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If somebody says "miniatures" and you think of little girls' cute dollhouses, you haven't been to Angels Attic.

The Santa Monica museum, in the city's oldest Victorian house, is a celebration of all things tiny, from kitchen utensils to fireplaces, from baskets to bedsprings. Born out of two women's devotion to the art of miniatures, it has evolved into a nonprofit enterprise that funds a charity for autistic and disabled people.And it's a labor of love - both for the people who run Angels Attic and the people who go to see it.

One recent afternoon, a tousel-haired small boy was dragging his mother by the hand through the crowded house. "Look, mama! Look, mama!" seemed to be all he could say as he flitted from one miniature house to another.

"Everybody likes miniatures," said Eleanor LaVove, one of the museum's two founders. "They're fascinated by them."

A favorite with visitors is a house made to look like a lady's giant Victorian boot, with a theme reminiscent of the Mother Goose tale "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe." Standing 58 inches tall, the structure was built in England in 1979. In the heel of the shoe is a toy shop; the rest of the "house" is filled with the Old Lady's children (26 of them can be seen sleeping or playing inside).

During the Christmas season, everybody's favorite house is Santa's workshop, a many-roomed miniature house-cum-factory that includes Santa's toyshop, a wooden slide for the elves to have some fun, a kitchen where Mrs. Santa bakes cookies, and even the elves' bathroom and bunk-bed-filled dormitory and the reindeers' stable. Santa's home will be on display through January, but will reappear again next Christmas season, LaVove said.

Visitors must peer through tiny windows to see the inside of some houses. On others, the front folds or swings open to reveal the miniature wonders - carved stairways, upholstered furniture, needlepoint rugs, woven coverlets, diminutive pots and pans, cabbages and loaves of bread. Still others are built for show, with no outside walls.

Most of the houses have stories attached to them, their histories chronicled on typed labels. An 1870 Steamboat Gothic Victorian mansion was built by a one-armed Civil War veteran. A replica of a London townhouse was fashioned from an apple crate by a sailor on shipboard about 1892 during the Boer War. An 1864 English home was made by a builder for his 1-year-old granddaughter. And a modest three-room house once belonged to writer Johanna Spyri, who wrote the children's tale "Heidi."

There's a miniature version of Tara from "Gone With the Wind," complete with Rhett and Scarlett dolls, miniature candy and bake shops, a well-stocked, small antiques store, an Indian teepee made of animal hides, a detailed carousel.

Upstairs is a small doll museum (featuring dolls from Raggedy Ann to Shirley Temple) and bookstore; downstairs, some of the museum's miniatures are for sale.

LaVove, who in 1947 founded the costume and textile department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said she and Jackie McMahan had accumulated separate collections of miniatures. Starting in 1979, they staged a public show once a year to raise money for the Brentwood Center for Educational Therapy-Autistic Children and Young Adults. But the shows grew too large and unwieldy.

"We decided it was just too much work for a two-day show - so we decided to open a museum," LaVove said. They found a run-down tenement, built in 1895 and since carved up into apartments with leaking gas and sewage lines, and spent a year restoring it. Renovated inside and out, Angels Attic opened in 1984.

"We've grown a lot since then," LaVove said. "We started with our collections and since then, people have donated and loaned things."

The two women regard miniatures - don't call them "dollhouses," they urge - as an art form that's just beginning to be recognized in the United States, although Europeans have appreciated the tiny replicas for hundreds of years. And they welcome both adults and children to the museum, although the adults seem to appreciate a visit more.

Children seem to love the miniature houses, "but they're just not old enough to appreciate the work that went into them," said museum volunteer Karen Griffiths. Plexiglas cases that seal the houses from dust and varying humidity - as well as guarding them against sticky little fingers - are necessary, but frustrating, to children.

"But adults can appreciate this," she said, gesturing to encompass small houses built as commercial displays in the late 1700s. "A lot of adults leave and we hear them say (to their children), `Next time, I'm coming without you.' "