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Building Memories with Replica Buildings
by Alan Clive
Silver Spring, Maryland

Approaching the vast twin towers of the World Trade Center, I asked my wife to describe the shape and color of the buildings. I made that request during a family vacation in the summer of 1992, almost two decades after construction of the WTC. That year also marked a quarter of a century since I had lost my vision. I had, therefore, never seen the World Trade Center. My wife's description, however detailed, had vanished from my memory by the morning of September 11, 2001.

As that terrible day dragged on, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the location and appearance of the WTC and the buildings surrounding it. Working in downtown Washington, September 11 was as real to me as the smoke billowing above the nearby Pentagon. Years before, I had walked its immense corridors as a sighted tourist; now I could summon only a hazy recollection of the Pentagon as a large, five-sided structure.

In response to my lack of information, I began to create a tactile memory album. I did this by gathering what hard-core collectors call souvenir buildings. The word "souvenir," of course, comes from the French for "overpriced worthless junk." The word has another meaning, however, derived from the French verb "to remember." A souvenir is a reminder or memory of a place visited, or for my purposes, a place never visited, but for which a souvenir creates a memory. In my view, a mug or a plate will remind you of your visit to a church or the home of a president, but only a replica of the place provides a sense of the design and feel of a building or structure--the feel of having been there.

It would be fascinating to own scale models of such natural wonders as Niagara Falls or Mt. Everest, but the market for them has not yet emerged. If I saw a photo or actually visited a certain building before I became blind, a replica helps retain and strengthen my memory. If I did not see it before that date, or if it was built afterward, a replica creates a new memory.

Of course, I began my collection with replicas of the World Trade Center complex and of the Pentagon. The other landmarks of Washington are an absolute must for any replica collector. Since I work in our nation's capital, my models daily remind me of the marvels that surround my prosaic office building. Other popular choices would include the skyscrapers of New York and such global treasures as Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx.

Beyond such a foundation, a replica collection is based entirely on your own interests and idiosyncrasies. I neither collect multiple versions of the same building nor try to set a record for total items obtained. Rather, I work from a specific list, now at about 160 items, searching for buildings of particular historical or personal import to me. You might choose others on equally valid grounds. During the Great Depression, the states of Louisiana, Nebraska, and North Dakota each constructed high-rise capitols totally at odds with the Grecian style deemed proper for government. I admire their design and the suggestion, rising in concrete and steel, of defiance of economic misery. Decades ago, I saw a forgettable comedy, but never forgot the last scenes, set in Brasilia, the unfinished new national capital of Brazil. Futuristic structures arose startlingly from red clay, surrounded by deep-green Amazonian jungle. No wonder my small replica of the soaring Brazilian Congress is one of my favorites. Another is the Sydney Opera House; my daughter saw a performance there as a teenage tourist visiting Australia. I may never go to Sydney, but I share part of her experience every time I examine the bizarre shape of my Opera House replica.

Regardless of whether you have visited a building or structure, a replica provides basic information that becomes a part of your personal knowledge. My replica of Mount Vernon is so exquisitely detailed that one might almost expect a miniature George Washington to open the front door in welcome. I can easily trace the facial features of the four presidents depicted on my replica Mount Rushmore. The parents of any child born blind or blinded at an early age would make a great contribution to the young person's education by making available replicas of great buildings for study.

Collecting replicas has led to surprises. I never saw Graceland, Elvis Presley's Memphis home. Was the King's house an expression of his garish and turbulent life? The replica I purchased, which includes the immediate grounds around the mansion, portrays a large but stately house, by no means the extravaganza I expected. That "aha!" experience is one of the greatest joys of assembling such a tactile memory album.

I look for free-standing three-dimensional replicas. The miniature should be sufficiently detailed so that I can easily feel the structure's significant features. One year my dear wife surprised me with a porcelain model of the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam. The replica was beautifully detailed, but all the details were painted on and totally inaccessible. Replicas can be made of almost anything, and often are available in many sizes. I make no effort to keep the buildings in scale to one another; depth of detail interests me more.

Several Internet-based companies sell souvenir buildings at prices ranging from $15 to $100, depending on size and detail. At the end of this article I list some excellent resources. I have purchased a few used but satisfactory items from eBay. And don't forget museum or gift shops, whether buying online, over the phone, or in person. Want a replica of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the "Mother Church of Country Music?" The Ryman gift shop will mail it to you for under $20. The United States Supreme Court's shop carries a small but detailed model of the home of American justice for under $15.

Although not a professional, I'll be collecting for years to come. My wish list will grow, although slowly, I hope. During a holiday visit in late 2004 to my son at college in Savannah, I purchased a nice model of a locally famous lighthouse. My wife wants me to add Washington's National Cathedral, which she attended in her youth. Always, there will be new architectural wonders. There will be new buildings that become a part of our history. When the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower rises over Ground Zero in New York, I will be among the first to purchase a replica.

I've not even mentioned the wonderful people you meet along the way as you collect. They are a bonus to be treasured accordingly.

Replica Buildings may not be to your taste. My own collection includes a few model ships, locomotives, airplanes, and spacecraft. Whatever your interests, a tactile memory collection can be the key to opening yet another door blindness supposedly closed.
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Canyons of steel 
Danbury Mint       888-754-7108
DJ's Cityscapes 
souvenir building network 

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