Arts & Events

Model Trains in Golden Gate Park

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Thursday February 12, 2009 - 12:38:00 PM
Model trains and miniature San Francisco landmarks create a diverting landscape in the western end of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park through April 19.
Steven Finacom
Model trains and miniature San Francisco landmarks create a diverting landscape in the western end of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park through April 19.

While the De Young Museum and the new Academy of Sciences building are the star draws in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park these days, a good time can also be had just around the corner in their enduring elegant Victorian cousin, the glass Conservatory of Flowers. 

Through April 19, the exhibit room of the 1870s Conservatory features a model train and building exhibit called “The Golden Gate Express.” 

It’s whimsically creative. Two separate tracks carry model G-gauge Amtrack trains on interlocking figure 8 routes on different levels, while a single cable car runs back and forth on a track extending from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Grant Avenue Gateway to Chinatown. 

Several models of San Francisco landmarks—Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission Dolores, and so forth—punctuate the living landscape. At first glance they seem somewhat hastily fabricated structures, but look more closely. Each is made up of recycled items.  

The Ferry Building incorporates kitchen-related items, from pieces of wine crates to a tower made out of a cheese grater and forks, with an egg timer as clock face. “Port of San Francisco” is spelled out in Scrabble letters across the top. The TransAmerica pyramid skin is partially assembled from old floppy disks and 600 computer keyboard keys.  

Objects from bicycle reflectors to fire alarm pulls and coffee stirrers compose the Golden Gate Bridge that also, if you look closely, has vivid red toy monkeys and a dinosaur hanging from it. 

Lists on the entrance wall identify the objects used for each landmark, or you can guess at the composition yourself or spin a wheel in the corner of the room to randomly select a recycled component for which to search.  

The surrounding miniaturized landscape has an assortment of dwarf conifers and small shrubs masquerading as trees towering over the tiny trains; jacaranda seedlings double as palms in front of Mission Dolores and flowering begonias simulate tropical trees. 

There is even a good Berkeley connection here. The exhibit designer was Chip Sullivan, an evocative artist who teaches on the Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning faculty at UC Berkeley. 

On the exhibit wall area wall are several cartoon-style panels by Sullivan illustrating childhood experiences with trains, along with his drawings for the exhibit layout in a slightly more elaborate format than what was actually constructed. A small shop at the exhibit entrance sells some Conservatory and model railroading knickknacks. 

The rest of the Conservatory—four rooms, each with its own landscape character and climate—remains a pleasant place to stroll and sit in either fair or inclement weather, with shirtsleeve temperatures year round. 

Plantings which seemed a bit thin when the building reopened after repairs and remodeling a few years ago are now fully grown in, and the main dome in particular conveys a credible sense of tropical rainforest. The water lily room is festooned with blooming bromiliads, orchids, and carnivorous plants around two vanishing edge pools. 

The garden railway exhibit is on view through April 19. Conservatory hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; last admission at 4:30 p.m.  

Admission is $5 for adults, less for children, seniors, and students with ID.  

The first Tuesday of each month is a free day, and the structure is wheelchair accessible. 

Take BART, then Muni, to the eastern end of Golden Gate Park. If you drive, there’s parking in front of the Conservatory grounds along Kennedy Drive (except on Sundays) or on other nearby Park roadways. 

For more on local model railways with living landscapes, also see the Bay Area Garden Railway Society at