Holiday train shows around the country

Image: Model train
Muriel Weinerman / New York Botanic Garden
/ Source: The Associated Press

Models of the Obama White House, the Obama home in Chicago and the house Michelle Obama grew up in are on display at holiday train shows at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington.

Holiday train shows also are held in other gardens around the country, with each show featuring trains running past miniature versions of local landmark buildings. Other locations for the holiday train shows include the New York Botanical Garden in the New York City borough of the Bronx, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The trains are garden-scale models, which are about 1/25th the size of real trains. But the most spectacular aspect of these shows is that the model buildings are created from plant material — seeds, bark, pods, stems and the like — by designer Paul Busse and his Kentucky-based company, Applied Imagination.

For example, the front of the replica of the Obamas' Kenwood home in the Chicago Botanic Garden exhibit is layered with white pine bark and catalpa beans. Tiny flower pots made out of burr oak caps and acorns are set on front steps made from palm stems and sea grape leaves. The front porch is made of honeysuckle, eucalyptus leaves, okra seeds, and magnolia and lotus pod stems. The bricks in Michelle Obama's childhood home are pine tree bark and the dormers are crafted out of redbud seed pods.

In addition to the Obama home replicas, the Chicago Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express show includes more than 80 other miniatures of Chicago landmarks like Navy Pier, Soldier Field, Millennium Park and the Shedd Aquarium.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden, a model of the White House used in past holiday shows was modified this year to add the White House vegetable garden and a swing set used by the Obama girls. Also new to the Washington garden show is a replica of the National Museum of the American Indian. The sizes of the buildings, which include many other Washington landmarks, range from 7 feet (2 meters) across for the U.S. Capitol to 2 feet (0.6 meters) across for the Jefferson Memorial.

In the U.S. Botanic Garden's main train exhibit, trains run through miniature depictions of stories and characters from children's literature, from "The Owl and the Pussycat" to Cinderella.

The U.S. Botanic Garden show runs Nov. 26-Jan. 10. The garden conservatory is free and open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays in December).

The New York Botanical Garden's Holiday Train Show features a model of the original Pennsylvania Station, a McKim, Mead and White building that was demolished in 1964. Its destruction is still mourned by preservationists, and is often cited as having helped inspire the modern-day movement to save historic and architecturally significant buildings. The show also includes miniatures of the original Yankee stadium, Hudson River mansions and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Todd Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections at the New York Botanical Garden, said the show typically attracts 160,000 visitors. It started in 1991 with a dozen buildings, now has more than 140 structures, and has become a tradition for many families.

The show in the Bronx runs through Jan. 10, with garden hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday (closed Christmas Day and at 3 p.m. Dec. 4 and Dec. 24, with extended hours some other days). Tickets are $20, adults, and $10 for children (adults, $25, and kids $15 the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 3).

At Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, the Railway Garden show features a train traveling through three indoor gardens. The historic Grand Rapids buildings depicted in the show include St. Marks Episcopal Church, The Choo Choo Grill, McKay Towers, Pantlind Hotel, St. Cecilia Music Society and Ryerson Library. The exhibit will be open until Jan. 10. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tuesdays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, and $6 for children 5-13.

At the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, the miniature buildings and trains are part of a 20-foot (6-meter)-high rotating music box on display for the conservatory's annual holiday show. The show this year is themed on Swedish winter and holiday traditions. Some 20,000 to 30,000 visitors come through to see the show each year. Admission to the show is free. It runs through Jan. 3, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, and until 8 p.m. Dec. 19-30, except for Christmas Day, when it closes at 5 p.m.

Busse, the 60-year-old designer for the shows, said the holiday train shows are rooted in several traditions. Toy trains were the "ultimate gift toy for Christmas" for many generations, and, he noted, even today's young children are crazy for Thomas the Tank Engine.

A tradition of running model trains outside began in England in the late 19th century, and the hobby of setting up garden railway exhibits in home gardens remains popular in the U.S. today.

But Busse said the tradition of holiday train shows at public gardens is relatively new, with one of the first in the United States held in 1986 at the Krohn Conservatory.

Busse's own interest in trains started when he was a little boy growing up in the Midwest. His grandmother's neighbor was a retired railroad engineer with an outdoor train in his backyard that kids could ride on.

"The bug bit me early," he said.