Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Model Twenty Years in the Making

Original Rio Grande Oil model, from 2001 or so.

It's amazing how long some projects take to build. Take, for example, this gas station. The original Barnsdall Oil company filling station, located outside of Santa Barbara, showed up in a Model Railroader magazine article back in April 1979. Teenaged-me probably saw the article just as I was getting serious about model railroading (and still reading issues at our public library.) It took me well into the 1990’s before I tried building a model of the gas station myself.

I'm really proud of that model. The cupola, dome, and roofline required some fiddly work. I'm also particularly proud of the beam ends and post detail on the roof over the gas pumps. I still see all my flaws, though. The actual building had alternating blue and white tiles - too hard for me to paint. The dome, carved out of balsa, isn’t very round and I didn’t really get the feel of the multicolor tiles covering it. I also showed the cupola as four-sided, when photos of the actual gas station show height lath-covered openings.

Worst of all, I didn’t bother to reproduce an elaborate set of detailed terra cotta panels along the roofline. The original Model Railroader article highlighted the geometric patterns on the terra cotta, and suggested lines could be carved into plaster applied on the model. I tried a different approach during the original build; one of my junk boxes still has the sample panels made of Fimo clay, hand-scratched with lines approaching the design. The Fimo result was too coarse, so I gave up on the detail and instead just cut out plain styrene to hint at the outline of the panels. I hated the lack of detail, but at least the model was done.

Why Bother With That Detail? Why did I bother to put all that detail into a little plastic model for my layout? Because even though the actual gas station is far away from San Jose, the design is eye-catching and very representative of the 1920’s in California. The gas station's style is called Spanish Colonial Revival. The style had a bunch of origins - interest in Spanish California starting in the 1880s (with publication of the novel Ramona) and hotels in Florida, but the style really exploded after the San Diego Panama-California Exposition used it for all the exhibition buildings. You can still see them in Balboa Park in San Diego. The style dominated Northern and Southern California in the 1920’s and 1930’s, for commercial and residential structures — just like mid-century modern took over thirty years later, or post-modernism changed our shopping malls and houses to brightly-colored stucco in the last 20 years.

Spanish Colonial has several branches, borrowing inspiration and details from the California Missions, classic Spanish architecture, and the architecture of Mexico and other Spanish colonies. Buildings tended to be low to the ground, with simple rectangular shapes, thick stucco walls, and hand-build details - doors with board detail, hand-forged ironwork and lamps, and tile roofs.

But many buildings went one step further - to the Churrigueresque style from Spain. Churrigueresque - definitely not a word you see much - refers to a very decorated and ornamented style often seen in Spain in the 17th century. Churriguesque buildings had facades absolutely covered carved or cast detail. Patterns could be abstract (like Moorish architecture), natural, or include human sculptures, shields, and the like. The Balboa Park exhibition buildings are particularly good examples of the style.

The Barnsdall Oil station, like most Spanish Revival buildings of the time, borrowed from many of these influences. The tile roof, rafter ends, plain stucco walls, and primitive bathroom doors all scream Mission Revival. The alternating-color tiles might be Moorish - or might be just practical. However, the two-story tower is completely twentieth century, built so the station would be visible as a Ford Model A driver accelerated up the hill from Goleta. And all that terra cotta at the roof line? Churriguesque.

This gas station isn’t the only building I know with that kind of detail. Another model I'd love to build is the Borchers Brothers building supply store, located next to the old Market Street station in San Jose. When Borchers built it in 1923, they built a brick building, but borrowed a bunch of Spanish Colonial Revival styles, then topped it off with a large window framed with similar elaborate terra cotta churrigueresque detail. I’ve got a great place for a model of Borchers Brothers, but I never knew how to pull off that window. I suspected 3d printing might help, but all my attempts ended up in the trash.


Rio Grande Gas Station, Goleta (Elwood) Calif.

So fast forward to a few weeks ago. We were driving back from a family trip to Disneyland when I realized we’d be passing that famous gas station, and I managed to convince Dear Wife that we ought to stop to stretch our legs. The gas station's still there along old Highway 101, just west of Goleta. It's boarded up and has obviously been unused for years, but somehow managed to survive. I got quite a thrill spotting all the details I got right - the rafter ends, carved detail in some of the posts. I also saw the elaborate terra cotta panels on the tower. There were bits missing, but the majority of the panels were still there

Detail of terra cotta panels.

The photos in that 1970's Model Railroader article were good, but they didn't really highlight the detail on those panels. Being there in person meant I could see the pattern, and also reminded me just how the tiles were the centerpiece of the whole building. Back home, I realized that my existing model - with flat styrene in place of the panels - really missed what was special about that gas station. Time for me to try again to capture the model.

The Panels The key for reproducing the panels would be getting the basics of the pattern correct. Terra cotta details for a Spanish Revival building can go a bunch of ways. Patterns could be geometric (as in Moorish Revival). Others, like the Borchers Brothers building, have floral patterns - acanthus leaves from Corinthian columns. Looking closely at Barnsdall Oil, I realized most of the patterns were swirls and spirals - volates, as the art historians would call them. Most patterns actually have two spirals going in opposite directions joined by a short segment. Many were paired together, looking like a U or shield.

I tried two approaches. First, I tried avoiding all that nasty 3d drawing, and instead tried to get a line drawing of the art from the photo. My plan was to take the detail as line art, emboss it so that the details stuck up, then 3d print the result. Photoshop and similar photo editing packages have ways to take a photo, square up the image, and adjust contrast enough to highlight the detail. However, I wasn't able to convert the photos into the shapes on the panels.

Instead, I simply started trying to reproduce the curves in the design in SketchUp, the 3d drawing program I use most. Once I spotted the volutes, the drawing process was straightforward. I just needed to build up some of the repeating shapes from multiple spirals, then plop in a few extra to fill in. To be fair, it’s actually more difficult than that - there’s several different spiral shapes and carvings.

SketchUp isn't great for compound curves, but three nights of work gave me a decent first version. I was also able to reproduce that round window, sunk well back in the wall. My original version of the model used a round Grandt Line window set just behind the wall - decent, but not faking deep adobe walls like the real gas station faked.

3d Printed Terra cotta panels, O scale

Once I had a 3d design drawn out, I 3d printed a set on the Form One printer, test-fit them to my model, and found I'd misjudged the dimensions of the tower. I stretched the design, printed again, and got some decent versions. Finally, I took a deep breath, picked up my original model, and pulled off that plain styrene sheet trim, cursing how well I'd glued it on the whole time. I even had to break out the Dremel to grind off some particularly well adhered bits. A bit of superglue attached the new, detailed panels. I repaired the stucco with the same technique I'd used originally - a mix of white glue and gesso. The combination dries really quickly, so I brushed it on then stippled it with a brush so it would have a stucco-like finish. A fresh coat of white paint (gesso) made the new stucco match the old.

I also printed a full set of panels for an O scale model, just in case I want to build another model of this gas station from scratch. Being able to scale up the part and print it for a different scale is easy to do with a 3d printer, but impossible with any of the 1970's approaches to making the gas station.

The Finished Model

Original model with new terra cotta panels.

Here's photos of the gas station with its new detail. There's still some incorrect details - the terra cotta "point" isn't quite the right shape, and the pattern isn't a precise match to the actual gas station. Still, I'm really pleased with how the extra work came out. I'm more pleased that 3d printing helped me solve a problem I couldn't fix twenty years ago.

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