John Lottes, 75, modeler who turned his hobby into a successful business

August 17, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John W. Lottes, a master modeler who constructed highly detailed miniature dollhouses and models of historic ships, died of lung and colon cancer Thursday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 75 and lived in Reisterstown.

It was after heart bypass surgery in the early 1970s that Mr. Lottes returned to his boyhood hobby of modeling to keep himself occupied during his long recovery. And what began strictly as a diversion to help pass the time later grew into a successful business.

Mr. Lottes was born in Baltimore, raised in the Pimlico section and attended Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington. He was 15 years old when he altered his birth certificate in order to enlist in the Navy near the end of World War II, family members said.

From 1945 until his discharge five years later, Mr. Lottes served as an engine room electrician aboard the USS Jeffers, USS Hambleton and the USS Monongahela. His decorations included the World War II Victory Medal, American Area Campaign Medal and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.

After his naval service, Mr. Lottes earned his General Education Development diploma and later studied at then-Catonsville Community College.

He was a Baltimore police officer for several years until going to work in 1964 for the Baltimore Department of Transit and Traffic, where he designed and built the complicated electrical systems used to operate area traffic signals. He was traffic systems supervisor at the time of his retirement in 1996.

His model building began in his youth.

"He was always getting in trouble because as a kid, he'd go out on the roof and try sailing his model airplanes," said his wife of 49 years, the former Anne E. Topper.

Mr. Lottes' workshop was in a small building on the grounds of his home, which he named "The Studio" and where he was later joined in his modeling activities by a daughter, Pamela A. Sites of Owings Mills.

Father and daughter eventually established Tiny Mansions, a business that specializes in building and selling dollhouses.

"I was always hanging around his workshop and tools and started to build dollhouses with him. We really had lots of fun," Mrs. Sites said.

One of their collaborations was a house they named Marigold, a 12-room, Victorian confection complete with tower, fireplaces and wraparound porches.

"It took three years to build. The house had stained-glass windows, inlaid floors and we even built some of the furniture," Mrs. Sites said. "He had great patience but sometimes would call me up frustrated about a certain problem, and then we'd find another way to solve it."

Nancy L. Martin, founder and owner of Favorite Things of Hereford, which represented Mr. Lottes and his daughter, described his work as "very innovative and creative."

"We were proud to have John's work in the shop," she said. "It was very high-quality work. They were well-designed and well-decorated. All of the stained-glass work was unique and different."

Mr. Lottes brought the same level of enthusiasm and thousands of hours of painstaking and exacting work to his maritime models, which he built for family members but did not sell.

Through the years, some of the ships he had constructed included models of the Jyllland, a Danish navy frigate; the Constellation and Enterprise; and the Revolutionary-era Rattlesnake, a privateer.

"He especially liked building ships that were associated with the history of Maryland," Mrs. Lottes said.

Perhaps one of his most ambitious models was the HMS Victory, which had served as the flagship of Lord Horatio Nelson at the historic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

He lined the 36-inch-long Victory's hull with more than 3,000 tiny copper plates he hand-fashioned. All of his ships were appropriately rigged right down to the correct nautical ratlines and knots. They also had intricately carved working sheaves and blocks.

"He'd even cut the sails, and I'd hem them," Mrs. Lottes said.

He was a communicant of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Glyndon.

Mr. Lottes donated his body to science and no services are planned, family members said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Lottes is survived by a son, John J. Lottes of Gaithersburg; two other daughters, Denise Woodson of Baltimore and Elizabeth A. Hood of Westminster; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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