Topic: Homes

Memory House: Display Memorabilia at Home

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All photos/art by Kindra Clineff

When Don DiMugno moved into his house in Kensington, Connecticut, he went straight to work creating space to display his ever-growing collection of memorabilia. Five additions and 41 years later, DiMugno’s collectibles fill his 2,000-square-foot home, a new barn, and the garage–and, as any passerby will notice, spill into his yard and driveway.

DiMugno admits that most of his entertaining is done in fair weather, when he can gather friends outdoors on his deck and in his gardens because space inside his home is at a premium.

DiMugno’s 1936-era house is much like many others on his street. Weathered shingled homes and thoughtfully tended perennial gardens complement one another in the tidy neighborhood. It isn’t until you pull into his driveway that it becomes evident that there’s nothing typical about this residence. Two gas pumps from the late 1940s and a train-crossing signal immediately lend an adventurous sense of time travel. But that’s only the beginning.

Enter the world of Don DiMugno, where his vintage ice-cream bar–complete with syrup dispensers and soda fountain–may whisk you back to that special childhood birthday. In his country store you can almost smell the freshly ground coffee, taste the penny candy, and hear the creak of old wooden floors. A quick spin in a vintage barber chair may take you back to that first haircut with your dad. Popcorn machines, pinball games, advertising signs, jukeboxes, firetrucks, bikes, planes, trains, and holiday items fill his home with memories that evoke something different for each visitor. “I can’t believe I threw that away!” is perhaps the most common response from people who enter DiMugno’s home. Hearing a personal story that has been sparked by something a guest has seen in his collection is one of his greatest rewards.

Ask him what his favorite piece might be and DiMugno will proudly proclaim, “But they’re all my favorites–I love them all!” His extensive collection of toys dating from the 1800s to the 1950s boasts well over 300 unique pieces, each in pristine condition. An equally impressive collection of advertising memorabilia dates from the 1800s to the 1940s, with pieces on everything from automotive products, foods, beverages, and candies to Coca-Cola and Santa Claus. DiMugno notes that his collection of Halloween items has grown significantly; its value now surpasses that of his large collection of Christmas toys and promotional materials.

At the age of 12, DiMugno started collecting and building his own customized bicycles. Then he began to collect and build cars: hot rods and one-of-a-kind custom cars for show. He gradually pursued his true passion: collecting and refurbishing antiques. For the past 43 years, DiMugno has owned Chippendale House, also in Kensington, where he directs the restoration of fine antiques. Projects take him across New England in his work for museums, private collectors, and historic preservation organizations. Recently DiMugno and his artisans completed more than 100 pieces of furniture as part of a restoration project for the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut; for another client, they restored an 18th-century horse-drawn wagon, re-creating details and crafting parts in much the same way they would have 200 years ago.

Today DiMugno’s collections rival any in the country in scope and quality. He searches yard sales, flea markets, estate sales, and antiques shows to acquire vintage memorabilia in pristine condition. He recalls one particularly fortunate stop at a yard sale a few years back–one that rewarded him with something he now considers among the most collectible pieces currently in his possession. When DiMugno laid eyes on an 1830 toy steam engine in perfect working order, with all original parts, his inability to conceal his excitement nearly cost him the sale. Research has since indicated that this piece is one of only a handful ever made and is possibly the only one remaining in original condition. DiMugno recently took it to Antiques Roadshow in Hartford, where it was appraised at $4,000.

DiMugno has intentionally minimized his home’s architectural features so that his vignettes don’t compete with one another. Wall colors are neutral and serve as a canvas for his colorful collections. In his toy room, DiMugno uses glass shelving to display his automobiles, tractors, and trains. “You want to be able to see everything, even the toys on the top shelf,” he says. Planes are suspended from the ceiling, creating an air show overhead, while pedal cars, trucks, and station wagons from the 1920s to 1950s appear to be stopped in traffic around the room.

DiMugno confesses that most of the cleaning and dusting falls to his careful hands. “Many of these items may be brittle or breakable and become increasingly fragile with time,” he notes. “Cleaners are hesitant to touch many of the pieces and become even more reluctant when they learn their value.” So DiMugno is constantly dusting, moving, and rearranging to emphasize something that may have been overlooked, or to make room for a new addition. (His most recent favorite acquisition is a one-of-a-kind Stanley Steamer pedal car.)

It’s hard to believe that DiMugno raised two daughters among his treasures in this house. “They were raised with an appreciation and sense of respect for the collections,” he says, “and today my four grandchildren also know the difference between their toys and Grampa’s.”


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