Go There: American Insurance Holiday Model Railroad

City Desk IconGo There is a feature in which our writers tell you about tourist attractions and other places of interest around the city.

The annual American Insurance Co. holiday model railroad display at Central Station has delighted kids since 1952. Each year, Warner Mendelsohn hunches over his soldering gun and recreates the city, in ever-increasing scope and staggering detail. More than eight hundred model train cars, locomotives, and automobiles follow two miles of track and miniature interstate highway, above which model aircraft circle. Though he retired from the insurance company thirteen years ago, it’s still Mendelsohn’s project.

The display has not been without controversy, beginning in 1962 when American Insurance (now American Insurance Mutual, Ltd.) fired Mendelsohn for an alleged conflict of interest after he privately sold advertising on the sides of the model train cars, including American’s competitor, Provident Mutual Insurance, Ltd. So popular was the display at that time that Mendelsohn took in thousands in advertising revenue. Thanks to community pressure, American allowed Mendelsohn to stay on, provided he turn over the revenue to American.

In 1972, a prankster called in a bomb threat to “the model Old City Hall”, police staked out the display. Several Black Cat firecrackers connected to an elaborate digital timer were discovered in the tiny seat of city government, but caught well before detonation. Mendelsohn’s electronics expertise came into play, allowing him to cut the correct wire (red) before a rapt audience. Allegations arose that Mendelsohn himself had staged the threat in order to get attention.

It was almost shut down for good in 2005, following a kidnapping scare in and safety concerns over the display, which then occupied fifteen-hundred square feet of the Central Station’s sweeping Art Deco dome. Five-year-old Jeter Holmes was found three hours after his hysterical mother reported him missing, unconscious in the labyrinthine underside of the holiday display. His brother later admitted that, after sneaking under the display, he dared his brother to lick the train tracks. The shock caused Jeter to lose consciousness. Despite Mendelsohn’s claims that childproofing the display would ruin it, he came back with lower voltage tracks and more additions including the Rockstead International Airport (complete with glide path) and the proposed CSTA streetcar loop, scheduled to begin operations in 2009.

Fun Fact: The smallest moving models in the display are picketers, “walking” an oval loop, carrying signs voicing opposition to the 1994 sales tax increase, of which Mendelsohn is an outspoken foe.

American Insurance Holiday Railroad
:: City-Suburban Transit Authority Central Station, 2 Main Avenue
:: Operating M-Sa, 6:30am-9:30pm, through Jan. 5
– Cedric Rose

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