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Transportation Nation

This Man Keeps Fond NYC Subway Memories Alive with Impressive Model Train Hobby

Monday, January 07, 2013

BMT line #7 "Green Hornet," 16 is the MS car, 1 is the D-motor. MT "D Motor" Triplex Car - courtesy Richard Dornhelm.

Millions of people in this country have hobbies. There’s stamp collecting, role playing games, beer making -- you name it, it’s out there.

And then there's my dad, Richard Dornhelm. He grew up in New York City in the 1940s and '50s and fell in love with the city's trains -- especially the ones running underground.

"I'm a civil engineer by training," he says now. "And I'm a Brooklyn boy by birth. We never had a car; we had a subway. We took the subway to my grandma’s house or we took the subway to museums. Took the subway to Coney Island. We took the subway pretty much everywhere we went."

When he was little, Dad and his brother Mark always stood at the front of the first car, where they’d stare out the huge front window as the trains barreled down the track.

[Listen to the audio version of this story at KQED]

"There wasn’t much to see in a tunnel," Dad says. "So it was really the anticipation that this train would take you somewhere and you’d come out of this hole in the ground and be in a very different place. A different world."

Dad grew up in Brooklyn -- near the Church Avenue station, on the F line -- and stayed there until he finished college. He eventually landed in California where he met my mom, who also grew up near the Church Avenue stop. When I was growing up, he only rode the subway when we went back East to visit family.

And then 15 years ago, he went to a railway museum in Rio Vista, a river town near Sacramento. And there he found some of the original 1880s steam-powered cars that once ran on Manhattan’s elevated tracks.

The two cars survived because they'd been sold for use in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond -- across the bay from San Francisco. After seeing them, my dad went home and started thinking about how to build replicas by hand, remembering subway modeling he’d done as a teen. And then the project just sort of took off.

One car led to another, and one subway line led to the next -- the old BMT, the Independent, and so on. You can see where this is going.

"I never intended to end up with 100 cars," Dad says.

But he did. And now my parents' living room in what is otherwise a simple 1970s tract home in Walnut Creek looks like a New York City rail yard. Dad's hand-crafted cars are about a foot long, of all colors, from all eras. They've won awards and run in holiday shows at Manhattan's Grand Central Station. There are antique-looking ones with paneled wooden sides and tiny bare lightbulbs. And there are shiny new stainless steel.

My dad allows that other people "don't look at subways the same way I do." Asked to explain, he adds: "I think they’re a marvel of ingenuity and even if they are a hole in the ground, it still has really produced enormous benefits for the people in the cities.”

My own kids have love for Dad's trains, too, driving them on a mock elevated track he's built. They can't really understand the hundreds of hours of work these incredibly detailed, built-from-scratch trains represent.

There are turquoise-and-white cars, replicas of cars built for a World's Fair. There's the 1930s “Green Hornet,” originally made of aluminum and shaped like a BART train, but scrapped because of World War II. And then there's the bright orange refrigerator car, something he remembers from the 1950s.

"The doors would open and people from the neighborhood would go up and buy crates of wine-making grapes," Dad remembers. "It was largely an Italian neighborhood. I remember I first heard about California because those orange refrigerator cars were from this place called California. Wonderful place I thought. Too bad the subway doesn’t go there."

Over the holidays, I watched my Dad sanding wood in his workshop, which used to be my room.  His father was a toolmaker and my Dad uses some of those tools as he works.

I’m struck by how much these models bring together: My dad and his father. Our families in California and Brooklyn. My dad’s childhood with his grandkids’. I can’t help but admire the cars' artistry as we look at them. He reminds me some of them will be mine someday.

“You don’t have to keep them all," he says. "You can just pick a few. And remember the subway… and remember me. What else can I say?"

To see more photos head over to KQED's The California Report where this article originally appeared. There's also a charming video of a model train pulling into a model El station and passengers "get on" the train with no seeming human hand at the puppet strings. Or go see the real things at the NY Transit Museum

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Transportation Nation

PHOTOS: One of World's Great Toy Train Collections Chugs Into NY Museum

Monday, December 03, 2012

(photo courtesy of NY Historical Society)

(Johanna Mayer - New York, NY - WNYC) Just in time for the holidays, the New York Historical Society is mounting the first museum exhibition of selections from perhaps the world's greatest model train collection.

Jerry and Nina Greene with the Jerni Model Train Collection. (photo courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

It took 50 years for private collectors Jerry and Nina Greene to put together their 35,000-piece Jerni collection, which the museum says spans from 1850 to 1940 and "is widely acknowledged as the world best." It bulges with intricately detailed and hand-painted toy trains, stations, bridges, and idyllic scenes from late 19th and early 20th century life.

Some of the models of European trains and stations have outlived their real-world counterparts, which were destroyed by bombs during the world wars.

(photo courtesy of NY Historical Society)

Frima Christopher recently came to the museum to see a different exhibit, but the elevated station caught her eye.  She leaned over a glass case and smiled. "I grew up in the Bronx with elevated trains being part of my childhood," she said. "And it was always a gateway to Manhattan or a gateway to the zoo, or someplace wonderful. And so, this is intriguing."

The exhibition will be on display through January 6th.

(photo courtesy of NY Historical Society)

 

Museum patron checking out the Jerni Model Train Collection. (photo by Johanna Mayer)

(photo courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

(photo courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

 (photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society)

(photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society)

 

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Transportation Nation

NYC Niche Market: Model Trains

Friday, December 02, 2011

An overhead view of Lorayne's model, on display at his store (photo by Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC)

(Annmarie Fertoli -- New York, WNYC) New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every week, WNYC's Niche Market takes a peek inside a different specialty store and showcases the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. This week the series looked at a model train shop in midtown Manhattan. You can listen to the audio version of the story below.

For Robert Lorayne, the owner of Gotham Model Trains, the weeks leading up to the holidays are the busiest time of the year. Inside the shop in the shadow of Pennsylvania Station, model train cars are neatly arranged in glass cases, and the walls are covered with everything needed to build a miniature world — from tracks, trestles and tunnels to tiny people, houses and livestock.

Growing up in Manhattan, Lorayne rode the subways a lot. He said a childhood interest in all sorts of vehicles, and in building, fueled his interest in model trains. He eventually turned that hobby into a business.

In the corner of the shop, through the front doors, is a model Lorayne built over the course of several months. It’s an Alpine landscape he said was inspired by Germany and Austria.

"There’s always a sort of surrealistic look to the grass in those areas, so I wanted to try to capture that in the scenery here,” he said.

On the model, faux rock pokes through the synthetic green grass on a steep mountain beset by intricately detailed homes and buildings. A long, curved trestle carrying a freight train carves a path around the mountain and underneath it. Clusters of trees dot the landscape, and little hikers and sheep pick their way over the hills.

The store has everything, Lorayne said, to “build your own little world.”

Turf — sold in bags that resemble a spice rack when put side by side — comes in several colors and textures. There’s even a mysterious crop circle, for those so inclined. For urban scenes, there are streetlights, tiny cars and modern stores.

Lorayne said he gets all sorts of customers, but most of them are adults, like Gary Flora.

Flora, who’s been into trains since he was a kid, said it’s a great hobby – and it’s also addicting. “I guess my father bought me my first train set, and it’s just stayed with me,” he said.

Flora came into the shop because one of his train cars was stalling on its way around the track. Lorayne fixed that with a bit of oil. He said most train sets just need a good cleaning, especially along the wheels and on the tracks.

Lorayne can do repairs at the shop, or order parts when needed.

Paul Godin is the shop's sole employee, and helps with the day-to-day business of running the shop. He began working for Lorayne several years ago at his first business, RL Soundlabs, which is now located right next door.

“I grew up in Milwaukee, so that’s a big railroading city,” he said, adding that he remembers walking on freight tracks as a kid.  “For me, I like kind of more the history aspect of the actual railroads, and then trying to achieve that in a model."

But Godin said his apartment is too small to fit a train set: “I get my fix by coming to work here,” he said.

Gotham Model Train's Robert Lorayne (photo by Annmarie Fertoli/WNYC)

Interview with Robert Lorayne, owner of Gotham Model Trains

Who are your customers?

It’s really varied. I mean, it can be anything from people wanting to buy a beginner train set ... for a child, to see if they’re going to be interested in it or not. And then there are real, you know, die-hards and ... older people that ... do it because they have a lot of free time and now they have the money to you know build large layouts, because it’s not cheap to buy something really large.

Has business changed at all over the last couple of years? Has it gotten tougher?

It has. I think everything has with the economy. It is not a necessity, you know, model trains, obviously. Even though we still do pretty well, and I think that maybe people would rather have, you know, a locomotive or something that they can really appreciate and look at over and over again as opposed to, let’s say, going out to dinner or buying something that wears out quickly.

What kinds of things can you repair in shop?

Pretty much anything as long as we can get parts. A lot of the newer items will be under a warranty, so sometimes it’s better to — that, to just send back to the manufacturer because it’s free, you know, for them to do it.

For us, we charge as little as possible, even though some things are time-consuming. But, you know, a lot of the repairs are usually around just cleaning up things . ... Sometimes wires come loose and they have to be re-soldered. Things like that.

Have you had any really interesting experiences, like someone digging out a set from years ago and bringing it in?

Well, we do get a lot of collections. We do get a lot of older people who are either, you know, just tired of it, or people that are just trying to, you know raise some cash, for bills or whatever. And we get a lot of interesting things actually. We have – I have a lot of old Lionel trains from the '20s and '30s that I got from collections, and a lot of brass pieces, which are pretty valuable.

What’s the price range between starter sets and higher-end models?

Well, you can start out with, let’s say, like, a Bachmann Set, you can start about  $79.99 or $100, and get you know a decent starter set. And then there’s Marklin starter sets, which are probably on the higher end of things, which run in the $750 range, or, you know, or more. So it really depends on how serious you want to, you know, get with it. A lot of people buy, start out with an inexpensive starter set just to see if you know their child or whatever is going to stick with it, or not, or if it’s just a passing you know, phase, rather than spending a whole bunch of money at first.

Do you get any kids coming in with parents?

We do, oh yeah.

Are they still interested in this sort of thing?

I don’t think it’s the same as it used to be. I don’t think there are as many kids. Most of my customers are adults. But the kids that are interested are extremely enthusiastic about it. They don’t want to be doing video games and stuff, I mean they want to be building things and using their imagination and creativity, and they’re very into it.

For a slideshow of more photos of Gotham Model Trains, click here.

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