The Golden Age of Railroads, Built to Scale

This weekend's Rice Design Alliance Architecture Tour features a room custom-built to house a massive model train set.

By Michael Hardy March 27, 2014

Courtesy TW TrainWorx

Glen Rosenbaum received his first model train in 1954 as a present for his sixth birthday, a set of Lionel trains including the now-rare No. 671RR Steam Turbine with Headlight and Smoke. (An example can be seen here.) He built the tracks in a corner of the family room, although as his train collection grew so did the set—within three years it had gobbled up the entire room, forcing the family to relocate to a screened-in porch at the back of the house. “Mom was not pleased,” Rosenbaum remembers. “She always thought the trains took up too much room.”

Today, Rosenbaum, a partner at Vinson and Elkins, finally has all the room he needs for a collection that has grown to include 12 locomotives and 90-plus freight cars. A few years ago, he hired local architecture firm Stern & Bucek to do a major renovation of his modern ranch-style house in Meyerland, including the addition of a 38-by-22-foot room above the garage custom-designed to house a train set he commissioned from Dallas-based TrainWorx, which also designs demonstration sets for Lionel. The house is one of the eight sites included on the Rice Design Alliance’s 38th Annual Architecture Tour, which is devoted to recent additions to existing homes.

The train set Rosenbaum commissioned was inspired by the rail lines that connected Houston, Wharton, and Pecos, which were eventually absorbed into the Southern Pacific Railroad that connected New Orleans to Los Angeles. The layout itself was assembled on a handsome, waist-high table measuring 30 by 14 feet, leaving a four-foot perimeter around the table for circumambulation. The set was fully assembled off-site, then hoisted into the room through a special hatch in the floor (the components wouldn’t fit up the stairs). The enormous set can be run with three large remote controls and features 630 linear feet of track, 37 switches, two reversing loops, and a floor-mounted air-conditioning system under the table to keep everything from overheating. 

The set also includes scale models of Rosenbaum’s current home (with the Stern & Bucek additions), his childhood home, and the 1914 Southern Pacific Passenger Depot in Wharton, which Stern & Bucek remodeled in 2008. But the most impressive element of the set is a model of the Pecos River High Bridge in Val Verde, Texas, which was built in 1944 and is widely considered one of the most beautiful railroad bridges in the country. Because of its size, the bridge is the only part of the set not built to scale, although it still spans 13 feet and stands 42 inches above the painted Pecos River below.

“The realism of that bridge model is unbelievable,” Rosenbaum said during a recent tour of the set. “I sent them pictures of the bridge, and when Roger Farkash [of TrainWorx] was carving the rock formations he blew up the photos, put them on easels, and used the photos as models for what he carved. If you look close, you can even recognize the rock formations from the photos.” 

In other words, it's a boy's dream come true. 

The RDA Architecture Tour is only open to RDA members. RDA memberships begin at $45 and can be purchased during the tour or online. Ticket prices are $25 for RDA members and their guests, and $15 for students and seniors. 


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