As an art form that’s common across America, especially in museums, the diorama often depicts a railroad cutting across a natural landscape to feed progress and development. Pittsburgh’s Miniature Railroad & Village, displayed since 1991 at Carnegie Science Center, fits that pattern. Even the broadest definition of diorama, however, makes the second-floor exhibit unique in precision, scope and history.
Pittsburgh’s miniatures display, advertised as recreating “how people lived, worked and played in our region before 1940,” has both narrowed in setting and expanded in size from the biblical and historical events made by its creator, Charles Bowdish, in Brookville, Pa.
Bowdish’s lighted, animated diorama became exclusively regional after the 92-year-old Army veteran died in 1988. Today, what’s become of Bowdish’s diorama replicates area landmarks, such as Kaufmann’s, a steel factory modeled from blueprints and photos, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
Each year, artisans design, create and add a new model. A model of the original Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (which opened in 1890), the exhibit’s first replica of a hospital, is scheduled for a public debut on March 11. The display is closed until then.
Carnegie Science Center inherited the exhibit after acquiring the Buhl Planetarium. Historic exhibits curator Patricia Everly, co-author of the science center’s official book, “A Love Story: The Miniature Railroad & Village,” honors Bowdish as “a tremendous craftsman. He was prolific. He developed many of the techniques we use today, including carving beeswax to make stonework. He used to say it’s all about texture, texture, texture, creating shadows and creating depth.”
Currently modeled in O scale, the Miniature Railroad & Village captured the interest of Buhl staff physicist Carl Wapiennik and Buhl director C.V. Starrett in the 1950s, after they read a newspaper article about Bowdish’s original home basement display. Both men wanted to know why visitors were drawn to visit a mini-diorama year after year.
Upon arriving in Brookville, Wapiennik immediately noticed that “Charlie was a kind of miniature Leonardo da Vinci. He was an accomplished artist and also a very good mechanic. His landscaping materials were truly original and relied on natural materials. His display was good in both design and construction with very intriguing little animations … it was instantly recognizable why so many people fell in love with it and wanted to see it.”
Attention to detail prevails. For example, the replica of Mercer County’s Sharon steel mill, located near the Ohio border 75 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, was handcrafted and added in 1992 after an exhaustive two-year production. The result is a focal point —perhaps the highlight — of the display. “At night the mills were lit for 24-hour shifts,” goes the book’s description, “and furnaces and ingots gave off a fiery glow.”
Co-writing with Pittsburgh scholar Robert Gangewere, Everly notes that in the steel mill’s model:
“[T]here are no sides to the giant cast house so you can see the fiery processes inside. Adherence to its original sprawling footprint would have made it even larger. Steel mills need vast spaces with large rail yards for trains bringing raw supplies and large dumps to discard waste products. A number of animations depict how it works. A clamshell bucket lowers from a long ore bridge to scoop ore and other raw materials from the yard below and carry it to the skip cars, which transport the iron ore, coke and limestone to the top of a blast furnace, like giant measuring cups, and dump them in. Orange lights glow from the cast house floor to simulate flowing molten pig iron, and orange ingots appear to shine as they cool. This miniature may be one of the easiest ways to visualize the process.”
Other models include the Westinghouse office building, made possible by George Westinghouse, “one of Pittsburgh’s greatest innovators.” In 1869, he patented an air brake, an invention that allowed a train engineer to come to a safe stop with greater accuracy. “After proving alternating current electric power could more efficiently distribute electricity,” the authors note, “Westinghouse founded Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh in 1886, and began working with Nikola Tesla to deliver alternating current to local homes and businesses.”
As business grew, Westinghouse contracted architect Frederick J. Osterling to build a company office building in 1890. The headquarters would provide employees with the use of a swimming pool, bowling alleys, a restaurant and a library. The building featured a tower with a steel vault on each floor. George Westinghouse kept essential documents, plans and drawings there in case of fire. The model, added to the miniature village 10 years ago, exists to “honor Pittsburgh’s innovative spirit.”
The original version of the Western Pennsylvania diorama was spawned by the Bowdish family’s long line of diligent woodworkers. Charlie’s grandfather George — a New York native who worked as a carpenter, millwright and drum major — was in charge of the drummers in Pennsylvania for the Union Army’s eighth regiment during the Civil War.
A year after the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, George Bowdish’s son Albert built a wooden model of the giant Ferris wheel that had awed expo visitors. Albert Bowdish’s miniature Ferris wheel — he hand-carved the wooden seats — was installed for public view near the Jefferson County courthouse.
Charlie — Albert and Theodora Bowdish’s youngest child of five sons and two daughters— “grew up around men who built mechanical objects for entertainment such as a merry-go-round, theatrical scenery and wagons to move equipment.”
His father, who played the organ, also formed a family company for stage entertainment and managed an opera house. As a boy, Charlie witnessed the nonstop integration of artisanal carpentry and how to put on a show.
In 1918, 22-year-old Charlie Bowdish was drafted into the U.S. Army. When Army doctors discovered that he had a congenital heart problem, he was honorably discharged to Brookville, where he started creating miniature replicas of local houses.
When Charlie’s older brother George asked him to be the best man at his wedding on Christmas Day in 1919, he decided to amuse the guests with a miniature display of a train steaming through Brookville’s Main Street.
That’s how Charlie’s diorama became a Christmas tradition.
Meanwhile, he made a living building cabinetry for the family trucking business and collecting and tinkering with small gasoline engines, which he repurposed for the mechanical parts in his diorama.
Charlie Bowdish never married, never had kids and never charged admission for his passion project. By 1960, Everly and Gangewere write, Bowdish described himself as the self-employed boss of Bowdish Displays.
During his 33 years in Brookville, an estimated 300,000-plus visitors from 48 states and 41 countries saw Bowdish’s miniatures. When an insurance company raised liability concerns, local Kiwanis, Lions, American Legion and Chamber of Commerce chapters, along with a children’s welfare charity, devised a plan to keep Bowdish’s exhibit in Brookville.
Ultimately, Charlie Bowdish agreed to move the miniatures to the Buhl Planetarium, initially on the condition that it include his Bible story and “map of Palestine” display. However, he eventually agreed to the Buhl’s secular terms.
On Nov. 22, 1954, Bowdish loaded his station wagon, making several trips to transport the miniatures to the Buhl Planetarium’s south gallery. He took a room at the North Side YMCA and began assembling the exhibit for a Dec. 1 debut. Bowdish traded the bed at the YMCA for a cot at the planetarium so he could craft and perfect models around the clock. The book includes drawings of “the 1957 Christmastown railroad display at the Buhl [P]lanetarium and Institute of Popular Science.”
By then, modeling had been reinforced as a habitual hobby and ritualized in Charlie as a family legacy. When Charlie’s grandfather George died from a spinal infection in 1896, a Brockway newspaper obituary reported that “[e]very man has some special quality which makes him noted among his fellows. That of Mr. Bowdish was his mechanical genius.”
The same can be said of grandson Charlie, whose miniature railroad and village — with trains once provided by the Lionel Corporation (company founder Joshua Lionel Cowen was invited to visit) — set an American standard, inspiring and propelling diminutive displays around the globe: miniatures and railroad enthusiast Walt Disney added a Grand Canyon diorama (later with dinosaurs) to his Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Nestled in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture and Hall of Sculpture are home miniatures donated by patroness Sarah Mellon Scaife. Area tourists, museum visitors and hobbyists support various local model railroad clubs, a miniature model railroad display at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Gibsonia.
Pittsburgh’s most celebrated diorama — which began in a bachelor’s basement and endures as a local institution — affords a deep and serious perspective on the history of Western Pennsylvania.