Slide show: Mystic River Scale Model.
Inside a modest white building on the northwestern edge of the green at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, you’ll find an homage to the human need to tinker, to our quest for unachievable perfection. In the early fall of 2005 on my first visit to the museum, I looked inside the building and saw an exquisitely realized world in miniature: Mystic in the mid-19th century, at the height of its shipbuilding and sailing glory.
I looked more closely, like peering at small print. The waterways were alive with all types of vessels; shipyards hummed with work. Along the edge of town, ladders leaned against apple trees, dogs dozed, laundry dried on lines, curtains hung in windows. There was nothing in the room that revealed the story of the model; it was as though it had just come to life whole.
I asked a guide and learned that what I saw here — some 250 buildings, 30 ships, delicate street scenes — all this was the work of Arthur Payne. Every ship had once sailed here; every house had once stood here. He had held time still with passionate precision, all at 1:128 scale. I learned that he’d first started work on the model nearly 50 years ago. Now he was old and not well.
I wish I’d gone to see him then. All writers have regrets about the people they never made time to meet. Arthur Payne died less than a year later, on June 8, 2006, at age 81, without ever finishing his Mystic model. Whenever someone asked when he was going to finish it, he always said, “Maybe three more years.” He said that for a long time. Almost until the end, he was sketching, planning. He wanted to show a wedding and a funeral. He wanted to show more of daily life. In a talk he gave at the museum a few years before he took sick, he said, “We still need about 50 more ships and boats of all kinds … Ships to hay barges, stone sloops to rowboats, all active on the river, towing out, anchored, loading, unloading … I’m working to make this more and more a living model. I want to have a man walking along carrying a beam … To be historically accurate, you have to account for everything.”
“The soul of the museum” was how Bill Peterson, Mystic Seaport’s senior curator, once described the model. There’s nothing like it in the world. Now on Saturday mornings, a small core of volunteers — people Arthur Payne once mentored — gather, and they carry on, working on the “everything.” Arthur Payne’s daughter Anny is one of them.
On a blue-sky day with families ambling about Mystic Seaport, I meet Anny. She wants to talk about her father, how she knew that as much as he loved her, his first love was always the little world he’d made inside the white building. “When I was a girl,” she says, “Mystic was like my own little village. I hung out with him here on Saturdays. He’d let me make clay rocks, and he’d line the diorama with them.”
The Payne family first came to Mystic from Canada in 1956 on vacation when Anny was 4. Her father was “an absolute charmer,” she says, and soon he was chatting with the museum curator. Arthur Payne had arrived at the right place at the right time. The museum was considering creating a scale model, and here stood a man skilled in woodcarving, watchmaking, and model building, a draftsman and engineer, a man who loved precision and intricacy. “He loved making small things,” Anny says. Two years later, after the aircraft plant where he was working closed, Arthur Payne came to work at Mystic Seaport.
He settled in with his family in November 1958 and started working with Jerome Hoxie, a local artist. The two men wandered the seaport together, measuring buildings, doorways, windows — photographing “everything,” Anny says, that let them glimpse the Mystic of a century before. They listened to old-timers, pored over historical records, found old postcards and photographs, which Arthur Payne examined with a magnifying glass. Then he went to work making it all real — just very, very small. He used a jeweler’s lens over his glasses and carved scenes so real you could almost hear planks being sawn. He grated steel wool and stood it on end with magnets, then painted it green for grass and meadow. When the model opened to the public on April 15, 1961, Arthur Payne knew he was just getting started. But soon after, funding ran out.
He hung on for a while, doing this and that around the museum, but then left. “His heart was broken,” Anny says. He shuttled back and forth between Canada and the United States, and then settled in as an engineer at Electric Boat in Groton, where he stayed. In 1986, the museum asked whether he’d like to freshen up the model. Would he ever — for years it had nagged at him that before he could fix it, Fort Rachel was 100 feet out of place to scale, and that so many other things could be done better. He filled his nights and weekends; then in 1991 he retired from Electric Boat, and finally, his real life’s work began in earnest.
As a “volunteer” he worked on the model 30 to 40 hours a week, then would come home and spend the night reading and researching. He needed about 30 hours to finish a simple house, maybe six months of daily work for a ship. “His dream was that when you turned your back it still came to life — the people came to life,” Anny says. He wasn’t satisfied with simply re-creating St. Mark’s Church; he needed to replicate each stained glass window, too. “He always asked, ‘What’s missing?'” Anny says. He lived in two worlds. He’d be so intent on the tiny ships, the tiny people, the tiny moments of life, that when his day ended and he stepped outside, he’d be disoriented, like a time traveler. “When I’m in the diorama, that’s the size I’m living,” he once said. It was that way for years.
Anny shows me a folder of photographs of her father. I see him first bending close to his model as a young man; I see him bending still when he’s old. “My dad would say, ‘Hunch down,'” Anny recalls. “He always wanted people to look down Main Street, with your eye right there with horse-drawn carriages and people walking,” she says. “He was really telling a story. My dad wanted to do this forever.”
It’s possible that if Arthur Payne had lived longer, the model would be done. But I doubt it. When you look as closely as he looked at the intimate moments of life, details become infinite. There’s always more to do. And yes, when you turn your back, old Mystic still lives.