Photo courtesy of Trish Bright
Entering the new Museum of Whimsy in downtown Astoria is like entering the madcap mind of Trish Bright, the museum’s owner and curator from Kirkland, Washington, who held a grand opening Saturday.
Housed in the historic Bank of Astoria building on 12th and Duane streets, the museum contains curios so unusual that many defy classification — even description — hence, the ultra-inclusive term “whimsy.”
“My husband says the definition of ‘whimsy’ is ‘anything Trish likes,’” she said, laughing.
Something else her husband, Walter Bright, says: Trish will never find a room too big to fill.
In the bank building, hundreds of quirky items that Trish has collected over a lifetime — plus a handful of pieces she commissioned for the museum — fill the vast ground floor and the luxurious Banker’s Suite above it.
Her “whimsies” include a large wooden Jesus carved in crucifixion pose; authentic Iroquois beadwork, African art and ceremonial clothing; refurbished Victorian furniture; a set of eerie Edward Gorey-esque figurines; a “flying” toaster with attached goose wings; a Works Progress Administration mural with a “The War of the Worlds” alien tripod painted into a corner; and a wealth of exquisitely crafted artwork that is often amusing, captivating and haunting as hell.
In other words, Trish hasn’t founded just another stuffy museum.
“What I want you to leave with — more than what you come in to see — is (to understand) just the amount of dedication that people had — even dating back to the 1850s had — when it came to making art pieces, or even just souvenirs,” she said.
The iconic 1920s-era building, which won the city’s Dr. Edward Harvey Award for historic preservation in 2007, is an attraction in itself.
The architectural relic was a bank for half a century until the last bank to use it left in the 1970s. For a time, it was occupied by a video arcade and a spa. But the bank went largely unused and neglected.
When Trish, a former stockbroker, and her husband, Walter — creator of the D Programming Language and the wargame “Empire” — purchased it in 2005, there was wood rot, water damage and ferns growing through the walls, she said.
“It was moldy mess. There was condensation everywhere,” she recalled. But upstairs, “the plaster was still intact, and it was beautiful. So we bought it.”
After renovating the building, the couple used it as an event space and cupcake parlor. Ready to tackle a different project, they listed the bank for sale a couple of years ago.
“Then, after we put it on the market, I thought, ‘Oh, why do we want to sell it? We’re never going to find another building like it,’” she recalled. “So I said, ‘Let’s just keep it.’”
Converting the place into a museum accomplishes two things: The doors remain open to the public, and Trish now has a space to store and display her prodigious stockpile of fanciful objects.
Trish has also opened a candy counter on the first floor. A gift shop and an upstairs wine bar are in the works.
“The building was so grand, that it really needed everything to be done over-the-top,” she said. “It just looked like it needed something excessive inside. If it wasn’t going to be a bank, it had to be something as dominant as a bank.”
Chester Trabucco, operator of the Astoria Riverwalk Inn, witnessed the Brights restoring the Bank of Astoria some years back, while he developed the Hotel Elliott across the street. He attended the museum’s grand opening.
“The thing that is so marvelous about this is that it’s done in a town of 10,000 people,” he said. “One of the draws to Astoria is that there are very talented, artistic people that put their — not only their money and their resources — but their passion for bringing something to life that you don’t see just anywhere.”
Terence Edgar, an artist who painted “roses and castles”-style decorative panels for a reproduction of an English canal narrowboat’s prow, flew from England with his wife, Christina. He said he wouldn’t call his work a “whimsy” but an “oddity,” especially since narrowboats are unfamiliar to many Americans.
“It’s something interesting. It’s something different. If this was back in the U.K., it would be traditional bog standard. Everybody would know it,” he said. “People don’t know it here; that’s the good thing about it.”
The Museum of Whimsy will continue to evolve; Trish said she plans to switch out some pieces and bring in new ones, to keep the experience fresh for returning visitors.
“It’s more a labor of love than wanting to make a killing as a museum,” she said.
MacAndrew Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, remarked as he strode through the Banker’s Suite on Saturday. “I love it. It’s whimsical — it’s Trish.”
IF YOU GO:
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday. Admission is $10 for individuals, $20 for families. Children under 6 are welcome but must be supervised at all times because of the museum’s fragile contents.