Sunday, April 06, 2008

John Armstrong's most lasting design legacy?

The March 2008 issue of Model Railroader magazine included John Armstrong's Canandaigua Southern as part of the "Landmark Layouts" series. The inclusion of this layout seems natural since it incorporated many of the concepts that have become part of the repertoire of most of today's model railroad layout designers. Many of the ideas were quite unique at the time, as pointed out in the MR article by Andy Sperandeo.

Some of these, like the "vertical turnout", reverted staging loops, and "dehydrated canal lock" seem to be used only occasionally in designs today. Others, like the "loads in / empties out" scheme are even a bit over-used. But it's easy to forget just how innovative were the narrow shelves and double-sided backdrops John used with his walkaround designs. Today, tyro designers routinely include these as part of their layout plans, but even John's own designs didn't usually reflect these features until later in his career. Armstrong designs from the 1940s and 1950s include many layouts with the broad scenes, duckunders and control pits, and multiple loops of track typical of the era. Many of these early Armstrong designs lacked backdrops at all and it was rare that they were used to separate scenes from viewers in different aisles.

Through the kindness of friend Jim Providenza, I was included in a visit to Armstrong's layout while visiting the area for an operating event some years ago. John was a very gracious host, and I enjoyed seeing so many elements of the Canandaigua Southern I had read about over the years. But the most striking aspect of the design (for me) was the way the narrow shelves, double sided backdrop, and winding aisles combined to give a sense of a long distance traveled from one end of the layout to the other and the isolation of, and focus on, individual scenes. We often take these elements for granted in current designs, but they were not found in the typical model railroad layout designs of the '40s and '50s. (As Andy Sperandeo pointed out in the MR article, walkaround control was not very viable in the period, so that certainly put a damper on designs that couldn't be viewed and operated from one or a few control panels.)

I've now had the chance to be involved with the construction, operation, or redesign of a few Armstrong designs, and the refinement of his ideas through the years is very intriguing. I hope one day to have the time to undertake a more organized study of John Armstrong's designs to examine the changes in his style over time. Certainly, though, we can see the design of his own Canandaigua Southern (planned circa 1950) as an important turning point in John's design style, although he didn't immediately abandon the more traditional design concepts in other projects.

The narrow shelf/backdrop-scene-divider/walkaround concept is commonplace today, but it wasn't always so. John's use and popularization of the idea was a key to its adoption by other layout designers and it contributes to the realism of many, many layouts today.