G-scale model trains whiz overhead on replicas of New York City bridges made from thousands of sticks at the 31st annual Holiday Train Show, open now at the New York Botanical Garden. Kids race past 190 miniature versions of landmarks like Grand Central Terminal, the Guggenheim Museum and Belvedere Castle. Sunlight streaming through the Conservatory's glass dome catches on plants and glittery Christmas displays alike.
Applied Imagination, the company that puts the show together, painstakingly recreates the facades of iconic New York City buildings using only organic matter that’s already dead. Fallen sticks and leaves become infrastructure. Plant-based resin transforms to glass. The Kentucky-based team takes field trips to nearby forests to collect materials.
It’s a tactic the company’s founder, Paul Busse, developed when he first started creating miniature cities and trainscapes for botanical gardens in the 1980s.
“Plastic models were not elevated enough to kind of dress these really elegant glass houses. And that was when the idea of botanical architecture was born,” said Laura Busse Dolan, Busse’s daughter and the current owner of Applied Imagination.
To say Dolan grew up around trains would be a dramatic understatement. She was just 11 years old when Busse created the first New York holiday train show at the New York Botanical Garden in 1992. Her father was president of the local chapter of train enthusiasts where she grew up, the Greater Cincinnati Garden Railway Society.
Her mom was forced to put a moratorium on trains after they began taking over the house.
“We'd come back from a trip to see my grandmother or something to a train layout on our entire first floor,” said Dolan, who ended a long-standing career in marketing to take over the family business in 2017.
Busse still loved trains, but his Parkinson's had progressed to a point where he could no longer physically build the sets or travel the hundreds of miles around the country to nestle them into botanical gardens. But Busse continues to watch from afar — and he still has model trains running in his house.
“I get on FaceTime with him throughout the installations and walk him around and show him our progress," Dolan said. "And he’s so proud that we're able to carry it on. That obsession... some people grow out of. I don't think Paul ever did."
During a recent visit to the train show, another father-daughter team was spotted admiring Dolan and Busse’s work. Paige Arneill, 10, was visiting with her family. Her father Scott pointed out a building they both were excited about: the TWA Center at JFK Airport.
“Look at how they made the landing pad!” Paige exclaimed.
The building the Arneills were admiring is extra special to the Busse family: Dolan credits it with being one of the inspirations behind their interest in mechanics and New York architecture. She said her grandfather, Busse’s father, worked there as an inventor in radio communications.
Perhaps the TWA Center is magnetized to attract those possessed by the mechanics of movement. As it happens, the young Arneill is an inventor, too. She said she hopes to go professional one day. But for now, she’s mainly building out various slingshot ideas to target her big sister with. She picked up an idea from the exhibit.
“A train set that automatically fires a slingshot,” Arneill said.
Scott Arneill remembers coming to the show as a child himself.
“As a little boy, coming and seeing a whole giant building filled with trains and small buildings was mesmerizing,” he said.
As an adult, he says he can better appreciate the architecture. But for kids, it feels different.
“For them, it’s just magical,” he said.
Magic, Dolan said, is the whole point of the show, and something she loves seeing visitors experience. As hard as it was to see her dad's health declining, Dolan said returning full circle to the trains was special, and allowed her to see some of what her dad saw himself.
“When I got back involved, and saw that the magic of my childhood was just there waiting for me, I can now say I, too, am obsessed with trains,” she said.
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Grand Central Terminal was improperly identified.