Lisbon doll hospital treats owners' blues too

LISBON (Reuters Life!) - The sign “Doll Hospital, 1830” above a doorway in a traditional Portuguese tiled facade adds to the feeling of nostalgic melancholy in Lisbon’s shabby center, with its toy-like houses and creaky yellow trams.

Dolls heads and body parts are displayed in a room at the Doll Hospital in Lisbon December 17, 2009. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

Inside, dozens of limbless dolls and torn teddy bears lie on the shelves awaiting repair, hand-written tags hanging from their remaining limbs.

But the repair shop -- one of the oldest in Europe -- claims that it fixes more than broken toys. Instead, it seeks to cure toy owners’ blues in a country that invented “saudade” -- the barely translatable Portuguese term used to describe deep longing for something or someone that is lost.

“We work with feelings more than strictly with the objects,” said Manuela Cutileiro, who runs the hospital. “It has always been our job to, ultimately, cure the saudades.”

The hospital started back in 1830 with an old lady who used to sit outside her dry herbs store in the same place on the busy Figueira Square, making and fixing simple cloth and clay dolls for local children.

The herb shop was later transformed into a workshop as the doll-repair part grew. It now repairs toys from priceless porcelain heirloom dolls to modest teddies whose value is purely sentimental.

“That’s our main difference from such hospitals abroad, which are very specialized -- we accept everyone, common Barbies and really unique dolls, and we improvise,” Cutileiro said.

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Armed with a scalpel and dressed in a white doctor’s coat, restorer Lurdes Cardoso repairs a decades-old doll, removing old cracked paint from its articulated arm.

“I love what I do,” she said. “You have to have patience and a certain sensibility, including knowing where to stop.

“The restoration is very delicate and we cannot spoil the historic look ... the patina of time has to remain,” she added. To underscore that effect, bits with original unspoiled paint are left exposed where possible and repainted parts are draped.

Adding to the hospital look, restorers use other medical instruments like surgical clamps to hold the elastic bands inside the dolls’ trunks during repairs.

But unlike a real-life hospital, an assortment of spare legs, arms, and even heads is readily available, lying in wooden drawers with transparent windows.

“We recycle everything. People often bring us doll parts that they no longer use,” said Cutileiro.

She said prices range from 4 euros ($5.72) for basic repairs to modern dolls to a few hundred euros for total overhauls of antiques, “but nothing like the thousands people pay in other places like France, the United States and Japan.”

Maria Isabel Vinhal Goncalves Alvarenga, a pensioner living in Viseu in northern Portugal, had sent her old doll to the hospital by mail after learning about it on television.

“They replaced her hair, eyes, reattached legs and arms, made a dress and shoes. It was the best gift I’ve given myself in a long time -- made me remember childhood,” she said.

The price for the overhaul was nearly 300 euros, “but it was worth it.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Alvarenga; Editing by Steve Addison