See a Tiny New York City Built From Bark and Leaves

Inside the New York Botanical Garden’s (NYBG) Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a miniature Guggenheim Museum sports a mushroom-cap roof, the Statue of Liberty is made of palm fronds, and the Brooklyn Bridge is supported by a dizzyingly intricate arrangement of tiny twigs. The scaled-down landmarks are just a few of the nearly 200 NYC buildings constructed using natural materials at NYBG’s annual Holiday Train Show, where around 20 doll-size conductors barrel and weave over a half-mile of track.

The show begins outdoors, where trains circle jagged mountains and zoom above giant snowdrop flowers and rabbits in a fairytale-style enchanted forest, carting pinecones, bark, and acorn tops.

Laura Busse Dolan runs the Applied Imagination company that creates the structures in the exhibition. Dolan’s father, Paul Busse, founded Applied Imagination in 1991, and a year later, the botanical models maker displayed 15 buildings in NYBG’s first Holiday Train Show. Each year, a team of 15 artists adds new work to the show, and NYBG changes the exhibition’s layout and plantings. Urethanes, epoxies, and UV coatings prevent the ever-growing collection of tiny architecture from deteriorating.

This year’s train show is the biggest to date and stars Coney Island’s long-gone giant elephant, Manhattan’s demolished old Penn Station, Hudson Valley mansions, a miniature Central Park, and a host of museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick, and the Guggenheim, among other structures.

A replica of the Haupt Conservatory inside the real-life conservatory (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
The Guggenheim Museum (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
Visitors walk underneath small version of NYC’s bridges. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
Trains cart natural materials in the enchanted forest outside. (courtesy New York Botanical Garden)

“I think Frank Lloyd Wright would very much approve of this,” Dolan said of the mini-Guggenheim made of “cobbled together” pieces of shell fungus. Another standout is a copy of NYBG’s Mertz Library. It’s decorated with black walnuts that an NYBG staff member collected and arranged on a perfect recreation of the garden’s real-life hill.

The grand finale can be found in the conservatory pond room. City landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Staten Island Ferry, the Plaza Hotel, and even the Oculus float on the stagnant water and line the stone fountain.

“You can take the time to really appreciate these buildings that you don’t really see up close,” visitor Mary Trester told Hyperallergic. She’s the co-chair of the Horticultural Study group at the Centerport Garden Club in Long Island. Trester had seen the exhibition before, but had returned with 23 other club members for the group’s annual holiday outing.

“We’re in awe of the beauty,” Trester said. “And the craft of the artists — the attention to detail and everything they do.” The Holiday Train Show is open through January 15, 2024. Tickets cost $35 with discounts available for students, seniors, and children.

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A miniature model of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
The New York Public Library (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
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The Statue of Liberty was one of the first works added to the show. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
The Mertz Library is partially crafted from black walnuts collected by an NYBG staff member. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
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The Apollo Theater (courtesy New York Botanical Garden)
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The old Penn Station (courtesy New York Botanical Garden)
The TWA building at JFK airport (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
A row of townhouses (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
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The long-lost giant elephant of Coney Island makes a comeback at the Holiday Train Show. (photo courtesy New York Botanical Garden)

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