Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 16, 2011

Miniature metropolis

Popular exhibit of LEGO world and model trains returns to Museum of American Heritage

by Rebecca Wallace

If a LEGO ostrich could look peaceful, this one does. It grazes placidly — plasticly? — in a field with its brethren, accompanied by horses, goats, cows and camels. A train passes through this interspecies utopia, sounding like rushing water, and the cows turn to watch.

The quiet is broken by a giant. A young boy, towering over the model train cars, shouts, "The blue one is my favorite!"

All around the LEGO landscape of miniature hills and valleys, houses and skyscrapers, other kids shriek and exclaim and ask questions in their flute-like voices. The cheerful hubbub builds, and this is a relatively quiet day for the annual LEGO and train exhibit at Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage. On weekends, the line to get in can stretch all the way down the driveway and onto Homer Avenue.

After all, this is no mere pile of plastic bricks. The exhibit, built by the Bay Area LEGO User Group and the Bay Area LEGO Train Club, stretches out 12 feet by 25 feet. Several trains run through and near amply populated worlds created nearly entirely from LEGO blocks. There's a park scene with a chess board and intricate sidewalk mosaics; a railroad yard with a mini-Caltrain; a forest; a sidewalk scene; a busy office complex with small people working on computers many floors up.

Here and there, touches of humor and humanity reward the patient eye. A tree houses tiny red LEGO macaws. Apples have fallen from a LEGO tree onto a LEGO lawn. By the vast LEGO cathedral, diminutive protesters march, carrying "??%" signs.

In the middle of the exhibit, Dave Porter watches the trains go around and around him. A resident of Kings Mountain near Woodside, he's a member of both the LEGO and train groups, and patiently answers questions from young and older. At just the right moment — in between trains — he flips up a section of the track and lets a reporter into the inner circle.

Porter points out favorite landmarks: the park and the Caltrain, which were built by fellow club member Bill Ward. The train's logo is printed on small decals. "I think this is spectacular," Porter says of the train. "It's right. It's prototypical."

Porter says his own LEGO landscape at home is actually bigger, but that the Palo Alto display reflects the work of more people. Club members made their own squares, be they city blocks or farm "acres," then brought them to the museum to be connected to others.

"You have umpteen different scales," Porter says. "It's OK. Each panel has its own world."

The finished display took about "eight hours with six to eight guys working together" to assemble, he adds. On tables nearby, individual LEGO projects are also on display, including a Japanese World War II destroyer and a Northern European Yule festival.

The LEGO pieces have a diversity of shapes and colors that the casual builder would never suspect existed. Some are no longer being made, like the monorail and its tracks that Porter points out.

"If you could find it, just one piece of this track would cost you eight to 10 dollars," Porter marvels. "Just one piece!"

What: An annual LEGO and train exhibit at the Museum of American Heritage

Where: 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through Jan. 15, open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Cost: Admission is $2 per person (free to the other museum exhibits). Children must be accompanied by an adult.

Info: Go to http://moah.org or call 650-321-1004.

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