Less than half a mile from Santa Clara University, just off Washington Avenue, cars driving along Hilmar Street stop and back up to look. Walkers snap photos and post them on social media. A 101-year-old Emma arrives by wheelchair and never misses a day.
Since April 4, Kiwi Grandma Lesley McGuigan has enchanted the neighbors with her daily lawn displays of dolls and stuffed animals engaged in contemporary activities or past events, from “Lockdown Lunacy” to the Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
McGuigan arrived in Santa Clara from Christchurch, New Zealand, on Nov. 23 to visit to her daughter and son-in-law Casey and Andrew Taylor and their children, Archie (6) and Millie (3). She got grounded in the city by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inspired by communities doing “bear hunts” for children, McGuigan began designing lawn displays that she — sometimes with the help of her grandkids — sets up around 8:30 a.m. and takes down at dark.
In one April vignette, a stuffed dog is on his knees, proposing to his puppy love during a champagne dinner. A small box with a ring is in his outstretched paws.
“Woofstock,” “Paw de France,” “Pawfect Paintings by Pablo Pawcaso,” and “May the Fourth Be with You” were other displays.
“Once a week, I’ll sit down and brainstorm what I can do,” said McGuigan. “I come up with a list of ideas. Then I look around the house for props. Or sometimes, something in the house will give me the idea.”
Neighbors also contribute props. For “The Great Gatsby,” a neighbor drove his 1929 Model A Ford onto the lawn. A drive-in movie scene with his 1966 Chrysler is coming.
“Lesley’s imagination and creativity are amazing,” said neighbor Kathy Kelsey.
“The entire neighborhood is enchanted and can’t wait to see what she will do next. And it is so nice to take a walk and have your spirits lifted. It’s the highlight of the day.”
“I love setting up the displays and get so much enjoyment from seeing the smiles on people’s faces as they walk or drive by. It helps pass the days,” said McGuigan, whose grandchildren play in the scenes.
“I’m doing it for fun, for the children,” she said, “and it’s grown and grown and gown. Now we have regulars coming.”
McGuigan posts photos daily on a Facebook page titled “Hilmar Hounds,” named after the dogs that play the main characters. She plans to ask followers to vote on their favorite displays.
Then she’ll make a calendar out of the top 12. She may even turn the entire experience into a book for her two grandchildren in Santa Clara and her six in New Zealand.
“The children can look back on this and see this is what they did,” said McGuigan, a chef and then retail worker before retirement.
“I made something positive out of the negative, and it’s wonderful to have the support of the community.”