Once again the New York Botanical Garden outdoes itself with its Holiday Train Show, a seasonal offering at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Of course the NYBG is a playland for children. And adults rush there for its serenity and the exceptional quality of its theatrically landscaped exhibits. Indeed, during the last week of the Chihuly exhibit, the immense crowds staggered the imagination. Running high off that once-in-a-lifetime exhibition comes one of New York’s favorites of the season, the Holiday Train Show.
Each year I look forward to this show for a number of reasons. First, it sparkles with delight and excitement. It reminds me of my own childhood Christmases when carefree happiness seemed to chase new discoveries around every corner of my life. Second, the artistry represented in the miniature structures highlighting the New York State and New York City environs manifests the utmost passion. Third, I enjoy speaking with the team that lovingly designs the extravaganza with assiduous detail.
Always curious about how long it takes to set up the show (about two weeks), and what innovations have been added, I stay after to inquire. Team members happily supply the information. One can hear the joy and enthusiasm in their voices. For they bask in the knowledge that their exceptionalism and loving labor bring a tremendous uplift to Garden patrons, members, and first-time visitors alike during the holidays.
The collaborative artists at Applied Imagination responsible for the exquisite craftsmanship and ingenious building replicas continually amaze. How do they intuit which plant parts (seeds, gourds, twigs, leaves, kernels, pods) work to mimic actual building cornices, columns, finials?
Moreover, in the assemblage of the final product, what must be the process, the trial and error, the suggestions and imaginings to bring a building project to completion? Always, the result is beautiful. But don’t take my word for it. See the Holiday Train Show for yourself. There are new and old landmarks. Take a slew of pictures and blow them up to see the details. You will be wonderstruck.
Now in its 26th year, the show’s landscaped layout again teases. The unique plantings around the replicas tweak my remembrance. First, wasn’t Rockefeller Center part of the Downtown Manhattan scene in the main stage rotunda last year? Yet of course the plants and plantings appear to be different. Second, weren’t there more (or fewer) ferns, lilies and orchids? Also, there appear to be more trains this year than last – 25 of them this time around. I could swear that no African violets had sneaked into the TWA display with its planes and runway last year. But they may have been there – so I must check.
Also this year, they moved the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to greater prominence. Perhaps this is not a coincidence if one considers the real library building’s exertions to close, renovate, then reopen in early 2020 with a newly modernized interior. Indeed, the Fifth Avenue library guarded by stalwart lions remains a wonder whether in Manhattan reality or as a replica at NYBG in The Bronx.
This year’s New York City bridges are presented differently from last year, all five bridges situated above section entrances. In 2016 the Brooklyn Bridge arched over the entrance in the Palms of the World Gallery for the Coney Island presentation. And the Manhattan Bridge arched over the entrance to the Manhattan Downtown scene. But where in the world did they display the Queensboro Bridge last year?
This year it hovers fittingly in the entrance to the new replicas created for the Midtown Manhattan scene, just as the real Queensboro carries traffic – a crush of it during the holidays – into Manhattan. And this scene adds a spectacular dimension with new innovations (the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, GE Building and St. Bartholomew’s Church). Reflecting images in the Palms of the World Gallery, the models stun. I know Bar Car Nights in this particular gallery will be smashing.
It would seem that I have to return to my pictures and articles to note the divergences in the show as the Garden’s holiday exhibit evolves from year to year. The holiday presentation is never the same.
And I defy anyone besides the experts and volunteers who build this marvelous horticultural entertainment to explain where the Manhattan skyscrapers, the Poe Cottage, the Jewish Museum and the Armory resided in the Conservatory during each of the last three years of the Train Show. With every exhibit, the Train Show and the Garden are all about innovation, surprise, joy, and pleasing the senses.
The show begins with a film. Narrated by Leslie Salka of Applied Imagination, it highlights what to look for to appreciate fully the buildings beyond their labels. Next, staff usher you into the spectacular 360-degree, 3,000-foot room of trains (G-scale). Above the audience, steam locomotives pulling freight and diesel engines pulling passenger cars glide. Below, trolley cars zip by. Also, throughout the show you’ll see the adorable novelty cars, colorful and whimsical. The track extends to almost a half mile of coverage throughout the extension and the conservatory.
In the extension of grand panoramas before one enters the conservatory, the trains whistle, chug, whip, and wind spectacularly along bridges, past Grand Central Station, and under the old Penn Station. Look for the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in a sterling arrangement front and center. Innovated into a new creation in 2014, its gorgeousness appears golden in any light.
Because New York developers enjoy razing and redeveloping the city, the model of the old Penn Station conveys nostalgia. For the station was torn down to insufficient outcry. But its demolition goaded New Yorkers into landmarking other buildings. Thankfully, Grand Central Terminal didn’t follow the way of Penn. Significantly, one of the themes of the Holiday Train Show becomes a celebration of landmarked buildings in New York and a remembrance of classic, iconic structures which should have been preserved but were not.
Interestingly, if you carefully read the plaques identifying the buildings, you will note two dates on some of them. One signifies building completion, the other building demolition. As you acknowledge the striking replicas, you question how some of the most extraordinary structures, fabulously represented here through Applied Imagination’s craftsmanship, came to be demolished. For example, the William A. Clark house puzzles. After Senator Clark died, a developer purchased the magnificent home. A few years later the developer demolished it and put up a luxury apartment building. However, the miniature reproduction in its historical gilded-age splendor resides untouched at the Holiday Train Show. It, like many of the miniatures with dual dates, is a remarkable thing to look up on Wikipedia or some more specialized site.
Thankfully, Paul Busse, originator of Applied Imagination, evolved his dreams to organically create structures in clear defiance of a manufactured world of steel and plastic. And his daughter Laura Busse Dolan, the company’s current owner, carries on her father’s work.
Importantly, every nuance of the replicas reveals its plant parents. For example if one examines closely the Angel of the Waters Fountain in the Central Park section, one recognizes the ingenuity and arrangement of the pods, seeds, wood, etc. Because of clever botanists or officials like Karen Daubmann (NYBG’s Associate VP for Exhibitions and Public Engagement), various books on the show identify where the parts come from. Consequently, every replica combines hundreds of plant pieces molded to exactly duplicate the original New York structures whether from the Hudson River Valley or the five boroughs. Indeed, there are over 150 replicas in the show.
Happily, the entire presentation reflects the notions of the historic, the organic, and the sustainable. It would seem that even the resin used to secure the artisans’ work is water-based. Not only was Paul Busse a maverick ahead of his time, the brilliance of his conceptualizations cannot be measured. Surely, the more one views them, the more one appreciates how astounding they are.
The Holiday Train Show begins 22 November and runs through 15 January 2018.
For select programming, go to NYBG.org.
Find out about the popular Bar Car Nights (select Fridays and Saturdays exclusively for adults) too.
Additionally, there is the Holiday Tree Lighting on Sunday, 3 December. Next, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins returns to read poems he has written for the Garden on 17 December. The Connecticut Ballet presents Highlights from The Nutcracker at Ross Hall on Sunday, 10 December. There is much more, including a Family Benefit on Wednesday 29 November which includes a performance by the NYC Children’s Chorus, dinner, and a special appearance by Chef Carla Hall.