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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

Published March/April 1997

Tiny Utopias Broadway Set Designer Clarke Dunham Creates Model Railroad Towns You'd Want To Live In

by Phil Scott

Although its name comes straight out of George Bailey's nightmare from It's a Wonderful Life, Pottersville has no neon-coated fast-food franchises lining its streets, nor any prefabricated metal buildings, nor anything with a strip mall's ambiance. Nestled in New York's Adirondack Mountains, Pottersville looks like a small town out of America's past: perhaps Tom Sawyer's Hannibal, or the utopian Willoughby of "The Twilight Zone," but most like a rustic miniature village that you would find only in the center of a model railroad's oval track. In fact, in its own quiet way, this town has become a mecca for people who love and collect such scale models.

Here in Pottersville is a craftsman who creates detailed, elaborate Lilliputian worlds for those classic trains. These worlds--layouts, as they're called in the business--are such elaborate works of art that they nearly steal the thunder from the trains themselves. Indeed, the big wheels in the business world--and the biggest wheels in the $708 million-a-year model railroading world--travel to this bucolic town to seek an audience with their creator. Here they confess to him their vision, for they know only he can make it into the most perfect reality. The man's name is Clarke Dunham, and in the past decade he has risen from a mere railroading buff to become the most sought-after designer in the genre. "Most modelers try to downplay the layout," says Andy Sperandeo, editor in chief of the 216,000-circulation Model Railroader magazine. "But with Clarke's ability to handle backdrops and make something out of it, I can understand why he does what he does."

What Dunham does is create works of art in an unusual medium. Comparing Dunham Studios' layouts with any other designer's is like comparing a statue by Michelangelo to a lump of clay fired by a high school art student.

Clarke Dunham and his wife, Barbara, live here on a quiet road--quiet when logging trucks aren't rolling down the mountain loaded with pine and poplar--in what was once a vacation lodge, hewn more than a century ago from such lumber that grows there. In the back sits a huge barn of the type that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might proclaim in unison, "Hey kids, we've got a barn and all this talent--let's put on a show!" In a sense, that's just what the Dunhams have done. After a fashion. Accidentally. And circuitously.

They met at that prime Rooney-Garland age. She was 15 and he was 17; they married two years later, in 1955. But let's go back a little further. Clarke's mother was a painter, his father an honest-to-goodness philosopher whose book Man Against Myth reached the New York Times best-seller list and whose influence left Clarke with a wry philosophic bent. The Dunhams traveled in a circle of literati whose spokes originated with the Algonquin Round Table. "I grew up playing 'Twenty Questions' with Dorothy Parker," he says, speaking in his usual calm, measured sentences.

And what was that like?

"Tiring," he says with a chuckle.

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