by John Delach
I would not have discovered the existence of Gulliver’s Gate had it not been for a letter from an old colleague and model train enthusiast, Fred Fort. Fred has experienced the ultimate HO model train exhibit in the world, Minatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. When Fred’s daughter alerted him that a similar exhibit is on display in Manhattan, Fred passed this news to me knowing I shared his love of model trains.
It’s true, both as a kid and a young teen, I made an annual pilgrimage to the Lionel layout located at 15 East 26the Street just to the north of Madison Square Park. I traveled there with my cousins, Bill and Bob on a given Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas during the mid-1950s. O Gauge ruled s kid’s world of trains making Lionel the king of electric trains far more important than American Flyer or Marx. The release each fall of their annual catalogue was a national holiday in Lionel’s kid’s kingdom and the Lionel layout was our Mecca.
Most of us grew out of our trains. Lionel itself went out of vogue, their layout closed, and we too, ceased to build our Christmas layouts. Trains were boxed and put away, plywood boards were relegated to garages, cellars or basements and we moved on with our lives. Having children brought about a resurrection. Now mature adults (more or less,) we added switches, elevated routes, bigger transformers and the capability of running multiple trains at the same time. Some converted to HO, but I added to my O Gauge motive power and rolling stock.
A second resurrection followed the arrival of grandchildren. I joined the Train Collectors Association, (TCA) and journeyed to York, Pennsylvania where I gladly joined an army of old men ogling over various locomotives, diesel engines, rolling stock and accessories. We justified all the stuff we bought by telling ourselves, it was for the grandkids.
What a seasonal layout I created in our family room. A town trolley, an elevated subway train, a long-distance passenger train and a grand and varied freight all running at the same time. Mary Ann created the scenery that gave it class. We proudly watched as each child took it in for the first time with eyes wide open and disbelief at this miracle of electric technology.
How dated. How obsolete, one by one, each of the five outgrew interest as new electronics accelerated their loss of interest. It ended one season when the only times I turned them on and ran them was for my pleasure…sad, and so it goes.
Now I attend train shows when convenient, so the knowledge of Gulliver’s Gate was a welcomed invitation to enjoy one close to home. My companion, my youngest grandson, Cace, eleven. Tickets in hand, we set out on the last day in August for 214 West 44 Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. I’d watched several videos about this exhibit and I warned Cace: “I think there’s a big difference between this layout and the one in Germany. The one in Hamburg is train-centric and this one is architecture-centric with the trains playing a secondary role.
However, I was perplexed about its location. How did the designer find a space big enough in mid-Manhattan to build an exhibit as large as I imagined this one must be? As we walked east from Eighth Avenue, I had my answer. “Of course, it is domiciled in the vast second floor of the old New York Times printing plant.” The exhibit partially fills a vast space once filled with old linotype machines and other equipment that printers used to publish the daily paper.
As soon as we entered the space, I knew my observation was correct. If you plan to see Gulliver’s Gate, leave your engineer’s hat at home. It is a terrific exhibit, but trains are a minor part and many of them were not operating. I don’t believe they were out of order. My impression is that the operators choose which trains will run that day. Nonetheless, the builders have created excellent renditions of important structures from all over the world. New York City has received the prime focus that includes the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, the World Trade Center Memorial and all the major sky scrapers. The High Line Park is included, and Grand Central Terminal has trains running in its basement (not operating that day.) The exhibit is capped off with a working model of the Thanksgiving Day parade.
The exhibit took us to London, Rome, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow Beijing the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Mexico and South America. Panama included two working locks from the canal. Model ships enter the locks, the gates are closed, water is either pumped in or pumped out lifting or lowering the models to the correct level. Cace and I thought this was the best working feature of the exhibit until we visited the airport located in a separate space.
The Airport has timed takeoffs and landings. Before the takeoff, a model airliner taxies out to the end of the runway. First, white Take off lights come on, then, they intensify just before the aircraft begins to move. The sound of jet engines fills the room as the plane accelerates, rotates and climbs with the assistance of a rod connected to the belly. It stops on a metal platform above the end of the runway where the rod is disconnected, and a device transports it into a passageway out of sight behind a wall.
The plane reappears and enters a second platform at the other end of the runway. A rod is re-connected that brings it in for a landing and a final taxi to the tarmac.
Pretty neat and worthwhile seeing. But, and there is always a but: From the videos I’ve seen, I truly doubt if it competes with the airport operation at Minatur Wunderland.
Minatur Wunderland is the major leagues and Gulliver’s Gate is AAA minor leagues, the best of the minor leagues but still the minor leagues. Then again, taking a train ride to Midtown Manhattan from Port Washington is considerably easier than making a flight to Hamburg.