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Hundreds visit Perry Hall home to view spectacular train garden

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A car pulls up to the entrance of the car wash and a man's voice says, "I'll have the deluxe." The car proceeds through the wash bay, where it is surrounded by spinning brushes and gusts of steam. As it emerges, two men with rags give a last swipe to the car before it pulls away.

All this happens in the space of one square foot.

It's just one corner of the miniature landscape that completely fills the basement of Perry Hall residents Jim Lanahan and Don Thompson.

A scan across their vast Christmas garden with its O-gauge trains reveals tiny versions of everything from a lit-up Bromo Seltzer tower to a presidential motorcade being led by one of Maryland's distinctive olive-and-black state police cars.

Nine years ago, it was the size of a pingpong table and nobody paid much attention except friends and family. Now, it measures 27 by 37 feet and gets hundreds of visitors each holiday season.

For sheer size and detail, it has few rivals in the Baltimore area.

"We've been growing every year," Lanahan said.

Their admission price has never changed — one nonperishable food item to be donated to charity.

Among the visitors on a Wednesday evening with his mother, Christina, was Diego McAveney, 7, a student at Kingsville Elementary School.

The boy was intrigued by a traffic accident where a car had run off the road and hit a stone wall. Nearby was a tow truck and a police car. Pressing a button on the police car made its light bar flash.

His eye then moved to the ski resort, where cable cars traveled back and forth. It was at least six feet from where he was standing at the edge of the platform. For a normal size human to get to it to make a repair would mean trampling through an ice rink with spinning skaters.

"One question," Diego said. "How do you get to the middle?"

"You don't," Lanahan said. "You always have a light going out or something. There's nothing you can do about it."

Not to worry. A missing light would never be noticed in this epic miniature metropolis.

How did all this get started?

"My mother got me into it," Lanahan said. "She said, 'You have too many houses, not enough businesses.' Then it was, 'too many businesses, not enough houses.' It went back and forth and things just grew."

The garden had 525 visitors last year and Lanahan and Thompson said they expect to exceed 800 by the time they close up shop on Jan. 6. Those who have visited to marvel at their minutiae have come from as far as Romania and Russia.

The entire display is broken down and stored after public viewing has ended. They begin putting it back together each August and it takes them until mid-November to finish.

What the visitor sees is not even all of it. They have at least 140 structures (nearly all the buildings are porcelain and obtained online or at holiday and craft stores) that are not shown on any given season, although they might show up another season. The display is different every year.

Lanahan said he's learned always to put out Graceland. A pink Cadillac is parked out front and the King himself can be heard singing inside his mansion.

"People get upset when Elvis doesn't show up," he said.

The sheer scale of the enterprise has Lanahan and Thompson wondering about relocating it outside the limited space in their basement. They said they have contacted White Marsh Mall to open discussions and are awaiting a response. The fire departments they have contacted have said the display is too big for them to accommodate.

Thompson said he is ambivalent about such a move. Monitoring for reaching little hands is easy in the limited confines of their basement. It would be harder in a public space.

"In a way I want to and in a way I'm scared. We would almost have to live there," he said.

Visitors to the modest house on Bellington Court, a cul-de-sac, could be forgiven for wondering if they've come to the right place. Once inside, they are greeted by a 5-foot-tall singing mechanical bear and an excited little dog named Bear..

But the skepticism disappears once they descend the stairs to the basement.

"It's hard to describe," Thompson said. "But you should see the expression on people's faces."

"I get a kick out of the 'oohs,' 'aahs' and 'wows,' " added Lanahan.

Another source of satisfaction is the collection of food items brought by visitors. The men take up to four "carloads" of food each season to the Eastern Family Resource Center, a county-operated shelter on Franklin Square Drive.

Among the visitors one evening was the Peach family, John and his wife, Kate, of Perry Hall, their children Elizabeth, 5, and Emily, 2, and John's mother, May, of Kingsville.

"I've never seen a collection like this at all. It's amazing," said Kate Peach after surveying the scene.

And everywhere you look at the tiny people — skiers in Ski Liberty, sunbathers at Ocean City, sports fans at stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens, the college students stuffing a phone booth, jazz fans at the Silver Fox Club — they are having fun.

Except maybe the guy who crashed his car.

The Christmas Garden for Charity at 6 Bellington Court is open for visitors from 6 to 8 p.m. week nights and 12:30 to 8 p.m. on weekends. Visitors are asked to call ahead at 410-529-1457and to bring a nonperishable food item as admission. The Facebook page is at http://www.facebook.com/PerryHallMdChristmasGardenForCharity.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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