Larry Nyce’s wife doesn’t mind the fact that he spends a lot of time with his trains.
“She knows where I am. I’m not out in a bar somewhere,” said Nyce, 70, a retired American University teacher and a model train hobbyist since he was 10.
In fact, Nyce’s wife Jane Nyce in part selected their Potomac house because of a space in the basement where Larry Nyce could build his model railroad.
The space is necessary. A basic model railroad may just be a circle of track and a few cars, but Nyce’s spread includes two replica Western towns, intricate track loops and switches, and a model coal mine and saw mill each hand-built from more than 2,000 tiny pieces of wood. The mill has a cut-away roof through which one can see a full interior, belt-driven assembly line. Nyce wired the electronics for the lights, sounds and moving parts himself.
“There’s many thousands of dollars in here,” said Nyce. Each of his train locomotives costs $1,200.
Nyce actually had a bigger spread in his previous home in Gaithersburg. He moved to Turning Creek Court, across the street from the Heights School, in 1986 and finished the layout in 2001. He’s been refining it since then.
FRIENDS THINK his next move is crazy. He’s disassembling the railroad, selling it off, and starting over on a different model train scale.
“The response will be, ‘Why are you tearing it down?’ Well, I like to build, I like to create. And if you look around at the layout, it’s basically 98 percent done,” Nyce said. “It’s time to move on.”
The new, larger scale is significantly less expensive and Nyce believes he can recoup most of the money he spent on the old set-up, mostly by selling to other hobbyists on the Internet.
He and his wife also use the Internet to buy and sell antique items — lanterns and dinnerware, for example — from real trains. They often buy tarnished items and restore them to sell.
NYCE'S BASEMENT is covered with design awards from model train shows and publications. He is ranked a Master Model Railroader by the National Model Railroad Association.
“There’s a lot of railroaders in the country that do this same quality work. So I’m not alone. There’s guys that are way better than I am,” he said.
The top tier of model railroading is defined by an almost-obsessive attention to detail. Nyce’s model towns are based on real Western railroad towns like Dolores, Colo.
The rocky cliffs of his model are made from molds of real rocks and covered with grainy dirt for texture.
“A lot of it is real dirt. And you know where the real dirt came from? Colorado. We would go out there, I’d pull off the side of the road with a little plastic bag and start to scoop the stuff up and my wife would go, ‘I don’t know you,’” Nyce said.
Nyce’s model railroad is dedicated to his late mother.
“She told me, she said, ‘Don’t get out of the hobby. It’s very good for you,’” Nyce said, and he thinks she was right. “You meet a lot of nice people. You go places you wouldn’t go normally. … I always said this was great therapy.”