A Plywood Chapel with a Twist

Cruising yard sales, estate sales, flea markets and antique malls (cue the eye-rolling at the word “antique”) for vintage wooden objects can be an exhilarating process.

The search is all about discovery. Not necessarily for hidden value- that manic desire consuming neurons for many, fueled by free coffee and lemonade-  but for whatever else we seek: plugging holes in our collections, upgrading something we have with a better example, or simply when we are taken aback by the beauty or singularity of a discovered object and take it home with us.

The prowlers among us pity those who limit their searches to online auctions. Yes, I search for (and sometimes snipe) vintage playthings on eBay and many other sources. The search itself can be an education if listings are studied carefully (and swallowed with a mighty grain of salt) before bidding. But it's no substitute- emotionally- for crawling roadside tables and those stuffy indoor malls.

A favorite haunt of mine here in Western North Carolina is the Antique Tobacco Barn, a long, tin-topped structure perched a few yards north of the Swannanoa River. Until a few years ago the barn was one of Asheville's last remaining tobacco auction houses; every Fall after the 'baccer bales had been sold and carted away, the space was reincarnated for the antiques and collectibles trade for a few months until the tobacco was cured and ready for market once again.

The Swannanoa floods periodically. In 2004, the Barn floor went six feet under for a day or two; employees shoveled and  broomed the mud and sand out and in time the trading started once again. Weather forecasting has always been an art rather than a science here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.

On a blissful autumn day a few years ago I felt the restless call and found myself wandering the familiar aisles once again. For me, circumnavigating the Barn is about a ninety-minute process and could be much longer; the place is immense and it can swallow you whole if you let it, so I try to keep an eye on the time. I've learned (I hope) what booths not to investigate at any length and my wish list is not as broad in scope as some. If you're hunting something larger than your average toy- say, a horse with tack, complete- grab a vintage steel-wheeled 'backer cart for browsing.

I was nearly done with my circuit when an odd wooden object caught my eye. It was a church model in a vaguely gothic style, roughly-made and forlorn in the dim light. The fir plywood parts were ½" thickness rather than modern nominal dimensions and a drippy orange varnish coated everything. The builder had used bits of various solid woods for details- the steeple, entry door casings and other trims- and it's construction was nothing to shout about.

Still it had a compelling quality. The chapel's raw character and dynamic presence belied it's size, measuring just 18" tall, minus a spire that used to cap the steeple. (In this photo the steam-powered tin table saw figure is 4" tall, about right for the 5-1/2"- tall chapel entrance).

It dawned on me that this was more than just a model or a plaything. The steeple was removable, and there was a mysterious loose floor set into grooves in the side walls.  I took it home for twenty bucks and set it on a shelf. 

So, what is it?

If you guessed church collection box, I think we're both right! Congregants dropped their tithes into the steeple, and the sliding floor section made accessing the collection later on a snap.


Not a toy, but it certainly could be!

My best guess is that it turned up in one of the DIY mags in the Sixties… or perhaps it was just designed and built by a clever church member with a small shop at home.

I wonder if these guys take plastic…


First two photos credit Romantic Asheville