Charles J. Newcomb, 79, restorer, builder of model ships and planes

March 01, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles J. Newcomb, a master model builder and restorer whose detailed miniatures are highly prized by museums and private collectors, died of cardiac arrest Sunday at Memorial Hospital in Easton. He was 79.

Some examples of the models crafted by Mr. Newcomb in his shops, in Trappe and later Easton, can be found in such prominent museum collections as the Smithsonian Institution, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, National Air and Space Museum, Calvert Marine Museum, Kitty Hawk Memorial in North Carolina, Naval Academy Museum, Insurance Company of America and the Canadian National Museum.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Newcomb was raised on Kennedy Avenue, where he began building model airplanes as a 9-year-old.

"It was a childhood hobby that later became his life's work," said his wife of 56 years, the former Annette Foster. "And they had to be perfect."

After graduation from Polytechnic Institute in 1940, he worked during World War II as a draftsman at the Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Fairfield shipyard, and later moved to Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.

In 1959, after showing a model of an airplane he built to a Smithsonian curator, Mr. Newcomb gave up his work as a draftsman and pursued modeling full time.

That same year, he moved his wife and family to a home in Trappe, where he later built a workshop that was copied from a design for a country railroad depot. He even installed an old potbellied stove for heat. Over the doorway, he hung a sign that read: "CHARLES J. NEWCOMB, MODELS."

Inside the cluttered shop, where the air was pungent with the smell of fresh wood and paint, Mr. Newcomb passed his days at a standing desk, studying engineering drawings of the airplanes and ships that he would render in wood.

"Charles Newcomb is no old sea captain whittling his memories out of a stick with a penknife: he is young. Yet history has come alive under his talented hands," said a 1966 profile in the Sun Magazine. "Whatever comes full size can somehow be scaled by this man."

Whether it was a Civil War ironclad, a Wright Brothers airplane, a World War I Nieuport or an express ocean liner, Mr. Newcomb invested hours of painstaking work, making sure every detail was replicated and nothing forgotten.

"Every simple motion of his hands required a thousand different thoughts. He was slow, deliberate and careful," said a great-nephew, W. Michael Prkna of Cockeysville.

Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, recalled the quality of Mr. Newcomb's work.

"There were two things that set Charlie apart from other model builders," he said. "He was respected as a builder of models that were genuine reproductions of the vessels he depicted. He also was highly regarded as a conservator of models, and this requires great skills when repairing others' work."

When the Smithsonian decided to restore its 16-foot-long model - formerly owned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt - of the famed Cunard Liner Mauretania, a sister to the ill-fated Lusitania, they called on Mr. Newcomb, who made a spare gallery available for the work at the museum in St. Michaels. The president had donated the ship to the museum in 1935.

"On a daily basis, we had the opportunity of watching Charlie work. He was a particularly affable fellow who didn't seem to mind our interruptions. He really welcomed our curiosity," Mr. Lesher said.

Paula J. Johnson, curator of the History and Technology Division of the National Museum of History, part of the Smithsonian, praised Mr. Newcomb's nearly 40-year relationship with the museum.

"Whenever one of our models needed tender loving care, we thought of Charlie. He was a terrific friend who always wanted the job to be done right. In addition to being an exceptional modeler, he was a fine, fine man," she said.

Mr. Newcomb sometimes strayed from his models and worked in a larger scale. In 1968, he undertook the restoration of one of four surviving gliders that had been designed by Otto Lilienthal, the first man to prove that air could support the body of a human.

He also built a full-sized replica of a Chesapeake Bay skipjack, the Seawitch, which he enjoyed sailing with his family.

Since 2001, Mr. Newcomb had lived in Easton.

Mr. Newcomb summed up his philosophy in the 1966 profile. "The best way to learn something about an object," he said, "is to make a model of it."

He was a member of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Easton, where services were held yesterday.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Leland F. Newcomb of Trappe; a daughter, Caroline Ball of Annapolis; a sister, Dorothy Clark of Mountain City, Tenn.; and four grandchildren.

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