Paul Busse flips a switch in the conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden and his creation comes to life. Busse's blue eyes seem to flash -- the wicked passion of Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps? -- but his monster is benign and whistles like a train.
Or, rather, five trains, two trolley cars, 600 feet of track on four levels, a gushing waterfall, three crowning bridges and much more. As garden railroading has become a big hobby in the United States, and public gardens clamor to join the craze, Busse has become the guy to tap.
Children -- and adults -- are drawn to Busse's elaborate, multidimensional layouts.
(Len Spoden For The Washington Post)
A youthful 55-year-old with a mop of salt-and-pepper hair and beard to match, Busse offers something different from regular train layouts: a horticultural integrity that makes them appropriate for botanical institutions. Busse, a landscape architect, creates volumes and textures with his displays and likes to direct views in a way that gives an illusion of depth in a relatively confined space. His greatest feat, however, is the construction of model buildings and bridges fashioned from dried plant material, even if that happens to be a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, 28 feet long and 14 feet high.
The trains provide a kinetic link to the three exhibition islands, wending through tunnels and across bridges, past villages, and along valleys of dwarf conifers and drifts of poinsettias.
Busse hit the scene 13 years ago at the New York Botanical Garden, where his holiday train display today draws 126,000 visitors over seven weeks. The Brooklyn Bridge is the latest Big Apple landmark at the New York show, which now totals 128 structures, including the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and St. Patrick's Cathedral.
His first show in Washington, which opened Friday and runs until Jan. 9, is smaller, occupying the West Gallery of the U.S. Botanic Garden, but is no less rich in its layers of detail and whimsy.
At its entrance, the display is veiled by towering slabs of Eastern red cedar trunks (castoffs/sc from Busse's local sawmill), arranged in tilted planes to look like granite palisades. A large trestle bridge, fashioned from willow twigs, spans to the exhibition's main island, which occupies the length of the room. Here, the experience begins with a view of a valley of farm buildings, all modeled on historic structures that Busse has researched.
One model is based on the real Iowa house that formed the backdrop of painter Grant Wood's "American Gothic." The same grouping includes railroad engineer Casey Jones's house in Jackson, Tenn., and a typical Kentucky dairy barn with silo. Keen observation is rewarded: You see that a tractor's wheels are made of lotus seedpods. Roofs are shingled with the bark of Osage orange and hickory, or in the case of an 1820 lighthouse, with eucalyptus petals. Included here is environmentalist John Muir's California home, with a tin roof fashioned from magnolia leaves. Wrought-iron railings are made from grapevine tendrils, eave corbels are gleaned from a tree fern and decorative urns from poppy seedpods. There's the stone house that was George Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge, its roof made from the fungi that grows on dying oaks.
In his quest to provide train layouts, Busse has -- somewhat bizarrely -- enshrined some of America's most important historic landmarks in dead vegetation.
The show also includes a chapel from an Old West ghost town and a windmill from Bridgehampton, N.Y., with a weathervane of a whale made from an alder seedpod and a piece of yucca. It is this weird detail that Busse hopes will draw people in. The panes of glass, yellowed and bubbled, are custom-made from resin and help convey the magic elfin villages that evoke the season.
The one building made specifically for the Washington show is a replica of the conservatory in which it is staged, itself a landmark in the District.
The display is part of a larger exhibition, "Home for the Holidays," which evokes the nostalgia of the 1940s, and while the train sets are of different periods, the locomotive star of Busse's exhibition fits squarely in the big-band era. It is a model of the Broadway Limited, which stylishly wined, dined and slumbered passengers between New York and Chicago.
Holly Shimizu, the botanic garden's executive director, said Busse's "gardenesque" design and curious use of plant material makes the display legitimate. "I couldn't justify doing trains for trains' sake," she said.
But the formula has proved widely popular in similar institutions that increasingly need something more than poinsettias to draw crowds at Christmas. Busse's layouts are currently on display at Longwood Gardens and the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania, the New Orleans Botanical Garden, the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati.
Busse and his wife, Margaret, run the company Applied Imagination out of their 12-acre property in Alexandria, Ky. Busse's first model exhibition was a side job at the Ohio State Fair in 1982, but he got his big break with the New York commission.
At the time, the New York Botanical Garden was looking for ways to draw visitors to the Haupt Conservatory during the winter months, said Adrian Benepe, who was with the garden's development office at the time. A colleague showed him a hobby magazine about garden railroads and Benepe thought this could be combined with models that evoked the fairy-tale worlds brought to life by British painters in the 19th century.
"Somehow we came across Paul Busse, and we said, 'Here's this very sophisticated idea; do you think you can do it?' He gave us some sample houses and they were so magical and inventive in the use of natural materials that there was no question he had seen the vision," said Benepe, who is now the New York City parks commissioner.
Karl Lauby, spokesman for the botanical garden, said the show grows every year, both in size and in draw. It is about four times the size of the Washington show.
Shimizu isn't worried about competing: She thinks her exhibit will do the trick. Kids will love the trains, their parents will love the dollhouse whimsy of the models and the engineering feats of the bridges, while gardeners and naturalists will love the imaginative use of seedpods and vine tendrils.
"I have a hope we might build on this," in holiday seasons to come, she said. "Have the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall."
"It's a still life," said Busse. "Then you click the switch and it's alive."
"Home for the Holidays: A Sentimental Journey" is held at the U.S. Botanic Garden until Jan. 9. Free. 100 Maryland Ave. SW. Call 202-225-8333 or www.usbg.gov.