The Chili Doll Hospital was where the dolls went to improve
The Chili Doll Hospital was a place where “sick” dolls went to recover.
Doll “doctor” Linda Greenfield ran the Buffalo Road business, which included a Victorian doll museum that displayed her collection of over 3,000 dolls. Greenfield provided appraisals and repaired dolls brought to her store or mailed in by customers across the country.
The job may involve putting damaged limbs back in place, remaking wigs, repairing cracks, or reinstalling glass eyes. Some of the dolls had been passed down from generation to generation and were made of porcelain or biscuit. Some were more modern versions, like Barbies that had seen better days.
One customer called the place “a beautiful little gem in Rochester” and early advertisements called Greenfield “truly a Florence Nightingale of the doll world”. Greenfield got to work early, starting at home as a teenager before moving to an old store her parents had bought for the burgeoning business.
A 1969 Upstate magazine article described Greenfield and his “hospital”, which was still in the family’s Marshall Road home. Then aged 17, Greenfield had already been there for three years. In one room, “every corner of every chair is filled with dolls dressed in their best antique salon”.
Greenfield started collecting dolls when she was 8 years old. A rare doll she obtained, called Bye-Lo, sparked interest that took her beyond the hobbyist. Greenfield took a correspondence course in doll repair, but was mostly self-taught.
“We replace a lot of the wigs on the dolls,” Greenfield said in this 1969 story. “Little kids wear the dolls on the top of the scalp and they go bald.” Even then, most of the work involved older dolls, which Greenfield called “works of art”.
As a youngster, Greenfield engaged in friendly competition with local collector and socialite Margaret Woodbury Strong, whose vast accumulation is housed in what is now the Strong National Museum of Play. “She used to call me her little competitor,” Greenfield said in a later report.
After Greenfield graduated from high school, the doll hospital and museum opened at 4332 Buffalo Road, in a former red-and-white store near Roberts Wesleyan College. A gift shop sold German Hummel dolls, Norman Rockwell character dolls, and dolls imported from countries such as Japan, France, and Spain. Merchandise included dollhouse furniture, handmade vintage dresses for the dolls, and handmade Barbie clothes.
A 1973 Democrat and Chronicle story noted “every type of doll imaginable, and some no one ever knew existed”, including miniature dolls representing every country in the world. Another article reported that Greenfield’s oldest was an English wax doll made in 1860.
The museum displayed dolls representing cinema, history, medicine and fashion. Special tours have been offered for groups such as Girl Scouts. Greenfield’s community activist mother, Elizabeth (“known to everyone as ‘Betty'”), helped out regularly. After Linda’s marriage, her husband, Robert Munger too.
The guest book included signatures from people all over the world. Greenfield has appeared on Eddie Meath’s TV show and others including Channel 13’s ‘Morning Break’ and ‘PM Magazine’.
She has been quoted in newspaper articles about the Strawberry Shortcake doll craze and the release of new limited-edition Marilyn Monroe dolls.
Greenfield’s hobby had become her life’s work, as she had said when she was still a teenager. In a 2002 Democrat and Chronicle story, Greenfield again explained how it all started with that Bye-Lo doll so many years earlier. (Information about the dolls, which the websites say were first produced in 1920, is available online.)
“It looked so realistic,” Greenfield told reporter Meaghan M. McDermott. “I realized there were very different dolls from the usual Betsy Wetsies.”
Elizabeth Greenfield has opened up about her daughter’s curious nature. When she was little, a neighbor gave her a doll. “What do you know,” Elizabeth laughed, “she opened it to see where the bones were!”
The gift shop portion of the business had slowed down by then, Linda said, but restoration work remained busy. A 2010 Democrat and Chronicle story reported that Greenfield provided repairs and appraisals to up to 1,000 dolls each year. One had just been shipped to him from Gainesville, Florida.
As she told Bennett J. Loudon, getting the job done right required being a painter, a hairdresser, and an engineer. “You don’t wake up one day thinking, ‘I’m going to open a doll shop and deal in antiques.’ It’s kind of in the blood, so to speak.
The Chili Doll Hospital and the Victorian Doll Museum finally closed in 2013. A news report said Linda’s mother had recently passed away and Linda decided “the time had come”. She kept the dolls that meant the most to her and donated many to local museums and libraries.
What happened to…? is a report on the Rochester haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives.
Morrell is a freelance writer based in Rochester.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April 2015.