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'Holiday Train Show' Chugs to Life at the New York Botanical Garden

By Patrick Wall | November 14, 2012 9:47am

FORDHAM — Step inside the New York Botanical Garden’s giant domed conservatory this winter and find the city of New York — only much smaller and made of plants.

The Statue of Liberty rises above a reflecting pool, draped in a robe of palm fronds, and lifts a pomegranate torch toward the glass roof.

Acorn-encased LED lights glitter atop a Yankee Stadium that bark, twigs and cinnamon sticks built.

Macy’s Herald Square emporium, “The World’s Largest Store,” towers 4 feet high and wide, its façade a riot of bark, branches and grapevine.

And below it all, a mouse-sized commuter train barrels toward a 20-square-foot Penn Station, adorned with honeysuckle and pinecone, which has yet to be replaced by a miniature arena.

“This is the 21st annual Holiday Train Show,” said Karen Daubmann, the Garden’s director of exhibitions. “And it’s really a magical place.”

The exhibition, which begins Saturday, features more than 140 smaller-than-life buildings — from the Apollo Theater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ornate mansions whose exact history is unknown. All are made from bits of bark, branches, seeds and other dried plant matter.

The electric trains — model steam engines, trollies and passenger trains — roll along a quarter-mile of brass track, some of it atop 20-foot-long branch bridges. Electric cable cars dangle over the reflecting pool.

Since the event began in 1992, it has been designed and constructed by one man and his team — Paul Busse and Applied Imagination, based in Alexandria, Ky.

Busse, who creates model exhibits for botanical gardens around the country, has been the subject of a PBS documentary, which the Garden will screen on weekends. He also sells 2-inch-wide suspenders printed with railroad tracks.

He and his crew of about 15 full-time craftsmen — model architects, landscape designers and engineers — begin each replica by studying photographs, architectural drawings, even Google Earth images of the original building.

Then they construct the models layer by layer over foam-board shells, attaching mosses, leaves, acorns and other natural materials gathered from the woods around their studio.

Busse is careful to point out that the miniatures are “visual interpretations” of the actual buildings, not scale models.

For the second year, the show features a side display with models in various stages of completion, to demonstrate the construction process, along with replicas of buildings from across the U.S. and the world that aren’t included in the main exhibition.

Each year, the Applied Imagination team transports the models from Kentucky to New York. Once in The Bronx, they employ a crew of local artists to assist with assembly, which takes about 10 days.

“A week ago, these rooms were totally empty,” except for the greenery, Busse said Tuesday, standing near an elaborate replica of St. Patrick’s Cathedral — one of his favorites. A train chugged past the plant church and over a wooden bridge above a pond.

“I feel like I get to wave a magic wand,” he said.

The exhibition runs from Nov. 17 to Jan.13. Tickets are timed and start at $20 for adults and $10 for kids 12 and under for All-Garden passes. Check the website for details.