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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

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

(continued from page 6)

"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.

New York City-based writer Phil Scott is the author of The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919 (Addison-Wesley, 1995).

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