Making a diorama of a 19th-century North Shore railroad has consumed this man’s life
LYNN — When Todd Gieg took out an old train set and started putting it together with his preschooler, his wife, Amy Bertino, just thought it would be a fun father-son activity.
“I didn’t see the big picture, I guess,” says Bertino.
How could she? Fifteen years later, Gieg is still at it, and working on a preposterously ambitious scale. His unfinished masterpiece is an exquisitely detailed diorama of the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, a long-forgotten 19th-century narrow-gauge passenger train.
Once a sought-after photographer — he was part of a team shooting Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in 2010 — Gieg, 66, has mostly eschewed his day job to scrupulously construct the miniature buildings, coal bunkers, billboards, water tanks, and tool sheds in his hyper-realistic replica of the railroad and the seaside towns it rolled through.
The results are breathtaking. The railroad, a North Shore mainstay from 1875 to 1940, winds through a landscape that looks as it did in 1895, with worn cobblestones, green patina on copper moldings, faded company logos on the sides of brick buildings, mills with broken windows, piers with ancient pilings, and people in period dress.
The first span of track in Lynn — from Market Street to Axey’s Point — will be on display this spring at the Lynn Museum, but there’s plenty of painstaking work still to do. How much? If he can pick up the pace slightly, Gieg figures the 40-foot-long diorama could be done in eight years.
If Gieg sounds obsessed, that’s because, by his own admission, he is. “My enthusiasm is more or less constant,” he says. “My wife won’t agree, but the argument for not working and doing this instead is that I’m exactly where I want to be.”
Sitting in the living room of the couple’s rambling Victorian house, Gieg, dressed in a fleece pullover and a pair of rumpled pants, is animated as he talks about the project that has overtaken his life. He speaks quickly, alternating between exuberance and tears.
“I cry very easily,” he says abruptly. “I was weeping this morning because I was in a grateful mood.”
Gieg is at work in his garret by 5:30 most mornings, accompanied by a murmur of classical music and a cup of strong coffee. (He drinks two pots of Peet’s over the course of the day.) The cramped third-floor space is a jumble of paints, glues, glass jars containing various grades of sand, bits of rusted metal, toothpicks, tweezers, rulers, and the tiny barrels, brackets, sinks, oil drums, and mail sacks that will eventually become part of the diorama.
Gieg says he learned about the Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad just as he and his son, Max, started playing with trains. Around the same time, the family, which had been living in a loft on Summer Street in Fort Point, was moving to Lynn.
“The coincidence was extraordinary,” he says. “I got chills. I said, ‘I have to build this.’ ”
But first he had to read every book about it (there are four), scour the archives at the Lynn Museum, consult local historical societies, and scrutinize old maps and photographs. Because Gieg had no experience with models, he began going to model-train conventions and made the pilgrimage to see George Sellios, a Peabody resident whose meticulous 1930s-era Franklin and South Manchester Railroad attracts model-train enthusiasts from around the world.
Sellios also makes modeling kits with delicate wood frames and detailed metal castings, and Gieg has bought more than a dozen of them to incorporate into his diorama. Each of the intricate structures takes Gieg several weeks to assemble, customize, and paint.
Other buildings, including a train station in downtown Lynn that has since been torn down, are made from scratch, incorporating objects — driftwood, shell casings, corroded steel cable — he has scavenged during walks in the dunes. (Gieg says he used to eat magic mushrooms before embarking on these hourslong strolls, which he recalls as “always very spiritual.”)
He has learned a lot about the history of Lynn, Revere, and East Boston, and can’t resist sharing some of his knowledge with visitors.
“This was a coal plant,” Gieg says excitedly, pointing to one little building. “They’d bring the coal in here by barge or schooner, burn it, trap the gas in a telescoping tank, and then sell the remains, called coke, to people to burn in their houses.”
His fastidious research has yielded a few tidbits that were unknown even to some local historians. For example, Gieg says, did you know there once was a grist mill in Lynn and a racetrack in Revere?
“Very few people know as much about this area as Todd,” says Drew Russo, executive director of the Lynn Museum.
By spring, the museum hopes to have the first phase of the diorama — a 12-foot-by-4-foot section — on display. Beyond its remarkable visual appeal, museum trustee Susan Keats thinks Gieg’s handiwork has the potential to be an “extraordinary teaching tool” for local teachers.
Bob Lawson, a video producer who has known Gieg for more than 50 years, says he is dumbfounded by his friend’s perseverance.
“Really, the only thing that tears him away is his son’s baseball games,” says Lawson.
Gieg’s son, now a senior at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, is a talented pitcher who is headed to Boston College next fall on a baseball scholarship.
“My dad’s pretty attached to the railroad,” the 17-year-old says. “I admire him. Most people in this world do things for monetary gain, but my father does this because he loves it so much.”
Bertino acknowledges that the time and money her husband has spent on the diorama has been the source of occasional friction during their 16-year marriage. But she also knows it gives him enormous pleasure.
“He’s so happy,” Bertino says with a sigh. “I know Todd is working toward something. It’s totally different with an artist. He doesn’t even think about money.”
And the expense has been substantial. In addition to the cost of the modeling kits and other materials, Gieg has for 10 years rented a studio in the Lydia Pinkham Building in Lynn. He does fine-bore work on pieces at home, then brings them to the studio, where he adds vegetation and other flourishes to the diorama.
Gieg figures he has spent $25,000 on the railroad so far, not an insignificant sum considering he isn’t making as much money as he used to photographing weddings, family portraits, and corporate events. Last fall, at the urging of his wife, Gieg launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project, but the crowdfunding effort fell short, generating just $8,000 of the $75,000 goal.
That won’t stop Gieg. On a recent afternoon, he was hunched over the diorama, adding wisps of ersatz grass at the bottom of a teensy fence.
“The thing is,” he says, without looking up, “I’ve never grown up. The pleasure I get from this is a child’s pleasure.”
And even with years of work left to do, he is not eager to be done.
“One of my fears is finishing,” Gieg says. “How will I fill the gap?”
An earlier version included language that may have been misleading regarding Gieg’s work as a photographer for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.