Artist Cynthia von Buhler has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project she's already been working on for years, and is a lifetime in the making.
To sum it up, her grandfather was murdered in Manhattan before she was born, and to figure out why, she created a miniature version of all the places that played key roles during her family's life at that time. These are based off "Nutshell Studies—dollhouses that students could examine from every angle... complete with minute and authentic crime scene details" which have been used to "challenge detectives and strengthen their ability to read evidence."
Her Speakeasy Dollhouse project also consists of a gorgeous book, and an immersive play, along with the handmade dolls and sets. We highly recommend you fund it so you can participate in the completed project! Below, von Buhler tells us more...
When did you first hear the story of your grandfather? When I was a pre-teen. The first part of the book deals a lot with this question.
What part of the Bronx was your family living in? Near Arthur Avenue. My grandparents lived at 4327 Third Avenue in the Bronx.
Do you know the addresses of where the speakeasies were? When she was in college, my sister wrote a paper on the speakeasies that included the addresses, but it’s long gone now. She says that the speakeasies were not far from their apartment on Third Avenue. Most likely it was near Arthur Avenue.
The bakery and the club were in the same tenement building. Dutch Schultz was working at Hub Social Club in a Brook Avenue tenement building at the same time. My grandfather’s speakeasy was only a couple of blocks away from that.
Where in Manhattan was your grandfather killed? In front of 309 East 48th Street. It's only a block from FDR Drive. After he was shot in the neck he was taken to Metropolitan Hospital on Welfare Island (which is now called Roosevelt Island). He died two days after the shooting. I have been obsessed with the ruins on Roosevelt Island ever since I moved to NYC. Now I know why. When I first moved to NYC I saw the hospital ruins from FDR Drive. I went over there to explore. A policeman saw me trying to scale the fence and said, "You don't want to go there." When I asked why, completely deadpan, he said, "ghosts."
To recreate the apartment, speakeasies, etc, did you have photos to go off of? Actually, I was predominately using recollections from my family members. My sister had interviewed my grandmother and her sons when they were still alive. My mother and my aunt (who is ten years older than my mother) also described the apartment.
My grandmother talked about making the bootleg liquor and how they smuggled the real whiskey from Canada by hiding it under the ice truck's floorboards. I have also done extensive research on what speakeasies looked like back then.
How long did it take to create these? I have been working on the sets and research for two years. I've been writing the book at the same time.
Your mom seems adamant that your grandfather wasn't in the mafia, are you as certain? At the very least, he was being threatened by them. My grandmother told us that he gave her a gun to protect herself from the mafia. I always thought he was in the mafia. It's a family joke. We ask my mom and she says, "Nooooo, he was not in the mafia!" We all laugh because we think she is in denial. He was murdered on the streets in Manhattan while out collecting a debt. He owned speakeasies and bootlegged liquor. How could he have not been in the mafia?
But interestingly, as I uncover facts I'm feeling like he may have been trying to work separately from them. Two of the sons of the man who killed my grandfather are/were Gotti crime soldiers. One is still alive, but refuses to talk to me. The magistrate who mysteriously let the murderer go free and clear was disbarred for being a Dutch Schultz pawn.
And oddly enough, Schultz was murdered only a few months after my grandfather. Thomas Dewey, former Presidential candidate, was bringing Schultz down at the time. Schultz wanted to kill Dewey, but the mob syndicate said no, and they decided to whack Schultz. Thomas Dewey is the man who uncovered the fact that my grandfather's magistrate was working for Schultz. My grandfather may not have been directly involved, but he as definitely affected by all of this madness. I explain all of this much further more eloquently in the book.
Do you think the project has helped you figure more of the story out? Absolutely! I have uncovered some truly shocking facts. I found an article from the NY Post about the murder. It's bizarre, and it made me understand why my grandmother kept the story a secret from her whole family. I literally gasped when I found it in in the NY Public Library microfilm room.
I have a ton of evidence, and I like hearing people's ideas on what may have happened after I show them that evidence. During the play I'm going to give out actual pieces of evidence. I want to give everyone a chance to see and experience what I have been doing. So, with the theater piece, we will be re-creating what we already know with various scenarios to see what is most plausible. I have a huge imagination. I like to hear other people's ideas because my mind always jumps to the most subversive conclusion.
Were you inspired by Sleep No More? Yes and no. Sleep No More is incredible and I’ve seen it multiple times, but I have been doing my own interactive performance combined with installation for years. Google some of my previous projects: Women of Sodom, Countess's Shooting Star, X.C.R.M.N.T.2000, etc. All of my gallery openings, museum exhibits, and parties since the mid-nineties have been theatrical events. Every house I have lived in has become an art installation. I didn't realize it that what I’d been doing my whole career had a name until I saw Sleep No More—immersive theater. That is what my life has always been—an immersive theater.
Do you have a venue in mind yet for the play? When will that happen? Oh yes! It's a secret location in Manhattan. It’s perfect. The dates are Monday, October 17th and Monday, October 24th. Tell people to get their tickets to my Kickstarter now, before they sell out. It will be an incredible experience for all who attend. I'll probably do a couple more of these events when my Speakeasy Dollhouse stop-motion animation comes out.