By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun
8:46 PM EST, December 20, 2012
The beige-plastic Wilkins-Rogers Mill is unmistakable, as are the red B&O Freight House and the purple Obladi hotel.
Rendered in toy building blocks, the replicas of historic Ellicott City landmarks lend an air of authenticity to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum's newest train garden, a 360-degree, custom-built feature that is proving to be a major attraction on Main Street.
"This is definitely something unique," Tom Hane, site manager at the Ellicott City Station, said of the display by the Washington Metropolitan Area Lego Train Club.
And that's saying a lot, considering all the train gardens that appear in the area as the holiday season approaches, he said.
"I grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and holiday train gardens are definitely a Baltimore phenomenon," said Hane, who was a locomotive engineer for nearly a decade before switching to his current position five years ago.
A section of Baltimore-style rowhomes pays homage to the railroad's roots in the city, while another cluster of buildings depicts 10 of the businesses in historic Ellicott City, including Tea on the Tiber.
To ramp up the fun, the display also features an eerie haunted house and a building from another dimension inspired by "Ghostbusters," in which a sea creature that is part octopus and part dinosaur writhes menacingly out of a window.
And then there are, of course, the five electrified trains that traverse the hills and valleys of the holiday train garden, a Baltimore-area tradition since the early 1900s, when German immigrants first placed train layouts under their Christmas trees, Hane said. Buttons that turn on lights, motors and sounds are scattered around the layout's perimeter.
Multicolored piles of plastic bricks are the addiction of many kids, but it's possible to never outgrow them, said Ed Kohl, who helped mastermind the Lego layout.
"I was a Lincoln Log and Erector Set kind of kid growing up," Kohl said. The father of one grown daughter, he said she encouraged him to check out a Lego festival 10 years ago at George Mason University in Virginia, and his interest in the hobby has never waned.
The molded plastic bricks represent possibilities to hobbyists ranging from children to adults, said Kohl, a Catonsville resident who lives three miles from the museum, which is housed in the oldest surviving railroad station in America.
"To me, it's a creative outlet," he said. "It's the enjoyment of the process and figuring out how to make something work."
Eighteen Lego enthusiasts put in 400 hours across three months to bring the train garden to life. Kohl used 160 hours of vacation from his job as a computer repairman and contributed all his personal pieces of track to the design.
Kohl said wooden train sets were often given as gifts to children in the 1800s and that many travelers back then relied on trains to return to their hometowns for Christmas, forging meaningful connections between trains and the holidays that persist today.
The 14-by-17-foot exhibit, which occupies the space where the museum normally displays a replica of the first horse-drawn passenger rail car, debuted the day after Thanksgiving.
It joins three other model exhibits on display in the museum's Holiday Festival of Trains through Jan. 27: a Thomas the Tank Engine G-scale layout, a small N-scale layout in the museum's telegraph office and a push-button children's layout in the main waiting room.
"We've had an overwhelmingly positive response" to the Lego exhibit, Hane said, adding there are some people who say they miss the O-gauge train layout the museum had displayed for 20 years.
A 40-foot HO train layout depicting the original 13 miles of commercial rail track, which stretched from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, as the town was first called, is on permanent display in the Freight House, Hane said.
Work on the newest layout began just after Labor Day and involved first cutting plywood to create the base, which is built like a wedding cake, Kohl said. Club members came from as far away as Manassas, Va., to lend a hand.
Even before that, Kohl and others took many photos to help them construct the buildings in the exhibit with as accurate architectural proportions as possible within space constraints.
High on a hill in the train garden, located near the Patapsco Female Institute, white tents have been pitched to represent Camp Johnson, a Civil War site believed to have been located in the vicinity of the former girls boarding school on Church Road.
As wonderful as its reception has been, the exhibit "is definitely a work in progress," Kohl said.
Club members hope to return again next year, adding a lower level to make the trains and scenery accessible to even the youngest of museum visitors, among other new features.
"We don't like to present the same exhibit twice," he said.
If you go
What: The Holiday Festival of Trains at the B&O Railroad Museum
Where: Ellicott City Station, 2711 Maryland Ave.
When: Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Jan. 27.
Admission: Adults, $6; seniors, $5; children ages 2-12, $4.
Special attraction: Frosty the Snowman will greet visitors Dec. 23 and hand out treats to children from noon to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Information: borail.org or 410-461-1945.