Holiday Train Show Interview (w/ Paul Busse)

At the New York Botanical Garden

NYBG Holiday Train Show_photo_by_Robert_Benson

Each year, the Holiday Train Show pulls into the New  York Botanical Garden, ushering in the holiday season in NYC. The enchanting model trains navigate their way through a display of 150 New York City landmarks that have been recreated through “botanical architecture”. The man behind the models is Paul Busse, the creator of the show. Since the first train show at the NYBG in 1992, Mr. Busse’s design company Applied Imagination, has been crafting the magical displays for both the young and simply the young at heart. New York City Monthly recently spoke with the artist himself about honing his craft and why this decades old holiday tradition is still cherished by so many…

First we have to ask, what exactly is “botanical architecture”? What are we looking at? 

Miniature three dimensional replicas of buildings with details, colors and textures expressed using dried plant material such as sticks, bark, leaves, and seed pods. This plant material provides the illusion of the architectural details with the goal of making the buildings feel like people remember them.

How did you find this craft?

Applied Imagination is the culmination of my love for gardening, trains, and architecture. It was born out of the need for buildings that were appropriate for garden railway displays in  conservatories. Typical plastic building models didn’t harmonize with the natural landscape.

With all of the research, production and placing the finished product, creating one model must take hours. Walk us through that creative process.

Using photographs for reference we scale the building down to an appropriate size, often leaving out insignificant details and exaggerating the architectural character that one would recall about the building. The buildings can take several days to several months depending on the size and detail. We begin with a framework of waterproof signboard, all of the plant material details are then hot glued on and sealed with an appropriate coating for preservation.

Share with us a story of one of the New York landmarks that you most enjoyed working on and why.

I’ll never forget the first year we created Grand Central Terminal using acorns for the lamp posts that went around the building. Soon after it was installed the lights went missing and we discovered the squirrels had eaten them. Lesson learned, don’t use edible plant parts.

Another favorite is St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its spires reaching 54-inches-tall and stained glass windows made from flower petals. It still stands as one of the most elegant replicas we’ve ever created. If one leans close to the building, you can even hear Bach playing from the pipe organ.

What was one building that gave you the most difficulty?

The 8-foot-long replica of the NYBG Haupt Conservatory was the most challenging. Creating all of the curved glass with thousands of window panes and intricate cast iron details of the facade all while capturing the splendor of such a grand building.

What’s unique or special about the process for creating NYC landmarks as opposed to the other cities you’ve worked on?

New York City is a melting pot of cultures with virtually an unlimited supply of architectural styles and historically significant structures. My father worked in New York City in the late 1930’s, so I grew up hearing stories and seeing slides of a place that I wanted to experience for myself. Each year I still feel honored to have the chance to bring thousands of smiles to the big apple.

A reimagined replica of the New York Public Library is new for the 2015 exhibit. What’s something new to notice in this model?

The new replica is the whole facade of a city-block-long building where the first replica was focused mostly on just the entry.

This exhibit has been one of the most celebrated holiday traditions in NYC for decades, why do you think this experience still resonates with people?

Year after year we try to create a unique three-dimensional experience filled with unexpected highlights. Some people like the architecture, some like the trains, and others, the garden, but one things for sure, it brings out the child in all of us.

(Photo Credit: Robert Benson)