SPRINGFIELD — Theodor Geisel loved his father, but he was a practical man. Not for him your fantastic tales of elephants and giraffes and a brass band, as the boy daydreams in Geisel’s first children’s book, “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” The boy in the tale, inspired by Geisel’s childhood, tells his father the truth: He’d seen a plain old horse and wagon.
Geisel — better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss — may have had to leave this horse-and-wagon town, the place where he was born in 1904, to free the full potential of his extravagant imagination. Yet throughout his life the Springfield of his youth remained a touchstone.
Now, 15 years after the city unveiled its Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums, crews are scrambling to put the finishing touches on the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, the first museum dedicated to the life and work of the revered children’s author and illustrator. Opening on the first weekend of June, it’s not on the real Mulberry Street, but it’s just a few blocks away.
“He left here at a certain age, but this was always his hometown, make no mistake,” said Leagrey Dimond one of Geisel’s two stepdaughters from Audrey Stone Dimond, his second wife. Dimond was in Springfield recently to help set up the museum displays, which include a re-creation of Geisel’s cozy living-room workspace in the family’s hilltop home in La Jolla, Calif.
“This was our soapdish,” Dimond said, holding up one artifact as she led a group of sneak-peekers through the galleries.
The Seuss museum will be housed in the William Pynchon Memorial Building, a two-story stone-block Georgian colonial located on the Springfield Museums quad, in the former home of the local history museum. Inside, the rooms feature expertly rendered murals from Seuss’s books, painted by a team of UMass honors-college students under the direction of artist John Simpson. There are oversize figures from his books and a tribute to Geisel’s childhood home in Springfield, and the second floor walls will be lined with one-of-a-kind Seuss artworks, many of them doodled specifically for his stepdaughters.
“You never knew when he’d come in and drop a little something on your bed,” recalled Dimond, 59, who owns a small bookstore in San Francisco. Her sister, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, is the sculptor who designed the memorial garden on the lawn in the quad, which includes bronze statues of the Lorax, Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, and other famous Seuss creations.
“People ask where he got his ideas from,” said Dimond, who was 10 years old when her mother married her “step-pop.” “Who knows? What matters is they were there.”
Geisel, who had no biological children, had pet names for his stepdaughters. He called Dimond “Lee Groo,” or “Snunny.” (He dedicated his book of tongue-twisters, “Oh Say Can You Say?,” to “Lee Groo, the Enunciator.”)
But for all of the wacky wordplay for which he was renowned, Geisel was also a voracious reader of books for grown-ups. He loved a good mystery, Dimond recalled, and “he could recite from memory entire pieces of Shakespeare.”
She fully expects the museum to attract plenty of adults who are just as enthralled as the children.
“As you grow older, you love him in more and more ways,” she said.
Simpson, the art director (who is married to the president of the Springfield Museums, Kay Simpson), said it’s been a joy for him to bring the pages of Seuss’s books to life on the walls of the museum. As a Springfield native whose favorite story growing up was “Yertle the Turtle,” “it’s been the greatest honor to lose myself in his lines and marks,” he said.
Each room is a new immersion. The yellow walls of Geisel’s home studio are the same yellow they were in La Jolla, said painting contractor Walt Reynolds, who was on his hands and knees on a drop cloth, finishing the trim. The ceiling in the basement, which will be a children’s activity room, will be painted purple, he said. All the walls will be coated with polyurethane, for easy cleanup.
‘As you grow older, you love him (Dr. Suess) in more and more ways’
“My grandkids are dying to come in,” said Reynolds. “Hopefully my grandkids’ grandkids will see this.”
Until now, Dimond has been reluctant to call attention to her place in Geisel’s life. She did name her bookstore Thidwick, after the “Big-Hearted Moose” of the 1948 Dr. Seuss book. But it’s one of his lesser-known works.
With the opening of the museum, it was time to ensure that the Dr. Seuss legacy will have its permanent home, she said: “I emptied out my house. I kept one lamp, a blue sheep, and a couple of pictures.”
She’s never felt the need to speak publicly about the private life of her step-pop. Anything you need to know about what he was like in person is contained in the books, she said.
“The kindness, the warmth, the wit, the sense of fun — it’s all there. He can absolutely speak for himself.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.