A locomotive zips past the Brooklyn Bridge, towards Rockefeller Center, then around One World Trade Center and the historic Battery Marine Building where two vintage ferry boats are docked. For those who know New York City, no Amtrak or Metro North train track follows this path. The locomotives that do this track are G-scale and an attraction of the yearly Holiday Train Show appearance at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Now through January 21st, the model trains zip on a half-mile of train track through and around more than 125 New York iconic landmarks, each made of bark, leaves, pods acorn caps, lotus pods, beech nuts and other natural materials. Among other well-known sites, visitors see Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty plus overhead iconic New York City bridges which come together to create an aerial bridge.
Around the turn of the century, model railroads were a popular feature in American gardens. Paul Busse, whose Kentucky company Applied Imagination creates original garden exhibits and railways, is the mastermind behind the design. As a child, he loved miniature locomotives and remembers growing up riding on miniature trains in peoples’ yards. He grew up to become a landscape architect including designing a private garden railroad for a private client. In 1991, he was invited by Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory 1991 to build a miniature railroad.
In 1992, NYBG invited him to create a Lilliput-scale village of New York City landmarks railroad garden and the Holiday Show has been running ever since. There isn’t a word to define the reproductions Busse create, but he calls them ‘mechanical botanicals.’ Since 1992 he has created 140 structures ranging from an eight-inch-high town house to the brand new 18-foot-tall World Trade Center (four feet taller than the 14-foot-tall reproduction of the Brooklyn Bridge, also part of the show). The 18 G-scale gage trains include freight trains, passenger trains, Metro North trains, little trolleys which mostly go across the bridges which include the Brooklyn Bridge, George Washington Bridge, and Hellgate. The show includes Thomas the Train Engine along with a couple of his friends in his own special area near Yankee stadium.
There’s a Ladybug train and a Butterfly train. And there’s noise! Whistles, all kinds of clanking, and buildings with sound effects as well such as Yankee Stadium. You hear the roar of the crowd, you hear the announcer. On some of the churches you can hear church bells. And everything is illuminated, such as Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel which goes around and around and a Cyclone roller coaster which has a Z-scale train; as the people go own the roller coaster, you can hear them screaming.
The plant parts from which the buildings are made – including fungus and moss, come from the forest outside Applied Imagination’s Alexandria, Kentucky headquarters. They gather much of the material they use just around the workshop and conserve everything. They believe in sustainability and will sometimes target invasive plants and remove them from the landscape while using the material in the buildings. For example, they use Chinese Honeysuckle to make columns on the buildings such as on the facade of the model of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory model.
‘I was able to see them working on the One World Trade Center model, which is kind of the star of the show this year,’ says Victoria Lewis, Manager of Interpretive Content, The New York Botanical Garden. ‘It’s the tallest building we’ve ever had – it’s 18 feet tall. And for that, they harvested willow branches from a stand of willows which they plant for this purpose; they also used birch which they get from the forest around them. And it’s illuminated from inside. It glows gold.’
One of the things about this year’s show is the way it has been arranged. Visitors exit the long Conservatory and go into the Palm Dome for the big finale, Lower Manhattan. One sees a tableau of midtown Manhattan, and it’s as though one is really looking downtown from Midtown. There is an entire mix of historic and contemporary buildings to reflect the history and resilience and regeneration of that neighborhood. There’s the Woolworth Building, which, at the time it was built, was the tallest building in the world. In the exhibit, it is next to One World Trade Center, now the tallest building in the Western hemisphere. There is also the Oculus, the One World Trade Center transportation hub made from driftwood and willow branches. Also, there is a new Battery Maritime Building (today, the home of Governor’s Island ferry). There are two ferries sitting in the actual water of the Palm Dome pool which is the New York Harbor.
The buildings are created all year long and are driven out in trucks to the NYBG. Each year, the now more than 175 structures (including bridges) are stored, and more are added each year such as this year’s seven new structures. As there is limited room each year around 120 structures are displayed. ‘Botanical architects’ create the buildings and a team of craftsmen build all the train tracks.
This is not a show just for children, although there are many children’s activities. Grandparents who came as children return with their children and grandchildren. This is about as traditional New York as it gets. So what’s Paul Busse’s favorite object? ‘Whatever the next one is,’ he says.
More Info: forbes.com