Saturday, January 18, 2014

E. L. Moore’s Legacy in the 21st Century: Signature Styles, Signature Structures, and Selective Staging

E. L. Moore had a signature style - which we had a look at in the second and third installments - but he didn’t have a signature project; that is, he didn’t have one particular project that stood above the rest, showcased his style, and became a touchstone that changed the way hobbyists fundamentally thought about model railroading. Compare this to John Allen. He also had a signature style regarding scale model structures, but he also had a signature project: his Engine House build that appeared in the October to December 1948 issues of The Model Craftsman. It was a rather freelanced model of a two-stall engine house that might have existed in the early 20th century western USA. Its level of detail - especially considering the relatively rudimentary construction methods compared to today’s standards - was revolutionary. It appears to have spawned many other engine house construction articles, although, none reaching the heights this one did. It was also turned into a very popular kit by Finescale Miniatures.

When the HO gauge Gorre & Daphetid R. R. needed an engine house to service equipment, I checked over all possible old photos and plans....For this model, I was more interested in reasons and methods of early construction rather than to make an exact copy - the same as a farmer builds a barn to fit his own needs, a railroad builds a shop to suit its own equipment...Should you decide your railroad needs a shop of this type, change dimensions and plans to fit your own locos and other requirements. The large windows and numerous sky lights give the workmen plenty of light and of course makes it possible for the boss - that’s you - to keep his eye on them. [Some introductory remarks by John Allen in his The GD Line Builds an Old Time Engine House,The Model Craftsman, October 1948.]

The Engine House was exceptionally well detailed – far better than the common standards of the time - but I think its strongest attribute lies elsewhere as is hinted at in Mr. Allen’s opening remarks on the project. Today, its level of detail is easily matched by even the most rudimentary of craftsman kits. Detail is a mainstay of today’s kits and scratchbuilt work. But, one thing that still isn’t as common is the way that the Engine House makes use of space and pulls in the viewer’s eye. Mr. Allen’s use of large windows, large open doors, and skylights is masterful. He introduces these elements in a way that makes them look natural, well-proportioned, and purposeful. They allow the viewer to look into, through, and around the structure in a variety of orientations. When combined with evocative arrangements of people and things, and internal lighting to illuminate dark spaces, the total effect is compelling. It pulls the eye in and takes it on a little journey with interesting stories and sights to see.

Many model buildings, when one gets down to fundamentals, are boxes, or stacks of boxes, where external surface effects are the main visual element – often astonishing in fidelity to their real counterparts. Many also have full or partial interiors, again, often of extraordinary detail and craftsmanship. Some are small works of art. But, Mr. Allen, even with the simple method and materials of his time, went to the next level and created a space defined by a structure that seemed alive.

I’d like to say that I had the formula needed to replicate Mr. Allen’s magic on demand, but I don’t. Although I think I can see a few hints to help take projects in his lively direction. Here’s where I think it begins: Buildings are living things when they’re in use. There’s human activity, lights, machines, vehicles, animals, and such. And you can interact with a real building. The building itself is a story telling machine just as the layout itself can be as was touched on in part 3. Models don’t always convey these aspects and are sometimes just static surfaces with some figures or machines placed nearby, not really interacting or telling a story. Mr. Allen was able to connect all those pieces together, and pull together both the inside and outside activities of the engine house, into a seamless whole by making adjustments to the building’s openings. This also helps to grab the bosses’ attention, and pull them into the scene further enhancing the liveliness.

Compare Mr. Allen’s Engine House to one of Mr. Moore’s, his Home for Small Locos, in the March ’73 issue of Railroad Modeler. Although Mr. Moore’s is detailed inside and out, the overall effect isn’t that alive, and it comes across as more of a decorated box than a building. Well, many real engine houses were just big boxes when you get right down to it, so Mr. Moore’s likely is prototypical in that regard. It does however illustrate that not all aspects of a prototype make for compelling scale models. 

 ‘Selective Compression’ is a well known concept that involves reducing some dimensions of the building, and re-proportioning others, to make a potential model more practical as an addition to a model railroad. There might also be a related concept whereby certain windows, doors, and views are adjusted to make the sights inside and around the building more visually compelling and integrated into a whole scene: something possibly called ‘Selective Staging’. Applying Select Compression and Selective Staging to a model will make it less representative of a particular prototype, but maybe like a good novel, even if it is all made up, it still might tell a certain prototypical truth.

But, it does look like Mr. Moore had a go at ‘Selective Staging’ with Uncle Peabody’s Machine Shop in the June ’72 issue of Railroad Modeler. The core building is a variation on Moe Lass’ Old Sorghum Mill that appeared in the April ’66 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Peabody’s has larger windows on the front wall in order to showcase the Airfix machine tools on the inside. That change makes some sense because these sorts of small, late 19th century or early 20th century machine shops would often make use of as much free natural light – in this case, via the celestory and the large front windows – as possible; however, the enlargement of the front windows on this model doesn’t seem to naturally fit into the overall look of the building: to me they seem a little too large for the small building. I suspect some adjustments to the building’s overall dimensions might have been needed to pull this off. On the other hand, enlarging the windows was the right thing to do, it makes sense both for what the little building is, and to make all the interesting things inside easily viewable, so it does use Selective Staging to take the building in an Allen-esque direction, but the overall building is a bit short of the Engine House magic.

I thought I’d have a go at applying ‘Selective Staging’ - in part to help me work out the idea - to Mr. Moore’s Cousin Caleb’s Cabbage Plant build that appeared in the December ’71 issue of Railroad Modeler [1].The first time I saw this project, I knew I had to try and build it. The exposed framing on the front, and those tubs, are quite interesting, but it seems that the cabbage processing building on the back is out of place: it’s completely closed whereas the front part where the tubs are is completely open. I figured I’d open up the back building a bit, maybe with some floor to ceiling folding doors, and some skylights in the roof, so that it was easier to see what was going on with just a glance [2]. I’m not quite sure at this point about what all the changes will be, but hopefully it’ll evolve in a more 21th century direction.

On the other hand, I figured I’d use very old fashioned construction techniques because I wanted to try my hand at the techniques John Allen used to build his Engine House, and because I wanted to be extra cheap on this project :-)
Mr. Allen used Bristol board for the Engine House walls so I figured I'd do the same. It turned out that a small pad of the stuff under the US Strathmore brand cost twice as much as the Canson brand from France, so I bought the Canson. Although, I think any type of similar cardboard you might have on hand would do. 
I started with the cabbage processing building and laid out the side and back walls in one continuous piece of Bristol board. I've decided to leave the front wall off and replace it with sliding doors to open it up and try some 'Selective Staging' - not too sure how this will work out, but I'll see. In the picture you can see I tried to add in a few windows on the back wall as if the builder had bought a lot of old windows at a salvage store. In the end, I decided on no windows, and to introduce a couple of skylights instead. I should also note that the article didn't seem too well edited, and close reading is necessary to get the dimensions right.
Horizontal siding was scribed into the card with a scribing tool. Mr. Allen used an ice-pick on his Engine House. An ice-pick seemed a little too Hitchcockian for me, but if you've got one on hand, go for it. Both sides of the card were scribed since viewers will be able to see inside.
At this stage all the scribing was done and the door openings were cut out with a sharp X-Acto knife. In Mr. Moore's original, the back door is off centre, but I went ahead and put it in the middle of the wall.
The walls were then lightly stained with a thinned red acrylic paint on the outside and a thinned mixture of light gray and flat white on the inside.
After the paint had dried, the walls were cut out. The corners were scribed on the outside surface so they could be easily folded.
On the inside surface I glued on a number of thin balsa strips to represent framing using white glue. The strips were pre-stained with a white / gray mixture prior to gluing in place. The verticals are about 2 scale feet apart. The framing is a mixture of 1/32 inch balsa strips - cost of around 32 cents for a 30 inch strip from the local hobby store - and strips sliced from a 1/32 inch sheet scrap I had on hand. This home brew balsa lumber isn't too scale-like, but to make it more realistic one could use commercially available scale lumber, but that considerably cranks up the cost of the project. I'm trying to keep things inexpensive.
Here's the cabbage processing building folded up and with a main beam joining the side walls together. The beam is held in place with super-glue, and white glue is used in the folded corners. I used a couple of books to hold things square while the glue dried.

[This is the 5th part in a multi-part series. Part 4 can be found here.]


1. The first issue of Railroad Modeler was released in September 1971. The editorial on page 5 lays out the objectives of the new magazine in quite clear terms,

This will not be a publication dedicated to scratchbuilding models from two old tin cans, a tongue depresser and half a can of stove polish. Rather we want to show you how model railroading can be a fascinating hobby using the latest products and materials designed for model building. {From the editorial of the inaugural issue of Railroad Modeler, September 1971}

It’s interesting that by the 4th issue, December 1971, the magazine published a feature article from the philosopher king of using the non-latest products and materials designed for model building: E. L. Moore’s Cousin Caleb’s Cabbage Plant, the subject my current build. 

2. As far as I can tell so far, it looks like the only time an E. L. Moore project fully adorned a magazine cover was the March 1962 issue of Model Trains.
It was an evocative black-and-white image of his Grizzly Flats depot build, accompanied by some equally great photos – some of his best I’d argue – in the build article. This project really grabbed my attention and I hope I can get around to building it. In the introductory remarks to the project, Mr. Moore hints that he wasn’t unacquainted with the concepts of Selective Compression and Selective Staging,

As I have modeled it the little station resembles the prototype in all important aspects...I don’t claim that the dimensions coincide exactly with those of the prototype. To capture the glamour and sprightliness of the little depot was my aim. {E. L. Moore on the design philosophy behind his Grizzly Flats model; The station at Grizzly Flats; March ’62, Model Trains.}

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