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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

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.
The McCarthy era destroyed that circle, and Dunham blames the Red paranoia for starting a long, slow decline in American theater that weighs heavily on him still. For it was not his ambition to build train layouts. His true calling, his first profession, was Broadway set design. After he and Barbara graduated from Philadelphia's Tyler School of Fine Arts, Clarke began commuting from Philadelphia for the bright lights of New York and The Great White Way. They worked together at the start, then she switched to a career in woodcuts, sculpture and children while Clarke continued working as a scenic artist. As the years passed his curriculum vitae racked up a few score impressive entries: He designed scenery and lighting for dozens of operas and worked on more than 50 Broadway productions, including such hits as The Iceman Cometh and Bubbling Brown Sugar. In television he worked as a scenic artist for such diverse NBC productions as the soap opera "Another World" and "Saturday Night Live," plus a number of commercials. He's even designed for theme parks, world's fairs and industrial shows. In the three decades of his career, Dunham has designed all or part of more than 300 productions.
But his first love remained Broadway. He began a collaboration with Harold Prince that continues to this day. In 1984 he received a Tony Award nomination for his work on the play The End of the World; in 1985 he received a second nomination for the musical Grind. Business couldn't be better, nor could his reputation. It was so good that, following his second Tony nomination, representatives of Citicorp approached him to bid on a massive model train layout to be displayed during the 1987 holiday season in the atrium of the 59-story Citicorp Center in midtown Manhattan.
Unbeknownst to Citicorp, Dunham brought on board more than just the sensibilities of a respected Broadway artist: he had also been a model train aficionado since age 14. But even the most innocuous-looking layout can be a devilishly complex maze of wires, lights and electronics; in all those years, he admits, he'd never built a railroad that actually ran. That was about to change.
"They already had all levels of specifications developed," Dunham recalls. "The specs conspired to render the job impossible to accomplish, so since the theater is about doing impossible things," he went to work. "I decided the specifications had been developed by someone with an orderly mind," he says with some bemusement. "I went to the building and measured the doors, and concluded that I could build larger than what the specifications called for. Everybody else came in with small designs; I came in with a three-story station house."
And that's not all: His plan called for multiple layers of tracks and trestles criss-crossing a bouldered, tree-lined waterfall at seven levels, in addition to a hillside farm, a mid-Hudson Valley town and the Hudson River town of Weehawken, New Jersey, straight out of the 1940s. Naturally, all railroads would lead through a smokestacked landscape of outlying factories into New York City at its Art-Deco best, the lights from the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and a few dozen others reflecting purple and pink off the nighttime clouds in the background.
Dunham's design won the competition hands-down. But it was early October before he could finish the design. And since presumably Citicorp wanted its trains to move, he now hired all the specialists who could make it so. "Suffice it to say, between November 4th and the 29th, when we delivered it, we did the entire thing," Clarke says. "We were 70 people going very fast." Amazingly enough, the whole layout worked just fine from the start; or, as Clarke says, "The thing has always run well and had absolutely no reason to."
The 450-square-foot "Citibank Station" wasn't just a masterpiece of modeling, but also a masterwork of miniaturized wiring, lighting and electronics. Overnight, Clarke had another smash hit to add to his résumé.
"[Citicorp's advertising] agency people would come up to me and say, 'It's the biggest in the world, right?' and I'd say 'No, there are any number of farmers who have built big tables out of many sheets of plywood and charged admission.' But you don't make it on size; you make it on quality." A little detail helps, too. The Citibank Station contains 7,000 trees, 200 buildings, 1,000 people, 200 autos, 12,000 feet of wire and 1,000 feet of track, with 24 trains running on 18 different tracks of three different sizes, or gauges. "People think it's so big because of its use of perspective--I used the depth of the corners to lead the viewer's eye places, for instance--but the largest depth is just 10 feet," he says, then adds modestly, "Quite possibly it's the most complex train layout, since we literally have them running on top of one another."
Citicorp had hoped to draw 30,000 people that holiday season; more than 141,000 came through the atrium doors. The next year the new and improved station drew 200,000 visitors, and the year after that, 240,000 saw the display. But just when the nation needed it the most, during the 1990-'91 recession, Citicorp put the show on indefinite hiatus, a victim of cost-cutting. "We got calls for three years asking what happened to the train," says Barbara Dunham.
Of course, Broadway was hit hard by the recession as well. It's a generally recognized fact that praise has no known nutritional value, though it's less widely understood that Tony nominations can't be used as legal tender (in most states). "Since I can't call Hal [Prince] and say, 'Gee, I want a Broadway show this week,' we were left with the necessity of making a living," Clarke Dunham says. "We decided we would capitalize on a story in Model Railroader, and placed ads looking for other corporate clients" thinking only corporate pockets could handle paying upwards of a quarter-million dollars for a train layout. It turned out, however, that other groups were interested as well. First in line was the P.T. Barnum Museum, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was compiling an exhibit of--what else?--model trains. When the curator commissioned a layout from the Dunhams, they became formal museum clients. With a little prodding Clarke can tick off a list of other such clients: The Valley Junction Train Museum in Des Moines, Iowa; The Western Heritage Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; New York City's World Trade Center; and a huge exhibit at America's Railroads on Parade in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The corporations called, but to Dunham's surprise, his studio also began getting calls from individuals who wanted their own layouts--some of which are nearly as large as the commercial jobs. He takes pains to protect the privacy of his clients, though there are a few tantalizing hints. There was the godfather of a national pizza chain, for instance, who commissioned a western railroad. Its craggy, sparsely vegetated mountainsides recall the 1930s paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and the classic westerns of filmmaker John Ford.
With theater only now reviving from the recession-induced dry spell, the train layout business "has been a boon to us," Clarke says. During busy times, many of the artists live at the Duhham lodge for up to eight weeks at a stretch. Says Barbara, "It's the only bed and breakfast where you pay the people to live with you." Part of her job, other than constructing many a layout's buildings, is to cook for the crew. "The 'starving artists' complain that they gain weight here,' she adds.
Inside the Dunhams' barn-cum-studio, there are no hay bales set up for one of Mickey's and Judy's talent revues, but instead a cavernous area covered with battens of silver-coated insulation. At a workbench, Clarke and artisan Rand Angelicola have been busy crafting the set model of a new Broadway musical for Hal Prince, Candide--they'd just received the go-ahead from Prince, and he wants it in two days. At the moment, though, Dunham's not exactly waiting for the next train to come along: nearby there's a model for a layout for the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum in Pennsylvania. A section of a new layout for a private customer is taking shape in the middle of the shop floor. Right now it's just a clear, smooth plywood base, with a future gorge already cut in. A tall, perfect, miniature (but still big) trestle already spans the gap, waiting for rocky ledges and waterfalls frozen in space, and, of course, a train. Around this new section, small portions of the World Trade Center's layout languish on the shop floor, giving potential customers an idea of the depth--and height--of the studio's work.
Clarke says that, aside from the extravagantly sized layouts, they've developed some 40 small layout types that are customized and adapted for individual wants and needs. All told, the sizes of Dunham Studio's works range from the four-foot-by-eight-foot plywood sheet favored by everyday basement enthusiasts to platforms 100 feet long. For the discerning enthusiast, size does matter. "We've done more big than small," Clarke says.
The price? Some of the bigger jobs cost nearly half a million dollars. For the most basic designs, figure paying $150 to $300 a square foot. There is no ceiling.
But there is a philosophy--and that as much as anything is responsible for the studio's success. For instance, in his commercial work Dunham likes to mix the scales of the trains: the larger ones in the foreground, descending in size to the smallest gauge in the background. "The foreground will have more of an element of fantasy, with a realistic center," says Clarke. "That way, everybody gets what they like." On top of that, Dunham must consider crowd control; that is, keeping up to 5,000 people a day moving through a commercial space. "Sometimes you walk around them, sometimes you walk into them. On three different public displays," he muses, "there has been only one incident out of a million people."
When it's pointed out that more people have seen his train layouts than have seen his work on Broadway, Dunham pauses for a moment. "That fact is not lost on me," he says. "It's ironical but true."
He walks over to a large section of the Citibank Station's layout to point out some of its extravagance of detail. It's a scene from a fictitious Hudson River community, circa 1941. The recently released Citizen Kane is now (and forever) showing at the miniature Art Deco Edison Theater, while a group of tiny children are frozen in place, having gleefully burst forth from the corner soda shop. A sign atop the tallest building reads: HUDSON HOUSE/GENERAK'S FINEST.
"People will say to us, 'I've eaten in that hotel and the food is really good,' " Dunham says. "After a while we've learned to agree with them." The good city of Generak, after all, derives its name from "generic."
Everywhere the advertisements of bygone and familiar products dot the landscape. Dunham says that they model from archival photos--"always with a large dose of art thrown in," he says with a chuckle. "There is a technique for modeling and theater called 'selective compression.' You take that from the object you need to convey what it is, and leave the rest behind." Still, for Dunham, authenticity is a must. "Somewhere there is a billboard for 'BULL DUNHAM' I am told, but beyond that it's total realism. Occasionally you might find dinosaurs peeking out of the woods, but they were put there by people no longer here," he says, before turning philosophical again.
"As for what clients get out of it, I don't know," Dunham says. "The guy who wants to watch trains go around wants it to watch trains go around. His point is to have something to treasure.
"In a real way, when you develop something like this, it's as real a work of art as anything else in the art world. They're portraits, not of a person, but of the world. It's as perfect as you want to make it. Better yet, it's your world and you can make with it what you will." In fact, when his customers insure their layouts, they do so as works of art.
"But why? It's the most common question and I still don't have any answers. But it seems to be that the transportation metaphor is always memory-based," he says. "What it carries you back to is what it means to you. It can be a better time, a happier time, or just a good time. But the words you hear the most--happier, simpler, familiar--it always has something to do with the past. It sure is powerful. A corporate officer at Citicorp said to me, 'Why do people want this? I don't understand.' All we can tell them is that it is fantasy. Anything more is counterproductive."
After a moment of contemplation, though, Dunham's not so willing to settle for an easy answer just yet. "If anyone can identify the synapse triggered by funny things running around on tracks," he finally says, "I'd be happy to know the answer."
Perhaps the answer is easy after all. The discerning collector simply wants the best.
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