Comparables

Tom Krens certainly intends for his model train museum to be incomparable, but it makes sense to compare his plan with some other sites that usually appear on lists of the best model train displays in the world.  Tom’s favorite example is the Minatur Wunderland  in Hamburg, Germany, which draws more than a million visitors a year — you can get a five-minute taste of that attraction here.

Another candidate for the title of “world’s largest model railroad” is closer to the Berkshires — here is a similarly brief introduction to Northlandz in Flemington NJ, from the PBS series Tracks Ahead.  (Since I posted this, there’s been another good two-minute introduction on YouTube.)   

I was able to make a personal visit to Northlandz recently — click through to view an illustrated tour, with my observations on how Tom’s project will far outdo that attraction , manifesting the creative difference between obsessive hobbyist and experienced museum director.

In the illustrated commentary that follows, I may seem unduly critical of Northlandz, because I’ll keep drawing a contrast with Tom’s project, to the latter’s advantage, so let me give credit where it’s due.  Bruce Williams Zaccagnino has devoted forty years to model railroad building, starting in his basement, expanding that set-up several times, then in 1996 opening Northlandz in a 52,000 square foot space spread over three stories, having spent years designing and constructing the massive display.  And he’s run it single-mindedly and almost single-handedly for twenty years, though the wear of those years shows.  If it’s a bit amateurish, it also clearly a labor of love.  A wonder for three-year-old boys, and the three-year-old inside each of us.  So if you didn’t follow the link, before the break, to the Tracks Ahead segment on Northlandz, please do so now.  Then proceed to my critique.

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The first advantage the EMRCA plan has over Northlandz is its location.  Here you can see the cars hurtling by at 60 mph on U.S. Route 202, on their way to the fabled outlet malls of Flemington, in remote suburban New Jersey.  This has none of the visitor appeal of the northern Berkshires, and its “cultural corridor,” nor is it in walking distance of what could and should be a vibrant downtown in a beautiful landscape.  You’ll also see the age of the attraction showing, ready to yield its world ranking to a brash newcomer in North Adams.  If Northlandz averages over 125,000 visitors per year, EMRCA is easily projected to double or triple that.

This grandiose but nondescript frontage gives no hint of what lies behind the facade, which in structural terms is a merely a three-story metal-walled warehouse, though that reality is covered up by the imaginatively constructed interior, wound through by a continuous labyrinthine pathway that offers multiple perspectives on the displays while moving imperceptibly up or down.  Ironically it reminded me of F.L. Wright’s Guggenheim building, though rather than the spiral of a shell, what’s evoked is more like intestines winding around.  With EMRCA located in an historical train station in an urban Heritage Park, the architecture is infinitely more appropriate to the attraction within.

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Behold the creator in his creation — Bruce Williams Zaccagnino.

7421553876_a464f7c84c_bThis view from upper level shows the walkways that wind through the exhibit as well as the landscapes depicted, and the bridges that are such a notable feature of the display.

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This view highlights some characteristically good and bad elements of Northlandz.  The reproduction of the epoch-making 19th-century Firth of Forth bridge is spectacular, as are so many of the bridges in the display.  What’s lacking is context – what an educational opportunity something like this would create for one of the informational kiosks at EMRCA, delving into history, engineering, and even geometry!  On the negative side, the naked fluorescents show the unsophisticated lighting, which EMRCA’s museum-quality lighting will surely surpass.

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This view highlights the eight miles of track included in the display.  EMRCA plans a similar amount.

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This roundhouse is impressive, but pales besides a similar replica already built for EMRCA, primarily because of the difference in scale between the predominantly HO layout of Northlandz and EMRCA’s larger O-scale.
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One of Tom’s selling points for the EMRCA building is its lack of supporting columns which disturb the verisimilitude.  The landscapes of Northlandz are more impressionistic and generic than what Tom will achieve with a variety of means, including satellite imaging and 3-D printing, as well as precision modeling.

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Similarly with urban landscapes.  Instead of generic architecture such as this cityscape, EMRCA will feature varieties of realistic urban design, from North Adams to New York City, as well as architects’ scale models of contemporary buildings from around the world.

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This view of the Northlandz control room indicates the vast difference between twenty-year-old technology and the latest digital engineering.  See this prospective model for EMRCA’s control panel:  image001

Like Northlandz, EMRCA plans to have more than a hundred trains running at a time, but crucially have them pulling more railroad cars, since one of the most mesmerizing sights for any railroad fanatic is to see a long train snaking its way through the landscape.  At this late date, too many of Northlandz’ locomotives are pulling only one or two cars.

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Northlandz combines kit models with constructions from scratch, but with an overall helter-skelter design sense.  The “mansion hill” on the left, for example, contains examples of differing styles of architecture simply strewn across he landscape.  The picture on the right suggests the Nowheresville depicted.  The illusion of a whole world realistically recreated in miniature is sabotaged by such things as a model of Notre Dame Cathedral sitting alone on a mountain butte.

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The three-floor mountain landscape of Northlandz yields some spectacular vistas and perspectives, but also constrains verisimilitude, and yields whimsical models like the factory on the right, as well as an aerial golf course and other features that undermine the illusion of glimpsing a real world in a consistently reduced scale.

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This picture captures the primary appeal of Northlandz as a enchanting wonderland for young boys.  Bruce Williams Zaccagnino certainly deserves commendation for creating and sustaining such an attraction over two decades, with more than two million visitors over that time. Nonetheless, EMRCA will contain many more dimensions to broaden its appeal across a range of different audiences, with something for all ages and all levels of sophistication, with a supporting organization in place to keep the museum fresh and exciting, as well as connected to the community and the wider world.

 

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