Friday, May 8, 2020

What This Layout Really Needs is a Dutch Functionalist Signal Box

The Conundrum

Well, if I needed proof that I’m a structure modeler, not a freight car modeler, I’ve got proof.

I’ve talked in the past about my rules for structures: build only appropriate buildings that will fit on the layout. I’ve got a small model railroad. I don’t need bunch of models I can’t fit on the railroad, whether structures, freight cars, or locomotives. I want to model historical locations, so I don’t need models that aren’t appropriate for 1930’s San Jose. That means no generic kits, and no models inappropriate for the era or the location. I can’t always build what seems like fun. While there were lots of photogenic art deco, modernist, or mission-style buildings around San Jose, they weren’t always along the railroad tracks. My model railroad shows the back side of the old warehouses and canneries, not the attractive downtowns.

Even with that rule, I’ve got lots of interesting structures for inspiration, all clustered in a folder labeled “Inspiration”: a 1920’s car hop restaurant in LA, that pocket gas station in Hollywood next to D.W. Griffith's movie studio, the old freight house at San Jose, a bit of the facade of Golden Gate Packing in San Jose, a moorish revival storefront. They catch my eye, they seem interesting as models, they’d fit on the layout, and they’d fit the era and the location. I keep thinking any of these would be fun; sometimes I might even pull one out as a potential project.

No matter how earnest I sound, I’ve broken the structure rule occasionally. I built one of the classic Fine Scale Miniatures kits just to see what was special about them. The model's much-complimented instructions on weathering the building taught me some handy new tricks. A while back, I showed the 3d-printed model of that 1915 Hollywood gas station. I don’t have a place for it on the layout now, but I liked the look, and I knew it had potential to be on the layout. But other than a few examples, I don’t build inappropriate structures. Nope. If I’m building it, it better have a place on the layout.

But hey, this hobby’s about having fun, and sometimes that means breaking our well-thought out rules to do something wacky.

As part of entertainment during the current shelter-in-place, I’ve been following a bunch of European modelers. One, Tim Dunn, had been publicizing the Twitter Model Train Show, an online event to substitute for a cancelled model railway show in London in March. Tim’s also a broadcaster and is currently doing a TV series on railway architecture on Britain’s equivalent of the History Channel. For one episode, he mentioned the work of Sybold van Ravesteyn, a Dutch architect well-known for his modernist buildings. He shared a few photos on Twitter, including this photo of a very non-traditional switch tower / signal box:

And just like that, I’ll toss away all my principles, and start building a model that doesn’t match my era, my location, and won’t fit on my layout. It’s a pretty sweet model, though!

(For more on van Ravesteyn, read the article on his projects.)

The Prototype

van Ravesteyn’s prototype signal box was in Utrecht in the Netherlands, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. It's an eye-catching structure with sweeping curves, those odd round windows, and the notched roof looking a bit like Don Quixote's shaving bowl hat, all built from concrete. It's like some sort of modernist aerie that might fit well in the hills of Los Angeles, or a couple of brutalist college campuses I can think about.

Yeah, I had to build a model of it.

A bit of research told me more of the history. The signal box was built as part of a revamp of Utrecht’s central station in 1937 and 1938. Similar signal boxes sat on the north and south ends of the station, but the surviving photos are for the signal box on the north end, just where the Leideveer underpass dives under the railroad lines. The signal boxes were designed for electric interlocking machines, with the operators on the top floor, an equipment room in a middle level, and the bulk of the building perched on top of a 15 foot high concrete shaft. The real signal box was never actually used "because of World War II", though that doesn't say whether Utrecht was damaged, if the line didn't get enough traffic to require the interlocking, or if the building was just impractical. It appears the building was a residence for a few years, but torn down in the 1950’s. Some online photos show the tenants on the stairs up to the signal box.

The Model

I’d initially thought of 3d printing this model in order to reproduce the curves and the round windows. However, it’s a bit of a waste to go straight to 3d here. The switch tower would take a fair amount of resin to print - probably the equivalent of a couple freight cars, and I’d require a couple tries to print it reliably. 3d printing’s also best for a model that’s going to be made multiple times. This switch tower’s a weekend boondoggle; I don’t even need one, so 3d modeling for multiple is overkill.

I still did a 3d model in SketchUp to figure out the measurements. I created the 3d model by studying a bunch of photos online, and estimating dimensions from the spacing between tracks, size of windows, etc.

For most traditional buildings, figuring out how to build a model isn’t that hard: lay out the walls, cut holes for window and door castings, glue walls together, add a roof. I learned all this from kits I built in high school, and models I’ve scratch built and kit bashed ever since. The curved lines of the signal box didn’t suggest an obvious way to build. I ended up using a model airplane-like approach, with forms supporting a skin.

I drew out the end shape on 0.060” styrene sheet (cheap and plentiful in large sheets from Tap Plastics!), cut out two pieces to match the signal box’s silhouette, and drilled holes for the round windows in the equipment room. I then added spacers with 1/8” x 1/4” styrene rod to hold the two ends out the appropriate 12 scale feet apart. (The thick styrene rod is available from Evergreen Scale Models, just like your scale 2x6 strips and clapboard siding. The bigger pieces always seem like an extravagance compared with plexiglas or wood scraps. However, the styrene rod is easy to work with - just score and snap, same as the thinner styrene - and easy to glue.) I also added 0.125” square styrene along the edges of the pieces as a gluing surface.

Once I had the rough form, I cut out 0.020” styrene sheet for the curved walls, and carefully bent them to match the curve of the walls. A bunch of rubber bands and clamps held everything in place until the plastic glue dried. I sanded the corners so they were a bit less sharp, added filler, and primed the whole model to double-check the surface didn’t have flaws. I built the roof similarly - two sheets of 0.062” styrene for the flat roof with the concave notch, and a half-barrel roof made from half-circle forms with thin sheet over the top. One important step was gluing some 8-32 nuts into the base of the model. This is a really top-heavy model that won’t stand on its own, so I needed to secure it to a base just so I could paint it and work on it without the signal box falling over.

Once the rough walls were formed, I added more of the structural details - the entry platform, and the horizontal table outside the observation windows, all cut from styrene sheet. I used styrene strip to frame up the observation windows, and a platform for the roof. I primed and painted the model white, and added some weathering to make the curves more obvious.

I also made one bad move: I tried to add some texture to the walls to better look like concrete. The "pumice gel" I'd used to simulate stucco looked way too rough, and I spent a couple hours scrubbing and scraping the texture off so the model would look "cleaner".

The steps and handrails came from Central Valley’s “Fence and Railings” and “Steps and Ladders” packs. I couldn’t reproduce the curved railings by the entrance to the signal box, so for now the model has some unfortunate straight railings. I’ll try later to do a more accurate set of railings.

So where’s the completed model going to go? It’s not appropriate for the Vasona Branch. The WP’s West San Jose tower already has an accurate model. Even if I wanted to imagine that a modernist switch tower might have ended up at the location, economics and the unfashionable location suggested that there was no way a fancy switch tower ever would have been at the location. WP shut down the tower by the 1930’s anyway, so it's unlikely they would have spent money for a modernist jewel box out behind the Del Monte Cannery. Instead, my little Utrecht tower will probably be going to my desk at work just so I’ve got something railroad-related to be thinking about in between tasks.

I’ve got a rule: I only build appropriate models that will fit on the layout. Except when I don’t. The Utrecht signal box was a break-the-rules, fun, more-than-a-weekend project. The signal box wasn’t appropriate for my 1930’s San Jose layout, nor does it give me a chance to explore my interest in California history. However, this little modernist signal box from half a world away does capture my interest in modern architecture, and gave me a chance to try some unusual techniques in styrene. I imagine I could have learned the same lessons in plastic by scratch building a Vanderbilt tender, or a passenger car. But I like buildings, and so if I was going to do a project just for fun, it’s pretty obvious it would have been a modernist little structure model.

Thanks to Tim Dunn for sharing the original picture and inspiring me to build this project. Arjan den Boer's article on van Sybold van Ravesteyn gave more detail on the arrangement of the signal box, and the architect's evolution of style. Thanks to all the kit manufacturers who gave me enough model building skills so I could knock off this model in a couple of long days.