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Bob Porge's O gauge layout

RELATED TOPICS: O GAUGE
Old or new, Bob likes large equipment. Bob's favorites include an MTH Big Boy and an MTH SD90MAC. This bridge scene is at the heart of the layout. Click on the photos to see giant-sized images.
Bob Porges has a rudimentary case of nostalgia backwards. Bob's layout isn't a reflection of the toy trains of his childhood - rather, it is a reflection of his life.

In virtually every corner of his O gauge layout, you'll find vignettes of Bob's childhood, his family, his career, and even his financial portfolio, all popping out in detailed scenes. Naturally, the layout also serves as a symbol of his marriage to his wife Inez, whose life is not only present on the layout in miniature, but who added her own inspirations to the layout.

Such demands might have been more than two people could handle. Fortunately, Bob and Inez Porges had 10,000 personal photographs to help them out and the services of a custom layout builder to add a third dimension to those images.

Until the first modern-era sound system or fan-driven smoke unit gave his home of 35 years a new feel, Bob had not operated a layout since 1955.

"It's just the same old story; you sell you bike, get a car, and put your trains away," Bob says flatly, not feeling the need to rehash a familiar sequence for CTT readers. He had avoided the tug of toy train nostalgia for nearly four decades until his son-in-law inadvertently pulled the right heartstring.

"My daughter asked me one day if I would bring a train out to California for the kids," he recalls. "I said 'sure' and brought them some of the Lionel trains I had as a kid. My son-in-law took one look at it and told me 'I thought this was going to be some dinky little thing.'"

Bob needed long yards to help him set up long trains, but the yards also allow room for adjacent urban scenes that represent part of his family's history.
An MTH DD40X, one of the first pieces Bob bought when he re-acquainted himself with O gauge trains, rounds a curve in front of the Dock 'n' Shop marina. The marina is based on the facility Bob and his wife Inez use in real life.
The layout designed and built by Michael Hart also features curved display shelves, which allow Bob to store some of his colorful equipment.
Modern training

Soon, his son-in-law began piecing together a large layout, which set off a predictable chain of events. "Basically, I felt that if my son-in-law could do this, why couldn't I?"

Back home in the Chicago suburbs, bob found himself roaming through the city's Museum of Science and Industry, where he spent many a weekend as a young boy enjoying a large railroad layout sponsored by the Santa Fe that was on display.

Then he trekked to a local hobby shop, where this postwar Lionel kid discovered the likes of MTH, Weaver, K-Line, and other train makers for the first time.

"I fell in love with the stuff. The (MTH) DD40X and the Veranda stuff were the first locomotives I bought."

Naturally, Bob wanted to run his new trains. So he decided that his wet bar, located in the house's walk-out lower level, would conveniently serve as a layout table while he made more permanent plans.

Get SMARTT

The Porgeses have their share of talents and tastes in décor. But designing and building a layout that fit into an already elegant room wasn't one of them. So Bob decided to let Michael Hart do the building.

Mike owns and operates SMARTT (Scale Model Art and Technologies), a custom layout-building firm in Miami.

Naturally, Mike and Bob worked closely to figure out how to fit a medium-to-large layout in an area that, among other things, included a middle-of-the-room stone fireplace and bar, all surrounded by nicely paneled walls.

Initially, Bob had his eye on the opposite side of the room, where a large screen television built into the wall and some fine furnishings give the room a "suite" feel. Eventually, Bob turned his gaze back to the wet bar.

"I asked Inez, 'Do you mind if I take out the bar?' She said yes to my idea right away, but then she said, 'You're kidding, right?'"

He wasn't.

Mike helped Bob move from the idea of a layout with mostly O-31 curves to the kind of railroad that could handle the longest, scale-oriented modern motive power churned out by today's O gauge manufacturers.

Mike drew the layout plans based on Bob's specifications, then went to work in Miami assembling the components that would be transported 1,400 miles to Chicago for installation.

When the truck, with its 55-foot trailer, arrived, it created an impression that Inez will never forget.

"I saw what they arrived in and said, 'Oh my God, that's larger than the truck we used to move in,'" Inez recalls. "They had to use six men to carry all of these modules into the house. It reminded me of scenes of ancient Egypt, with these men carrying stones for a pyramid."

Personal touches

A layout can become many things. Bob and Inez decided that their layout should be about their lives.

Using their collection of photos and their memories, the couple suggested scenes that Hart and his crew turned into three dimensions over the course of a year. He used both commercial products and scratchbuilt structures to complete the vignettes.

While the structures standout photographically and in person, it's the small things - the figures, the vehicles, and the signs - that complete Bob and Inez's extended family story that covers five generations.

"We have people from almost infancy to age 95 enjoy the scenes on our layout," says Inez, as she leads a tour of the layout with an expertly pointed finger. "This boat here is exactly our boat, and the marina is our marina, all modeled from photographs. Over here is where Bob and I went twice a week for lunch. My husband was in the shoe business, and my father had a tailor shop, and here they are. We listed our favorite movies on the movie theater marquee. Bob plays hockey, so we have a Hockey Hut store."

Some scenes had to be exact to satisfy. "We spent many summer weekends at the Mid-Lakes Motel in Antioch (Ill.), but we couldn't remember what color the actual building was. We drove all the way up there to find out, but they had painted it a different color," Inez says. "So we looked at some old slides and found it. We have around 10,000 slides."

Some scenes aren't so literal. In many cases, a sign merely hints at a family connection. For instance, Grammie's Soup Kitchen is so named for Inez's mother, known for coming over with a shopping bag full of delectable homemade soup.

Bob ably points out some favorite scenes as well.

"I was the first customer in this restaurant here 25 years ago. It started as a nice little counter restaurant. This park is East View Park, where I grew up as a kid. Auto Europa is a take-off of where I used to store my cars."

And let's not forget Bob's successful career in the stock market. Some of his favorite stocks also found their way onto signs of the layout.

Playfully, he also points out that Inez, who hand picks the Arttista figures and a few Preiser figures used in various scenes, seems to be an endless font of ideas. Inez says Bob has also put it another, less flattering way. "He says I 'upped the cost' of building the layout," she says, laughing.

Bob adds that Arttista customized some figures for them, mostly painting stock figures differently to give the layout a broader population.
An MTH Southern Pacific Daylight GS-4 and an MTH Rock Island E8 meet on a bridge near Grammie's Soup Kitchen, a reference to Inez's mother. Other family members have their names worked into signs on the layout.
The layout aims for realism, with a folksy accent. The Keesh Inn on top of the hill is named after Inez's sister.
Bob and Inez decided not to cover the train room's paneling with a sky-blue backdrop. But that doesn't mean the corners of the layout didn't receive just as much attention as the rest of the layout. Mike Hart scratchbuilt the houses.
Personal touches

A layout can become many things. Bob and Inez decided that their layout should be about their lives.

Using their collection of photos and their memories, the couple suggested scenes that Hart and his crew turned into three dimensions over the course of a year. He used both commercial products and scratchbuilt structures to complete the vignettes.

While the structures standout photographically and in person, it's the small things - the figures, the vehicles, and the signs - that complete Bob and Inez's extended family story that covers five generations.

"We have people from almost infancy to age 95 enjoy the scenes on our layout," says Inez, as she leads a tour of the layout with an expertly pointed finger. "This boat here is exactly our boat, and the marina is our marina, all modeled from photographs. Over here is where Bob and I went twice a week for lunch. My husband was in the shoe business, and my father had a tailor shop, and here they are. We listed our favorite movies on the movie theater marquee. Bob plays hockey, so we have a Hockey Hut store."

Some scenes had to be exact to satisfy. "We spent many summer weekends at the Mid-Lakes Motel in Antioch (Ill.), but we couldn't remember what color the actual building was. We drove all the way up there to find out, but they had painted it a different color," Inez says. "So we looked at some old slides and found it. We have around 10,000 slides."

Some scenes aren't so literal. In many cases, a sign merely hints at a family connection. For instance, Grammie's Soup Kitchen is so named for Inez's mother, known for coming over with a shopping bag full of delectable homemade soup.

Bob ably points out some favorite scenes as well.

"I was the first customer in this restaurant here 25 years ago. It started as a nice little counter restaurant. This park is East View Park, where I grew up as a kid. Auto Europa is a take-off of where I used to store my cars."

And let's not forget Bob's successful career in the stock market. Some of his favorite stocks also found their way onto signs of the layout.

Playfully, he also points out that Inez, who hand picks the Arttista figures and a few Preiser figures used in various scenes, seems to be an endless font of ideas. Inez says Bob has also put it another, less flattering way. "He says I 'upped the cost' of building the layout," she says, laughing.

Bob adds that Arttista customized some figures for them, mostly painting stock figures differently to give the layout a broader population.

Don't forget the trains

Oh, yes. The layout has plenty of railroad scenery as well. Here the Porgeses relied on Mike Hart's adept professional touch.

Bob says the layout has elements of his childhood layout, but the idea of operating large colorful diesels - motive power that never existed in his wildest postwar imagination - became a compelling concept.

In addition to the relatively gentle curves along the outer edges, the layout has plenty of track action towards its center. A bridge, enabling dramatic train-over-train scenes, separates two centralized access openings that enable Bob and his visitors to enjoy his trains from inside the layout as well as from the front side.

The layout's façade is fine and fancy. Mike customized some shelves, which curve to the contour of the layout and straddle the fireplace, so that Bob could display his trains attractively and have convenient access to them.

As time goes on, Bob's trains might change, but the landscape they cross will continue to evoke memories for Bob, Inez, and their family. Think of it as a pleasantly incurable case of nostalgia backwards.

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