The Bellevue museum, which doll collector Rosalie Whyel opened in 1992, marks its last day on Thursday after years of falling visitor numbers. A surge of several hundred visitors has poured in during the museum's final days.

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Rosalie Whyel can still remember her first doll. It was Sparkle Plenty, a character from the Dick Tracy cartoon strip, and it came from the Sears catalog. It had soft skin and yellow hair, and all the little girls her age wanted one.

Whyel is still enchanted by dolls. But after 20 years of operation, her Museum of Doll Art in Bellevue marks its last day Thursday. Financial woes and tapering visitation rates drove Whyel, its founder and owner, to announce the closure in June of last year. Even after a surge of several hundred guests daily in its final weeks, Whyel says the privately funded collection could no longer afford maintenance and overhead costs.

“You always hope it’s going to last forever,” Whyel mused. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case even though (dolls) are the number one collectible in this country.”

Whyel said the closure was rooted in the last seven years of financial troubles. The museum opened with 45,000 visitors in its first year. Those numbers eventually leveled out to an average attendance of 10,000 guests annually. Then, in 2001, national museum visitation plummeted. The recession was the last nail in the coffin.

The museum opens onto an atrium and features two floors of exhibit space. On the bottom floor are contemporary dolls, from characters such as Shirley Temple, Elvis and Barbie to the newer, familiar American Girl series. On the second floor, antique dolls from as far back as the 1700s are housed in whimsical vignettes. There are miniature houses, porcelain figurines, even an exhibit on “doll technology.”

Operations consisted of four businesses: the museum, two stores, a series of traveling collections and event rentals. Whyel has ended all touring exhibits, and one of the museum shops, Rosie’s Too, closed in December. As a private collection, independent of grants or other subsidies, Whyel estimated that the museum needed to make $4,000 daily just to break even. The 13,500-square-foot structure cost $3.2 million and has Victorian architectural accents highlighting over 1,500 dolls, just a small portion of Whyel’s collection.

In the past several years, 15 doll museums worldwide have closed. Whyel partly attributes this trend to changing habits. Her collection is from an era of interactive play, but as technology becomes more pervasive, experiential learning is being transferred to our computer screens.

“For girls, we grew up with these toys. They were like our babies, our children,” said Patricia Sumption, who visited the museum for the first time this weekend. “There’s a lot of emotion attached.”

She pulls a baby doll, the size of her palm, out of her purse. It’s dressed in tiny knit slippers, with dimpled hands and a movable body. The figurine, she says, belonged to her mother. While she doesn’t consider herself a collector, she played with paper dolls as a girl. Sumption said it’s a pity that such an impressive array will no longer be shared with the public.

Over the years, the museum has maintained an impressively diverse guest book, with visitors signing in from South Africa, Germany and Australia. The collection has also taken Whyel around the globe. In 1994 she traveled to Paris for an award ceremony acknowledging hers as The Best Private Doll Collection Worldwide.

For volunteers and staff members, the recent outpouring of support comes as no surprise. Dolls are teaching tools for children, said curator Jill Weitzel. They are part of an incredible historical archive.

“You can see how people dressed; what they did; what their politics were; their religions and norms; whether they were royalty or common people,” said Whyel.

The more she collected, the more she began to see them within the scheme of history.

The museum opened in 1992 after nearly three years of planning and construction. Whyel had moved to Bellevue with her husband from Fairbanks, Alaska, where she grew up as the daughter of an owner and founder of a coal mine. She remembers the Bellevue neighborhood as being checkered with houses from the 1950s, one of which stood on the current grounds.

“We used to be the biggest thing in this part of town,” laughed Whyel, “and now we’re probably the smallest.”

During the ’90s tech boom, as Bellevue began to change, it was her husband’s idea to share the doll collection in a museum setting. After a commercial-building moratorium, they were one of the first to tap the city’s vitality. Through the years, her family has been critical to the museum’s success. Whyel’s daughter is co-director and her seven grandchildren largely grew up in the space. That, she says, will be the hardest part of closing.

Whyel will keep her core collection. As at many museums, she’s been selling pieces to make more space. But the museum building itself — temperature-controlled rooms, glass cases and pullout drawers to protect the dolls from light damage — would be hard to sell.

“I can’t say what’s going to happen,” Weitzel said. “It would take a really unique business to try and fit into this facility, and that’s pretty unlikely. Though we’ve had a couple of different people try to pursue it.”

In the meantime, Whyel is hoping to use the museum to store and document her collection. As soon as doors close, she will begin to photograph all of the core pieces. She’d like to use them to tell the story of the museum.

“The dolls will go on after us; we’re just their caretakers,” Whyel said. “We’ll continue to take care of the ones we’re keeping, and to share the ones people are interested in.”

Though she is sad about the closure, Whyel said she is eager to spend more time with her family and friends, traveling and just being a grandmother.

“We accomplished what we set out to do,” Whyel said. “Our goal was to present the dolls, share them, preserve them and to educate people about dolls and collecting. I think we’ve done that, whether we were successful financially or not.”

Celina Kareiva: 206-384-8904 or ckareiva@seattletimes.com