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Mayor builds a house in Railroad Village

Friday, November 22, 2002

By Adrian McCoy

Visitors who make their annual holiday stop at the Carnegie Science Center's Miniature Railroad & Village, opening today, will notice some new construction this year.

A scale model of the John Woods house at the Carnegie Science Center's Miniature Railroad & Village. (Carnegie Science Center)

Mayor Tom Murphy himself had a hand in it. It's not a Downtown retail development, but it is an important piece of local history. Murphy built a model of the John Woods house in Hazelwood. The stone house, which sits on the hillside overlooking the river, is one of the three oldest residential buildings still standing in the city, built in 1792.

John Woods was a surveyor who played a role in laying out the city. Stephen Foster was a family friend and would stop over to play music. Foster's song "Nellie Bly" was inspired by a servant who lived at the Woods house.

Today, the real Woods home sits surrounded by weeds on Monongahela Street, and is in need of repairs. It was purchased by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and there are plans to renovate the historic landmark as part of a neighborhood revitalization effort.

Mayor Tom Murphy works on the John Woods house model. (Carnegie Science Center)

Interest in the Woods house made it a natural project for Murphy. Because of his schedule, he spent many early morning hours at the Science Center working on the model house before the start of the business day. The project took about three months to finish.

The stone work was carved from beeswax. The tiny shingles, railings and steps were made by hand.

Murphy's interest in model building started at the old Buhl Planetarium, the predecessor of the Science Center. When he was a kid, he took model-building lessons from Charles Bowdish, founder of the Miniature Railroad exhibit.

The second new building added to the exhibit this year is a replica of the Indiana County Courthouse. Built in 1870, the Second Empire-style courthouse has four Corinthian columns and stained glass windows. It made the cover of Life Magazine in 1945, as the backdrop for a photo of Indiana native son/actor Jimmy Stewart.

The Miniature Railroad & Village is built on a scale of one inch to one foot. Every time a new structure is added, a lot of research and planning is done before the actual model building starts. The staff researches the building, taking photos, finding blueprints and creating scale architectural drawings.

The designers draw on all kinds of materials. The trees are made from wild hydrangea: the dried plants are harvested in the fall, and twisted around wire to create the wooded western Pennsylvania landscape. They used angel hair pasta for the strands of ivy covering a group of rowhouses. Watch faces were used for the clocks on the Indiana courthouse tower.

The Miniature Railroad & Village opens today at Carnegie Science Center. Information: 412-237-3400 or www.carnegiesciencecenter.org

Adrian McCoy is a freelance writer.

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