Intricate display comes back to life at Historical Society

A CHRISTMAS GARDEN REBORN

December 07, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

When Roland F. F. Roehner was growing up in Hamilton, the middle room of his house was off limits from about Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. The door was locked from inside, with a key in the slot to block a curious child from peeping. But most nights a light shone under the door until the late hours.

"I was always told my father was working in there with Santa," recalls Mr. Roehner, who is 66.

Finally on Christmas Eve, after the family meal, his mother, Esther, would stand by the locked door to blow a German-made plastic horn, the traditional shofar of the ancient Israelites that signals devotion to God.

Only then were revealed the annual additions to August W. Roehner's intricate mechanical Christmas garden, recalls his son. A traditional nativity scene on one table and a Santa's workshop display on another were encircled at their bases by Lionel electric trains.

All of the buildings and many of the figures in each scene were whittled and painted by the father, a purchasing agent by trade (for the William G. Weatherall Iron and Steel Co.) but a woodcarver by avocation.

And his creations moved!

In the nativity, three wise men bobbed on their camels and King Herod raised his arms in oration. In Santa's workshop, the toymaker elves operated saws and wielded paintbrushes. A network of strings under and behind the tables linked a system of levers, cams and gears to an electric motor.

Baltimoreans do not have to wait until Christmas Eve to view the old garden. During a visit in late November to the Maryland Historical Society, the younger Mr. Roehner and his wife, Bernice, an art historian, supervised its reassembly. He has donated it to the museum, where it will become a permanent part of an annual exhibit of model trains and Christmas gardens. It will be revealed today during the museum's annual "A Winter's Day in Maryland" program.

"Baltimore seemed the right place for this to remain," explains the retired minister of the United Church of Christ, who lives in Nag's Head, N.C.

"It was very crucial for Dr. Roehner to be here this first year," says Gregory Weidman, curator at the museum. "We had limited photographs, and only he knows how everything used to look." Museum staff will be instructed how to reassemble the gardens for annual display, she adds.

The tradition of building Christmas gardens, while perhaps not unique to Baltimore, is particularly rich here, notes Ms. Weidman. It dates back at least to the late 19th century, especially among families of German descent like the Roehner's. Although many Christmas gardens are on public display in firehouses and elsewhere (see accompanying list), in many cases originally they were family traditions erected in private homes.

"My father never commercialized this," recalls Mr. Roehner. "It was just a personal expression. By word of mouth, our home was just open to anybody who wanted to come see it." And he adds, "half the Christmas season he was on his hands and knees, replacing and tightening strings."

Mr. Roehner vividly recalls the Christmas Eves of the 1930s: His family would file in to sit in front of the newly revealed display. The elder Mr. Roehner would read from the book of Luke and recite a new family prayer he had composed that day. All would sing traditional carols before leaving for church at the Huber Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church on The Alameda at 29th Street.

After Christmas, the gardens in the Roehner home on Hamilton Avenue would attract family, friends, neighbors and work acquaintances from all over.

"He died in 1940, nine days after this was completed. I was 13," Mr. Roehner adds.

For 36 years, says Mr. Roehner, from just days after his father's death, the Christmas garden lay disassembled in boxes, first in his mother's home and then in his own houses as he pursued his ministerial duties in several locations.

Finally in mid-1976, when the Roehners were living in Harrisburg, Pa., they undertook the task of rebuilding the gardens. The Santa's workshop was finished in time to be on exhibit at the William Penn Museum before Christmas, and the nativity scene was finished the following winter.

"We didn't have that many photographs, so a lot of this is from my memory," says Mr. Roehner. And when his mother (since deceased) saw the re-creation, she said he had made the tables too high because of his adult perspective. It was originally built to be at little-kid's-eye-view.

"It was like an archaeology expedition," says Mr. Roehner of the rebuilding job.

Many of the human figures had been dismembered over time, so Bernice Roehner's expertise in artwork helped them match limbs to the appropriate bodies by comparing paint. When necessary, he carved new parts. Many original parts also required repainting, so Mrs. Roehner carefully blended paints to match the aged look of the original.

Durable elastic bands have replaced the fragile strings that work the mechanics, the only concession to modernity, Mr. Roehner says.

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