The tiny doors of W&L

“Optimism and mindfulness project” inspires students and improves mental health

Brianna Hatch

Isabel Ryan didn’t believe the tiny door was real when she first noticed it in the tunnel of Graham-Lees Hall on Washington and Lee University’s campus.

“I looked around to see if anyone was near me, and crouched down to get a closer look at it,” said Ryan, ‘21. “I just thought somebody was playing a prank — a really fun and not harmful prank.”

Now, students and staff find the tiny doors all over campus. The doors are dollhouse-sized and uniquely designed. They appeared on campus this fall semester – the work of an anonymous member of the W&L community. 

On Sept. 13, an Instagram account appeared: @wlutinydoors. “Welcome to the tiny wonders of Washington and Lee,” the account biography read. “Come on in.”

Students take pictures of the doors they find and send them in to the Instagram account. The pictures are then posted, and students are given credit for their find.

The creator of the tiny doors, who runs the Instagram account @wlutinydoors, chooses to remain anonymous but agreed to interview via email.

“The project is about the emotions the doors evoke, not about me,” the creator said. “If everyone knew my identity, they might confuse their reaction to the doors with their opinion of me — or my Greek affiliation, or where I’m from — and that only detracts from the project itself.”

Luke Hawes, ‘23, described it as “a happy little game that everyone gets to play.”

“My favorite [doors] to find were the ones that I found on accident, because they catch you by surprise,” said Franklin Rinko, ‘21

Ryan loves that @wlutinydoors, the creator, remains anonymous because it means they are not seeking glory. 

“It’s more so centered in the fact that the product, these tiny doors, are meant to inspire overall happiness and curiosity,” she said.

The creator began making the doors after overhearing people say that W&L had lost its culture in the coronavirus pandemic. The person wanted to help students and staff find a silver lining by creating an “optimism and mindfulness project.”

“I started W&L Tiny Doors to help keep myself positive during the COVID-19 restrictions and also promote positivity on campus,” @wlutinydoors said. “After all, it’s easier for me to be positive if the people around me are.”

There are 30 doors total around campus. Six of the doors were purchased from artisans, including one from the Netherlands and one from the United Kingdom. The rest are made by the creator’s immediate family.

Door #30 has an attached spiral staircase with a fake glass slipper. Door #7 is made out of rocks and decorated with miniature turtles. Door #28 is a tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Door #13 is Ryan’s favorite.

“It has the doorknob right in the center of the door, versus to the right or left. I just think it is so bizarre that the knob is in the center,” she said. “It’s kind of cryptic. It’s just this super simple door, where if you were to open it, there could be an alternate universe behind it.”

At first, the doors were made with materials the student’s parents, who love crafts, sent. Now, @wlutinydoors buys miniature doors and tiny hardware from dollhouse supply stores.

“It’s a good thing we don’t have much of a social life this year because my discretionary budget has gone into dollhouse door supplies,” @wlutinydoors said. “Some of them include homages to my closest friends, which none of them seem to have noticed — yet.”

The creator initially mapped out where to place each door based on locations with personal meaning, or where the doors would be noticed. Buildings that are considered historic landmarks were off-limits, out of respect.

“At first, the challenge was figuring out when to put up the doors — our campus never sleeps,” the creator said. “ I ended up doing most of them at 5 a.m.”

In late September, @wlutinydoors noticed that some of the doors around campus had been removed and called Public Safety.

“I don’t want to speak for [Public Safety]; I think they just didn’t understand what [the doors] were and weren’t happy that I used strong glue, which I certainly didn’t do on purpose. I just don’t know anything about glue,” @wlutinydoors said. “When I reached out to the head of Public Safety, he was very nice about it, and let me know where the doors were so I could get them back.”

A few students and staff, who @wlutinydoors refers to as “Tiny Doors Avengers,” reached out to help restore the doors and therefore protect the anonymity of the creator, while also communicating via email. 

“I have really connected with the Tiny Door Avengers, who have lifted me up at some low points during this project,” @wlutinydoors said. “These are people I have never met and don’t have any face-to-face relationship with. But they have been incredible forces for good in my life and on our campus.”

Some of the doors are still missing, which has been a source of disappointment.

“I had to learn to accept that street art exists in the public, and once I put it out there, I lose control of it,” the creator said.

But the best part of the project, @wlutinydoors said, has been connecting with students and staff via Instagram, and hearing about what the tiny doors project means to them.

The creator sees the addition of the tiny gnome figurines by the doors — which can be found at doors #1, #7 and #25 — as a physical embodiment of student appreciation for the project.

“When I first saw them in mid-October, I had to laugh, because the gnomes did for me what I hoped the W&L Tiny Doors were doing for other people,” @wlutinydoors said — inspiring positivity and creativity.

Maddie Hoagland, ‘21, says she feels a little bit of joy every time she sees a door around campus.

“I was kind of obsessed with Peter Pan growing up, and they remind me of Tinker Bell,” she said.

The doors have also had a larger impact on the mental health of students on campus.

“I think they put problems and stressors into perspective,” Rinko, ‘21, said. “Because while I’m stressing about Covid or quarantine or having too much work, someone else is building doors and pursuing something they’re passionate about. And the world continues to move.”