Could you build a model of New York City out of sticks? Someone did. At least, about a dozen folks in a company built more than 175 models of New York landmarks. In the impressive setup, more than 25 different model trains wend their way past the botanical city of lookalikes.
Many holiday-season train shows were canceled or limited to fewer visitors in 2020 because of the pandemic. But since then, the popular attractions have made a comeback at botanical gardens, conservatories, and elsewhere around the United States.
The shows, now a tradition in many cities, feature a combination of model trains and painstakingly detailed miniature recreations of landmark buildings made from leaves, twigs, and other dried plant materials.
“It’s magical because people love to picture themselves in these small landscapes,” says Karen Daubmann, vice president for exhibitions and public engagement at the New York Botanical Garden.
How did all this train-and-greenery business get started? Almost 40 years ago, Ohio landscape architect Paul Busse took his quirky passion for trains, architecture, and gardens public. He set up a garden railway exhibit at the 1982 Ohio State Fair.
In 1992, the New York Botanical Garden, smitten by the concept and looking for a way to attract visitors in the winter, invited Busse and his team to create a “Holiday Train Show” there.
“That first year it only featured a couple train tracks and a handful of models of New York landmarks. But it was such a success that it became an annual tradition, with a few new models of landmarks added each year,” says Daubmann.
Busse’s company, Applied Imagination, Ltd., has a dozen or so full-time employees. They build models in a studio stocked with plant materials.
“We’ve got everything from sticks of different colors and textures, to shelf fungus, to a huge array of pinecones. You can’t imagine how many types of pinecones there are out there,” says Busse’s daughter Laura Busse Dolan. She took the helm of the company five years ago.
Applied Imagination’s teams create model buildings, tiny bridges, and tunnels. Once finished, they pack their bags and travel, setting up their creations around the country.
They’ve learned a thing or two, including not to use dried berries or acorns in their structures. One year, squirrels ate one of their lampposts.
The smaller models take around 250 hours to build. The biggest, an 11-foot replica of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, took nearly 3,000.
Why? People made in the image of God long to create. Something about miniature replicas seems to particularly delight us.