America’s holiday season train shows are back


Many holiday-season train shows were canceled or limited to fewer visitors last year because of the pandemic, but this year the popular attractions are back at botanical gardens, conservatories and elsewhere around the country.

The shows, now a tradition in many cities, feature a combination of model trains and painstakingly detailed models of landmark buildings made from leaves, twigs and other dried plant materials.

‘It’s magical because people love to picture themselves in these small landscapes, with displays of greenery hiding whimsical elements surrounding the models of trains and ornate structures,’ says Karen Daubmann, vice president for exhibitions and public engagement at the New York Botanical Garden, where the tradition started in 1992.

A miniature of the old Penn Station is displayed while modelers prepare for the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden

Laura Busse Dolan, right, and Annie Gessendorf carefully place the newest creation in the Holiday Train Show, a miniature of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, in a bed at the New York Botanical Garden

Laura Busse Dolan, right, and Annie Gessendorf carefully place the newest creation in the Holiday Train Show, a miniature of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, in a bed at the New York Botanical Garden

Annie works on the electricity for the miniature of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library

Annie works on the electricity for the miniature of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library

The train show tradition in America can be traced back to Ohio landscape architect Paul Busse

The train show tradition in America can be traced back to Ohio landscape architect Paul Busse

At this year’s show there features more than 175 models of New York landmarks and over 25 different model trains wending their way past them.

Although model trains and holiday greenery have long been intertwined in the popular imagination, the history of this particular genre is as precise as it is surprising.

Almost 40 years ago, Ohio landscape architect Paul Busse took his quirky passion for trains, architecture and gardens public, setting up a garden railway exhibit at the 1982 Ohio State Fair. Throughout the 1980s, Busse developed his now-famous fanciful structures decorated with dried plant material. His ‘botanical architecture’, as he called it, along with his model train set-ups, were featured at prominent garden shows, primarily in the Midwest.

Kieran Beam works tracks on a bridge as part of the preparations for the New York Botanical Garden's annual Holiday Train Show

Kieran Beam works tracks on a bridge as part of the preparations for the New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show

The New York show runs from November 20 through January 23. Visitors are asked to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID, and there is a mask mandate in the garden's indoor spaces

The New York show runs from November 20 through January 23. Visitors are asked to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID, and there is a mask mandate in the garden’s indoor spaces

In 1992, the New York Botanical Garden, smitten by the concept and looking for a way to attract visitors in the winter, invited Busse and his team to create a ‘Holiday Train Show’ there.

‘That first year it only featured a couple of train tracks and a handful of models of New York landmarks. But it was such a success that it became an annual tradition, with a few new models of landmarks added each year,’ says Daubmann.

The idea soon spread.

Similar holiday-themed train shows featuring the work of the Busse family and their team popped up at botanical gardens and other spots around the country, including the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in Columbus, Ohio; the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.; the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati; the Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens in Rockford, Illinois; and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.

Margeaux Lim fills in the landscaping around miniature houses ahead of this weekend's annual Holiday Train Show in New York

Margeaux Lim fills in the landscaping around miniature houses ahead of this weekend’s annual Holiday Train Show in New York

This photograph of a miniature brownstone building underscores the level of detail in each model

This photograph of a miniature brownstone building underscores the level of detail in each model

Busse’s company, Applied Imagination, Ltd – launched in 1991 in a tiny basement in Cincinnati – soon ran out of space and moved to Alexandria, Kentucky, where it is now based. It has a dozen or so full-time employees who build models in a studio stocked with plant materials.

‘We’ve got everything from sticks of different colors and textures, to shelf fungus, to a huge array of pinecones. You can’t imagine how many types of pinecones there are out there,’ says Busse’s daughter Laura Busse Dolan, who took the helm of the company five years ago.

To install all the shows, Applied Imagination’s teams – some tasked with creating model buildings and others working on tiny bridges and tunnels – pack their suitcases in October and travel ‘straight on until Thanksgiving’, she says.

At this year's show there features more than 175 models of New York landmarks and over 25 different model trains wending their way past them

At this year’s show there features more than 175 models of New York landmarks and over 25 different model trains wending their way past them

This year, they are putting together nine holiday shows, most at botanical gardens.

‘It takes every individual in this company to pull this thing off,’ says Dolan.

Over the years, the company has learned a thing or two.

Standout models at The New York Botanical Garden's show include One World Trade Center (made using an upward branching pattern to symbolize the spirit of rebirth after 9/11); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (made largely of shelf fungus); the Statue of Liberty; the Apollo Theater; Coney Island; numerous brownstones; and some of the botanical garden's distinctive buildings

Standout models at The New York Botanical Garden’s show include One World Trade Center (made using an upward branching pattern to symbolize the spirit of rebirth after 9/11); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (made largely of shelf fungus); the Statue of Liberty; the Apollo Theater; Coney Island; numerous brownstones; and some of the botanical garden’s distinctive buildings

‘We now avoid using dried berries or acorns in our structures because they’re far too edible. Little creatures nibble on them while the pieces are in storage,’ Dolan says. ‘One year, the squirrels ate one of our lampposts, so we learned the hard way.’

Standout models at The New York Botanical Garden’s show include One World Trade Center (made using an upward branching pattern to symbolize the spirit of rebirth after 9/11); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (made largely of shelf fungus); the Statue of Liberty; the Apollo Theater; Coney Island; numerous brownstones; and some of the botanical garden’s distinctive buildings.

‘On average, we create about 50 structures a year for various locations,’ says Dolan. ‘I would say we’ve made 2,000 to 3,000 total over the course of our existence.

‘The smaller ones take around 250 hours. Our biggest one, an 11-foot replica of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, took nearly 3,000 hours. It is on display at the Biltmore Estate through the holidays this year.’

The New York show runs from November 20 through January 23. Visitors are asked to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID, and there is a mask mandate in the garden’s indoor spaces. Tickets are timed, and available in advance.

Some of the smaller models take around 250 hours to build, while the most complex can take thousands of hours

Some of the smaller models take around 250 hours to build, while the most complex can take thousands of hours

The beloved tradition at the botanical garden in New York is now in its 30th year

The beloved tradition at the botanical garden in New York is now in its 30th year 



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