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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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