiday scene, which she puts on display after Thanksgiving and leaves up until January.
“And taking it down is another big project,” she said.
Lucille has a collection of big plastic tubs that she stores her collection in. “They occupy the whole cellar,” she said.
“When I bought a lot of the pieces, they were like $30, $40,” Lucille noted. Today, she estimates the combined value of her Dickens and Halloween villages at $15,000.
Pavlic, who said the value of his collection is between $10,000 and $15,000, explained, “They go up in value because they’re retired and they’re not [readily] available. I think that eBay has hurt us a little bit, because prices can sometimes be a little bit less expensive on there. The value is still there. It isn’t what it used to be, but on some pieces, it’s still kind of high.”
Some of the pieces in Pavlic’s collection are worth $700 or $800 each. One such example is a copper-roofed replica of the Cathedral of St. Paul, from the Christmas in the City series.
Pavlic has one piece he can’t put a price on.
“They do cardboard mock-ups before they produce the pieces. I was able to buy one. It’s a one-and-only piece. It’s a French café,” he said.
Although the value of a Department 56 collection is not something collectors overlook, most are more interested in the joy the festively lit scenes bring to the holidays.
“To me, it’s something that I enjoy doing, and when I don’t enjoy it anymore, I guess I’ll put it up for sale,” Lucille said.
Collectors and collectors-to-be can join the Capital Region 56ers club by calling the club’s president, Tom Yuille, at 355-0669.
Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.