Cathy Tydings and Liz McCubbin: Life in miniature

Friends since kindergarten renew love of building, decorating small scale
September 17, 2019

Lifelong friends Cathy Tydings and Liz McCubbin live a good portion of their lives in miniature. Cathy's basement has been turned into a miniature city complete with expansive train displays, 12 dollhouses, a lighthouse, and dozens of miniature boxes and scenes. Hundreds of characters populate the basement city.

The pair are so close, when they retired they moved to houses in the same Milton-area development.

They’ve been friends since kindergarten in the Baltimore area, and even their husbands are friends. Walt Tydings and Patrick McCubbin worked together for more than 30 years.

When they moved to Milton, Cathy had one major stipulation: their new home had to have a basement to display their extensive model trains they call train gardens. In addition, she needed plenty of room to store more than 5,000 ornaments she uses to decorate more than a dozen Christmas trees.

Rekindled passion for hobby

Their love of miniatures dates back many years, but their passion has taken on new interest recently.

In the 1980s in Baltimore, Cathy and Liz joined a miniatures club and each had a dollhouse they furnished. Liz had been collecting miniatures since she was a teenager.

“As time went on, our interest in miniatures gave way to work and family,” Cathy said. “The dollhouses were tucked away and practically forgotten.”

Fast forward to four years ago, when their love of working with miniatures was rekindled.

Today, the Tydings' basement is devoted to their hobbies, including a workshop for Walt and workspace for Cathy.

Among their 12 houses are a colonial, farmhouse, Craftsman and large Victorian. They have a variety of miniature boxes and scenes including a soda shop, florist, malt shop, farmers market, toys and games shop, dollhouse shop, bandstand in a gazebo, antiques shop, turn-of-the century general store and a conservatory, one of Liz's favorites.

The large red Craftsman house is modeled after a house on Chestnut Street in Milton.

Cathy said their husbands are devoted NASCAR fans. “They go to races, and we go in the basement,” she said.

Many of their projects happen by accident when they see a piece or miniature in an area antique or consignment shop. Their new 3-foot lighthouse is a perfect example. The project started with an old-salt figure who they said needed a boat. Somehow the boat morphed into a replica lighthouse complete with tiny nautical maps, a cat under the kitchen table, and lantern and diving helmet charms adding detail.

Liz said they strive to make all their rooms and shops look as authentic as possible. “In photos, it's sometimes hard to tell if the room is life size or miniature,” she said.


Attention to detail

Walt keeps the trains running, and uses his experience as a builder and electrician to construct the houses. Cathy does most of the finishing work – she hand made 1,100 cedar shingles for the Victorian house – and Liz and Cathy are the interior designers. Liz also makes jewelry and is able to use her talent to find and repurpose accessory pieces. They are experienced shoppers, finding miniatures at local shops or online.

Cathy has discovered many hidden talents. She makes a lot of the clothes and molds some of the characters out of clay. She and her husband have also taken up wood carving. In a pinch, she paints a scene or background.

Although most of the houses come as kits, each one requires extensive finishing touches and interior work.

Liz said in one shop, they sanded the stairs to show wear from people's shoes. In another house, Cathy made a fireplace brick by brick. “We tend to get wrapped up in this,” Cathy said.


Family memories woven in

Many of the scenes have ties to family memories, but none more than the train displays. Walt was able to get a 64-year-old Lionel train and Cathy's father's 100-year-old Lionel train running. Those are the same trains Cathy played with as a child during the Christmas season.

They have nearly all train gauges in their displays, including N, the smallest, HO, O and G, the largest.

Several neighbors have given them pieces from their own train sets, which they have incorporated in their displays. “Whatever they give, they know that we will find a way to display and cherish their contributions,” Cathy said.

And, believe it or not, they even have two miniature train gardens inside a firehouse scene they recently completed. “We are really never finished. We can always add more. We like to play,” Cathy said.

All of the detailed miniature crochet work for blankets, quilts and doilies was done by Liz's mother. “It would be hard to find these and terribly expensive today,” she said. They named a shop Emma's in her memory.

All close family members have at least one shop, store or building named after them.

Cathy said one visitor to her basement looked at her and asked, “You haven't grown up, have you?”

“You know, that's fine with us,” Cathy said.


  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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