What sort of souvenir do you search for in gift shops when you’re stuck at the airport or touring a town?
Some people pick up postcards, shot glasses or magnets.
Not David Weingarten.
On a two-week trip through Europe in the late 1970s, Weingarten received a miniature version of Germany’s Speyer Cathedral as a present from his uncle and tour guide, the noted architect Charles Moore, who also bought a souvenir-sized copy of the building for himself.
The small gift left a big impression. Weingarten, now of Ace Architects in Oakland, Calif., began collecting souvenir buildings in earnest. Today, with his partner, Margaret Majua, Weingarten owns the largest collection of three-dimensional architectural replicas of structures from around the world.
For a feature on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin, I chatted with Weingarten about his collection.
Q: In addition to that original tiny cathedral, what types of structures are represented in your collection?
A: That cathedral has been joined by replicas of 5,000 other buildings, monuments and human-made places of all sorts and every description — famous and deeply obscure, special and mundane — from around the world. The collection is the most extensive of its type and includes some souvenir buildings made very recently and others made in the early 19th century, which are now 200 years old.
Q: 5,000 souvenir buildings! Where do you keep them all?
A: We used to keep all the little buildings in a small building outside our home. But several years ago, despite some aggressive editing, the collection threatened to spill out of the small building containing them. We made a bigger place for the little buildings.
Q: How do you organize the collection?
A: By place and type. Many of the world’s great cities possess a shelf or two or, in the case of New York, a cabinet. There are sections for the continents, for nations, for world’s fairs and expositions and for a range of arcana, such as American souvenir buildings made in Japan. There are also sections of little buildings turned out as salt and pepper shakers, lamps, coin banks, bookends, smoking accessories, lipstick holders and calendars. You get the idea.
Q: What is the attraction of souvenir buildings for you and for the rest of us who buy and bring them home from our travels?
A: Like some of their full-size counterparts, souvenir buildings work on our memories, very often in unanticipated ways. Miniatures of the Empire State, Chrysler, or Woolworth buildings or the Statue of Liberty make us think of these Gotham monuments; yet, also, more than this. We may remember our last visit, our companions on that trip, people and places seen, a subway ride or maybe a walk through Central Park. Memories prodded by architecture are seldom strictly architectural.
Q: Do you have a favorite souvenir building among the collection?
A: My most-esteemed miniature is a large, late 19th century, sterling silver model of the Bank of England in London. The full-sized building was designed, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, by the highly eccentric architect John Soane. Interestingly, the model shows the bank as Soane designed it, before some very disfiguring 20th century alterations. That illustrates another appealing quality of souvenir buildings: these slight tourists’ trifles very often outlast the substantial buildings and monuments they represent. This is especially the case with world’s fair souvenirs, which are miniatures of buildings designed with the intention that they would soon be demolished.
Q: And what happened to Charles Moore’s souvenir-sized copy of the Speyer Cathedral?
A: After Uncle Chuck died, in 1993, his house/studio in Austin, including his large collection of architectural models, folk art, books, etc., was transferred to the Charles Moore Foundation. I made off with his cast metal miniature of the cathedral and today, both [souvenirs from that 1970s trip] occupy the same glass shelf in the collection here.
Learn more about the world’s largest collection of souvenir buildings here.
All photos courtesy David Weingarten.