Inside the NYBG’s Holiday Train Show, a whimsical tribute to NYC

Posted On Tue, December 6, 2022 By

Posted On Tue, December 6, 2022 By In Bronx, Features, Interviews

Replicas of the Hell Gate Bridge and George Washington Bridge soar overhead in the Holiday Train Show; Photos courtesy of NYBG unless otherwise noted

Since 1992, the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx has held its Holiday Train Show. The magical exhibit recreates 190 of New York City’s landmark buildings in miniature using plant materials like bark, leaves, and seeds. Twenty-five model trains zoom in and out of the cityscape over bridges and under tunnels, just like in the real-life city. The pieces of art are created by the team from Applied Imagination, which was founded by Paul Busse in 1991. The following year, he brought his creations to the NYBG. To learn more about this iconic holiday event, we spoke to Joanna Groarke, vice president for exhibitions and programming at NYBG.


The New York City skyline in the Holiday Train Show

6sqft: Tell me about the train show in your own words.
Groarke:
The train show is a beloved tradition we’ve been holding for 30 years, and every year we create a tribute to the beautiful NYC architecture with buildings made from plant parts. It’s a really beautiful, dreamy, fun landscape inside our conservatory.

The buildings are in a collection created by artists based in Kentucky from Applied Imagination, and they study period photographs of buildings as well as plans of historic buildings. Then they create tributes to those buildings using plant materials; it’s incredibly detailed. The marquee over the Apollo Theater is made entirely from radish seeds, for example. They do this in a way that’s instantly recognizable but also artistic. Every year we add a few new buildings. We hold them in storage and then reinstall them each year.

How did the idea come about?
Botanical gardens are always excited when they find a program that makes sense to attract visitors in winter. It may not be the time you think to come, but it may be the perfect time when there’s something beautiful to see. It speaks to people’s desire to connect to nature even though it’s cold out. It’s whimsical and feels celebratory.

The founder of Applied Imagination created amazing magical worlds, and he worked with us for many many years; he retired, but his daughter has taken over as CEO and she carries on his legacy and works with us every year.


A favorite New York tradition, the Holiday Train Show has enchanted generations of visitors

Where do the artists get the plant parts?
They are in a rural part of Kentucky, so they collect from the woods and fields. From time to time they collect leaves that have fallen here at the conservatory, and they do collections in other gardens too, so they collect things in greenhouses.

Have any landmarks been updated this year?
We do have One World Trade, which was added a couple years ago. This year we built a new George Washington Bridge since it has been 30 years. We have to do infrastructure projects just like with a real bridge. We installed beautiful new lights.


A New York City streetscape in the Holiday Train Show®, featuring replicas of Radio City Music and the Apollo Theater

In the Holiday Train Show, G-scale trains and trolley hum along nearly a half-mile of track. © Robert Benson Photography

Can you describe some favorite buildings?
I really love the TWA Terminal building; it’s an interesting cool building to look at in real life. Here it’s made with a tree called the Coccoloba tree (a tropical plant). There’s also Yankee Stadium, and the Guggenheim is made out of fungi.

How big is the exhibit?
It takes up three galleries in the conservatory plus an additional structure in front of the building. It’s about a 30 to 45-minute experience inside the show and every year we change the configuration so you see buildings in a new light and together with new structures so they have a different feel.


The Coney Island vignette includes replicas of the Luna Park Central Tower, the Elephantine Colussus, and the Wonder Wheel.


The replica of the original Pennsylvania Station is one of the largest in the Holiday Train Show, with a footprint of 20 square feet.

Is it an exact replica of NYC?
It’s not a scale rendering of the city; we take some liberties. We create vignettes for neighborhoods. When you first enter you see some of the rides that are at Coney Island, then we have the former Penn Station — so that’s another thing the show has; some of the landmark buildings in the show are no longer in existence.

This year, we have Downtown skyscrapers and Midtown skyscrapers in one of the two bigger temporary seasonal galleries. And then we have a whole vignette for Central Park, brownstones all near each other, and many of the museums on Museum Mile. We will often create neighborhoods or thematic displays.

What goes into setting it up each year? Where is it stored?
It’s a pretty incredible process actually; the buildings are preserved with a plant-based resin and that helps keep them stable. We store them in a climate-controlled setting like any other art object, then we have a team of about 20 people working on the show, setting it up, and setting up train tracks. We have people who specialize in the tracks and giving the trains tune-ups.


The Holiday Train Show © Robert Benson Photography


A model train in the Holiday Train Show

Tell me about the trains.
Trains are classic features of holiday traditions. The ones in our show are garden scale (G-Scale) so they’re a little larger than a typical model train. They are able to be in an indoor/outdoor setting, they can get wet and be in different temperatures, so stand up really well in the conservatory.


NYBG GLOW Pollen Puffs

Who is this show for?
We like to think that everyone wants to come! We definitely have a lot of families. We’ve been doing this for decades now and we see multiple generations returning year after year. People who came as children in the 90s are coming back with their parents — who are now grandparents — and their own kids. Train enthusiasts come too. There are also evening events; the show is beautifully lit at night. It’s a fun date night with a combined ticket and also see GLOW (the garden’s outdoor light show). We try to make sure we have something for everyone every year.

The holiday train show is one of the biggest events despite being in the winter. It’s something people expect to come to and return to year after year. Over the past 30 years, millions of people have come.


Replicas of 30 Rockefeller Center and Channel Gardens in the Holiday Train Show

What makes it a special NYC holiday event?
I like to think it’s NYBG’s annual tribute to New York. I think NYC is iconically associated with holidays because of decorations, Rockefeller Christmas tree, Fifth Avenue — and we recreate them in miniature. That’s whimsical and a little bit surprising, and really special.

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The holiday train show will be on display through January 16 and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Get more information and purchase tickets here.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style

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Photos courtesy of NYBG unless otherwise noted

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