Model train enthusiast shows off miniature landscapes for charity

Richard Walker, 69, and Sam Levine, 20, work on one of four train and miniature village displays located in Walker's home.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.

Although Richard Walker has amassed a collection of miniature buildings, cars and trains numbering in the hundreds, he doesn't really consider himself a collector.

"You know the difference between a collector and people like me?" Walker said. "A true collector doesn't really play with what they buy."

Every year, Walker, a retired Veterans Affairs employee, unboxes his models to build the sprawling miniature scenes throughout his house during the holiday season.

This year, however, he's doing it for a cause.

On Sunday afternoon, Walker and his wife will open their house to more than 100 of their friends and neighbors so they can view his handiwork. The Walkers only ask that their visitors bring along nonperishable food items to donate to the Bread of the Mighty food bank.

"You put so much work into this, you figure you might as well share it with other people, too," said Walker, 69.

Visitors to Walker's house are greeted with a recreation of a Victorian village in his living room, illuminated by the sun coming through the front windows. In the family room, a Christmas tree towers over a New York suburban scene, complete with billboards featuring photos of Walker's grandchildren.

In the laundry room, a snowy mountain scene sprawls across a washing machine and dryer. Walker turned an adjoining sink into a frozen lake, with mermaids and a sunken ship. The scene is modular for easy access to the washer.

"That's so my wife doesn't get mad at me," he said, laughing.

Walker's masterpiece is in his garage. Taking up half of the garage space, the nearly 6-foot-tall display features three levels of train tracks, buildings and mountains, set before a background of twinkling stars. Points of interest include a scale-model New York subway, the Hogwarts Express, Elvis and his pink Cadillac, and models of well-known eateries, including McDonald's and Krispy Kreme.

The garage display is so big, Walker uses a video baby monitor to make sure trains don't derail as they pass through the rear part of the landscape.

In all, the four displays include about a dozen trains, 100 cars, 300 buildings, 600 tiny people and more than 1,000 trees. Mountains and cliffs are carved and painted with intricate detail from Styrofoam.

A fan of railroad models since childhood, Walker focused on scale modeling, which involves designing almost-true-to-life landscapes, until the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he began collecting the model buildings he uses now when he realized he could use them more creatively to build layouts for his railroads.

Walker didn't build this year's display alone. Soon after he began work in October, Walker hired 20-year-old production design student Sam Levine via Craigslist.

"He was looking for some extra help, and I had a varied skill set," Levine said. " 'Playing with trains' is my occupation on Facebook now."

Though Levine, an alumnus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, specializes in lighting, he also did much of the landscape carving and assisted in the creative process.

"When you do something the second time or third time, you tend to go back to the same old stuff," Walker said. "I wanted someone who would be interested in taking part of the lead and making it happen, because you get surprises that way."

Walker held a similar open house for charity in 2011, when about 150 people brought in several hundred pounds of food. Though logistics prevent him from opening his home to the general public, Walker said he may be taking his scenes to other venues in the coming years.

Walker hopes others use their holiday displays as a way to help those less fortunate.

"If everybody with a light show had a box out front for people to donate food, people would probably donate," he said. "It's like saying 'thank you' for putting all this together."

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